December 8, 2013

New translation of ‘Iliad’ showcases Homer’s prowess with language of the gods

“The Iliad” by Homer, edited and translated by Barry Powell (Oxford University Press, 625 pages, $29.95)

“The Iliad” by Homer, edited and translated by Barry Powell (Oxford University Press, 625 pages, $29.95)

The rage sing, O goddess, of Achilles, the son of Peleus,

the destructive anger that brought ten-thousand pains to the

Achaeans and sent many brave souls of fighting men to the house

of Hades and made their bodies a feast for dogs

and all kinds of birds. For such was the will of Zeus.

Each year, tourists who make their way to Athens heave themselves to the top of the Acropolis, the highest point in the city, where they stagger forward, winded and windswept, only to wind up disappointed that the Parthenon, the greatest temple of ancient Greece, sits surrounded by scaffolding, cranes and a seemingly endless disarray of marble fragments.

Perched halfway between heaven and earth, the Parthenon looms perennially unfinished, forever reaching toward but failing to grasp the glory of its past. Its restoration never ends.

Much the same can be said of the “Iliad.” Not that Homer’s epic poem has lost a gleam of its glory. Dating from roughly 850 B.C., it towers atop Western civilization’s masterworks as the seminal poetic opus, more important than the “Odyssesy,” and second only to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in cultural influence. (Not counting the poetry of the Bible, of course.)

What has changed throughout the ages, however, are the ways the “Iliad’s” English translations have fared. The eminent translator of modern-day Greek, Daniel Mendelsohn, seems to favor Alexander Pope’s 18th-century heroic couplets as the ultimate rendition. And until recently, Robert Fagles’ broadly dramatized verse held sway among a wide swath of American readers.

Whatever one’s standard of excellence, the choices for a favorite “Iliad” prove vast: The poem has been rendered in Anglo-Saxon cadences dozens of times in the past four and a half centuries – including at least four since 1990 – whether as metered poetry or open-ended prose.

How to judge the success of a particular translation poses a problem for the layman. But we can glean some guidance from Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century English poet, who laid down the rule of four qualities that distinguish a good translation of Homer: rapidity, plainness, directness and nobility of diction.

Classics scholar Barry Powell, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, offers us the latest English attempt to scale the walls of the “Iliad.” And except for a few missteps, his translation fires on all four cylinders.

His modulated verse is fleetingly swift, easy on the eye, emotionally engaging, and propelled by a fierce narrative drive toward the poem’s tragic, then restorative ending. On balance, his “Iliad” shapes up as a fresh and spirited delight to read – a virtuoso performance revealing the vulnerable, shielded chambers of the human heart and the fickle machinations of fate.

We feel at once the rage, anguish, despair and exultation of the Greek and Trojan warriors as they battle in the final weeks of the 10-year Trojan War – a conflict framed by the quarrel between the great Greek combatant Achilles and King Agamemnon.

We see the capriciousness of the gods, their irrational favoritism of Trojan or Greek heroes, their incorrigible impulse to interfere in the affairs of mortals. And we hear the pulsing repetitions that sustained Homer’s oral tradition and retain much of the music of the original – “Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people”; “Zeus, son of Kronos”; “flashing-eye Athena.”

We also marvel at the striking similes that showcase Homer’s literary prowess:

As when in the heaven stars around the brilliant moon

appear shining, when the air is breathless, and easily seen

are the mountains and the high headlands and the forests

and clearings, and from heaven breaks open the infinite air,

and all the stars are clear, delighting the heart of the shepherd –

just so many, between the ships and the waters of Xanthos,

did the fires of the Trojans appear before the face of Ilion.

Together, these traits elevate the text to a dynamic, sustained portrait of life in the Bronze Age – a portrait supplemented by almost 60 illustrations, eight maps and Powell’s excellent background material from his 30 years of studying Homer.

At times, however, his tone jars us as too casual, with its “Anyway” transitions; its offhand dialogue: “O.K., I’m off to Phthia”; and its gratuitious sound effects: “kerplop!”

But perhaps the most idiosyncratic aspect of Powell’s translation is its spelling. Reading “Olympos,” instead of “Olympus,” only causes the reader to stumble, stubbing his toe against Powell’s uncompromising need for philological correctness.

Still, when the city of Troy (Ilion) finally falls to the Greeks, we can celebrate the triumph of an authoritative literary feat that conquers and inspires as well. Unlike the Parthenon, this translation of the “Iliad” reaches the pinnacle of the poem’s past glory. No further restoration is required.

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