The Odyssey’s bloodier cousin

Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Emily Wilson

5 minute read
Book cover: gold and orange split on a rough halfway diagonal, over an ancient fresco of a winged man holding a gold helmet

From Alexander Pope to Samuel Butler, the long cycle of The Iliad translations is a tradition almost as time-honored as the poem itself. The first canonical work of Western literature, the Iliad seems to demand generational retranslation, to insist on a continual reckoning with the same question that has beset scholars now for centuries. How does one excise the cobwebs and archaisms of yesteryear’s translations and still preserve the essential meaning at the poem’s core? Translator Emily Wilson, professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is our generation’s answer.

Fresh off her acclaimed Odyssey in 2018 (the first English translation published by a woman scholar), Wilson has set her sights on that poem’s bloodier cousin, an epic of four tortured days in the 10-year Trojan War. Rather than the abduction of Helen (the war’s inciting incident) or the Trojan Horse (arguably its most famous image), the Iliad zooms in on Achilles’s refusal to fight with the Greeks following the seizure of his slave Briseis by the king Agamemnon, nine years into the war. The Greeks become desperate, facing the indomitable prowess of the Trojan warrior Hector, and try to convince Achilles to rejoin the fray.

The lucidity of Wilson’s dialect, the verve of her meter, never comes at the expense of (and quite often deepens) the poem’s brutal power. Like with her translation of the Odyssey, Wilson opts to transcribe the poem in iambic pentameter, matching the lineation of Homer’s original. It’s a formal challenge that yields stark and stunning prose, verse pared down to its essential notes and made all the richer for it. Rather than the long digressions one might expect from an old epic, Wilson’s language lands with the immediacy of a blunt object.

Homer’s most brutal battlefield

Central to Wilson’s revelatory translation—and really, to all great translations of The Iliad—is the depiction of its violence. There are few works in the canon to rival the Iliad in sheer bloodshed, a carnage that is tantamount to the poem’s intrinsic tragedy. Its accumulation of bodies is without sense, without end. Untold multitudes perish in impassive procession. Occasionally the poem will venture into the figurative as an aside—a simile of lions, perhaps, or of a sea violently atremble—only to sharply return to the literal, terse description of black blood “spurting,” “drenching,” “spilling” about the field. If there is any additional narration beyond the point of impact, it is usually only to note a sudden onset of darkness—a “flooding,” a “covering,” an “obscuring”—that encloses the eyes of the dead. We are left with the sickening sensation of men reduced to meat.

This is, of course, an inherent quality of the poem, and not of any one translation, but compare Wilson’s version to those of her forebears. One of the more violent books arrives near the poem’s end, as Achilles massacres Trojans in a blinding rage. One of the deaths, that of Deucalion, is set by translator Richmond Lattimore (1951) as follows: “Achilleus struck with the sword’s edge / at his neck, and swept the helmed head far away, and the marrow / gushed from the neckbone, and he went down to the ground at full length.” The translation of Robert Fagles (1990, arguably the modern standard before Wilson) has a similarly ornate edge: “Achilles chopped his neck / and his sword sent head and helmet flying off together / and marrow bubbling up from the clean-cut neckbone. / Down he went, his corpse full length on the ground.”

Wilson’s take is simpler, more unnerving: “Then with his sword / Achilles struck his neck and chopped his head off / and threw it far away, helmet and all. / The marrow burst out from the vertebrae. / The torso lay stretched out upon the ground” (20.626–30). Her translation prizes simple sentences, eschewing the compound forms of Lattimore and Fagles, and evokes less of her predecessors’ sweeping grandeur and more a disconcerting thud. Gone too are the more flowery choices of those translations: the helmed head “swept,” the marrow “bubbling up.” We are left instead with the marrow’s simple “burst,” the coldly clinical “vertebrae,” haunting not for what they describe but what they omit.

Such is the tenor of death in Wilson’s Iliad. Soldiers fall in simple sentences and are no more. It’s a small change that, compounding throughout, ripples to become the most brutal vision yet of Homer’s tragic landscape.

Violence against men, violence against women

The concision of Wilson’s voice is as effective off the battlefield as it is on—not only conveying the violence of men against men, but the violence of men against women. Throughout the Iliad, men repeatedly make women their objects, invoking a casual cruelty that festers in the text. It finds its root in both the inciting incident of the war—Paris’s abduction of Helen from Menelaus—and the inciting incident of the poem, the theft of Achilles’s slave Briseis by the king Agamemnon.

Like the violence of war, Wilson renders these episodes all the more horrifying through the simplicity of her language. After Agamemnon declares his intention to take Briseis, Achilles enters into a quiet rage. But where Lattimore’s Achilles is “sorrowing in his heart for the sake of the fair-girdled woman,” and Fagles’s Achilles’s “heart [is] inflamed for the sashed and lovely girl,” Wilson’s is simply “still angry in his heart about the woman, / taken by force from him against his will” (1.570–71). She strips the profound passion suggested in previous versions, and in its stead is base possessiveness, a man who seethes for ownership of a woman. The irony of the line resounds with greater clarity—that in the language of the poem, Briseis is not taken against her will but his.

The so-called “taking” of women by men, of Helen by Paris and of Briseis by Agamemnon, becomes a microcosm for all war, its inherent cruelty and absurdity indicting all that is cruel and absurd in war. It’s a theme with which any modern discussion of the Iliad must contend, given that ours is still a world that teems with that same violence, a savage echo of Homer’s original.

The Iliad is our earliest canonical work not simply by virtue of its age but because of the degree to which we still live in its shadow. Wilson’s translation is a testament to just how far that shadow has been cast: as starkly beautiful and as deeply tragic as it has ever been.

What, When, Where

The Iliad. By Homer, translated by Emily Wilson. W. W. Norton, September 26, 2023. 848 pages, hardcover; $39.95. Get it here.

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