Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath
of great Achilles, son of Peleus.
The first word of Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Iliad signals that this is not quite the Homer we’re used to. You may well ask whether anyone today can be used to an epic, conventionally attributed to a blind bard named Homer, that was composed some 2,750 years ago in a stylized form of Greek that no one spoke natively. But surprisingly, there have been more than a dozen translations into English in the past thirty-five years alone. Publishers don’t seem shy about flooding the market, which suggests that consumers are snapping up fresh translations, and presumably at least some of these consumers other than college freshmen are actually reading them.
Here, for comparison, are some competing versions: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, / murderous, doomed” (Robert Fagles, 1990), “Rage: / Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage, / Black and murderous” (Stanley Lombardo, 1997), “Wrath—sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles” (Caroline Alexander, 2015), and (only slightly different) “The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me / the deadly rage” (Stephen Mitchell, 2011).
You will notice that each of these begins with “rage” or “wrath” followed by a dash or by a colon plus a line break—and then quickly repeats that opening word. For the same basic idea, but without the strong punctuation, see Robert Fitzgerald’s “Anger be now your song, immortal one, / Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous” (1974), Barry B. Powell’s “The rage sing, O goddess, of Achilles, the son of Peleus, / the destructive anger” (2014), and Peter Green’s “Wrath, goddess, sing of Achilles Pēleus’ son’s / calamitous wrath” (2015).
This rhetorical move recognizes two things. First, while starting a sentence with the object rather than the subject is an unusual thing to do in English, putting the object at the head is faithful to the Greek original: mēnin aeide, theā, Pēlēïadeō Akhilēos / oulomenēn, which glossed word by word comes out as “wrath sing, o-goddess, of-son-of-Peleus of-Achilles / destructive.” And second, since mēnin is generally considered the best one-word encapsulation of what the whole poem is about, putting that extra oomph on “rage,” “wrath,” or “anger” is a thematically and stylistically appropriate way to introduce the 15,693 verses to come.
The obvious way to get around the awkwardness of acting as though English syntax mirrored Greek is to begin with the imperative “sing!” which in the original is the second word, aeide. This is what Richmond Lattimore (1951), Robert Graves (1959), Ian Johnston (2006), Rodney Merrill (2007), Anthony Verity (2011), and Edward McCrorie (2012) do: respectively, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus / and its devastation,” “Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me / That anger which most ruinously / Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,” “Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus— / that murderous anger,” “Sing now, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, the scion of Peleus, / ruinous rage,” “Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus’ son, / the accursed anger,” and “Sing of rage, Goddess, that bane of Akhilleus, / Peleus’ son.”
Noteworthy is that every translation I have mentioned aside from Lattimore’s and McCrorie’s repeats at least one of the first two words in the Greek. Lots of interpreters repeat “rage,” “wrath,” and/or “anger”; Graves repeats “sing”; and Johnston and Mitchell repeat both.
Wilson, who prizes brevity, doesn’t repeat any words. But she is one of very few translators—and the first prominent one since Thomas Hobbes (yes, the author of Leviathan) in 1675—to give the original third word pride of place: theā “goddess.” (Michael Heumann also does this in his self-published translation from 2021.) I expect some commentators to pounce and use this, among other choices, as evidence that Wilson is a woke feminist who is abusing Homer. After all, in the weeks prior to the publication of her Iliad, she faced a resurgence of criticism online about her translation six years ago of the Odyssey, most of which relates to her supposed over-attention to gender and “critical theory.”
The criticism seems to me grossly unfair. First of all, although I am reluctant to comment on Wilson’s Odyssey (I have never read it as carefully as I now have her Iliad), I consider her retelling of Achilles’ wrath a major achievement—and one that pays appropriate and, from my point of view, unobtrusive attention to women. As for critical theory, yes, I am deeply bothered by what is becoming of the study of ancient Greece and Rome at American colleges and universities, but whatever Wilson’s personal social and political commitments may be, I see little evidence that they mar her translation, which to my eyes and ears shows enviable linguistic facility with both Homeric Greek and twenty-first-century English.
To return to theā: I would not myself have thought to begin with the goddess (presumably Calliope, the most important of the Muses), but it might in fact bring out something striking in the original. I have cautiously suggested, in a technical article, that this theā, in keeping with a tradition at the start of early Greek hymns, may have an extra-long final ā and act as a sort of call to prayer, not unlike the extra-long invocation ōm in Hinduism: theaaaaa. The idea, which Seth L. Schein mentions in his new Cambridge commentary on Book 1 of the Iliad, is not necessarily correct, but if it is, then the divine invocation—between commas and thus plausibly with a slight pause both before it and after—would have had a certain prominence in the Greek of long ago. In any case, by beginning her iambic pentameter translation (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM) with a trochee (DA-dum: “góddess”), Wilson pushes off the starting line with a strong foot. This so-called inversion, which she herself points to in her Translator’s Note, functions not unlike the dash or colon after “rage” or “wrath” in translations of her predecessors.
When Wilson published her translation of the Odyssey—there have, incidentally, been even more recent translations of this epic into English than of the Iliad—she went from being a professor of classics to a public figure, with prestigious prizes and profiles in such venues as the New York Times Magazine (“The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ into English”) and, just this month, the New Yorker. The first verse of her Odyssey—“Tell me about a complicated man”—has caused particular consternation because of her translation of the Greek adjective polytropon, literally “many-turning,” as “complicated.” This choice strikes many people as modern therapy-speak. But I have always liked it. For one thing, I appreciate the etymological resonance of each (complicātus in Latin means “folded together”), as does Wyatt Mason, the author of the NYT Magazine article. I also like the phonic similarity of pol- to -pli-. And above all, I like the translation of one interesting four-syllable word by another interesting four-syllable word—for “complicated” really is interesting.
Will there now be a brouhaha over cataclysmic, another four-syllable word that translates a four-syllable word, oulomenēn? (This rhythmic similarity is another point to which Wilson calls explicit attention in her Translator’s Note.) Maybe, but I like it, too. And in view of the difficulty with interpreting the original Greek—oulomenēn is a word that others often translate with two words: “murderous, doomed,” “black and murderous,” “doomed and ruinous”—why not?
It is obvious that Wilson cares about sound as well as sense and that she has worked hard to bring the two together. Her Iliad suggests a particular fascination with two topics: death and the musicality of language. All translators of the Iliad have to grapple with death, of course, but Wilson’s translation lives up to her statement—expressed in characteristically gorgeous prose—that
[h]uman mortality is at the center of it all. I know no other narrative that evokes with such unflinching truthfulness the vulnerability of the human body. Yet The Iliad also makes the whole world feel gloriously alive. People, gods, animals, and even objects are always in motion, swooping down mountains or dashing across the field of battle. The beautiful, rhythmical language evokes the noisy clash of bronze and the rumble of the sea.
Here, chosen pretty well at random from near the beginning of Book 21, is just one passage that shows off Wilson’s artistry at depicting the horrors brought on by metal and water together in war:
Divine Achilles left his spear to lie
among the tamarisks on the riverbank.
With just his sword he leapt into the river,
his heart intent on ruin, like a god.
Whirling around, he hacked and slashed and struck them,
and from the victims of his blade arose
desperate, agonizing wails. The water
ran red with blood—just as when other fish
flee from a massive, monstrous dolphin, filling
the nooks and hiding places of a harbor
in terror, and he gulps the one he catches—
so did the Trojans cower and shrink back
within the currents of the fearsome river
beneath the overhanging banks.
It is hard to read this vignette without gasping—but then again, it is hard to read many pages of the Iliad, in the original or in a good translation, without gasping. This, in Wilson’s searing prose, is the reason why:
You already know the story. You will die. Everyone you love will also die. You will lose them forever. You will be sad and angry. You will weep. You will bargain. You will make demands. You will beg. You will pray. It will make no difference. Nothing you can do will bring them back. You know this. Your knowing changes nothing. This poem will make you understand this unfathomable truth again and again, as if for the very first time.
Is Wilson’s Iliad the one I most recommend, whether for someone who’s reading the poem for the very first time or for someone who knows it well? I don’t know: I’m not a comparative “translationologist.” I’m partial to the Fagles translation but may be blinded by pietas: Bob Fagles, who died in 2008, was my colleague and a splendid person. In addition, when he read his own translations aloud, he held his audience spellbound. So here’s what I’ll say: Wilson’s publisher, W. W. Norton, has done a terrific job (I noticed one typo in the transliterated Greek on p. xxxv); her copious supplementary materials are superb (brilliant Introduction, Translator’s Note, and Maps at the start; extraordinarily helpful Notes, Genealogies, and Glossary at the end); and the translation itself is one of the best.
The featured image is in the public domain courtesy of Adobe Stock.