“Should one have lived, only to read the twenty-third song of the Iliad, he could not lament of his existence,” commented G.E. Lessing. Of course, in Lessing’s day, many of the literati could have read the Iliad in Greek.
Today, the typical reader experiences the Iliad in translation, and he has over 100 translations to choose from, a number that has steadily grown over the last century. Already by the end of the 19th century, scholars were debating the merits and faults of existing translations—those of Chapman, Cowper, Dryden, Pope, Sotheby, and Tickel—most of which were concerned more with the poetics of English than with faithfulness to Homer.
The 20th century has given rise to numerous other renderings, often emphasizing colloquial English usage, free verse, literalness, or prose. (Homer’s formulaic Greek was not at all colloquial, but translators today make him sound chatty.) Although these modernized retellings may serve pedagogical purposes, especially for the student learning Greek, they do not endure as poetic renditions. Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 translation was for decades the staple of undergraduate courses. While Lattimore is praised for his literalness, translating each line of Greek with one line of English, he is criticized for his awkwardness because of needed filler to complete his six-stress lines.
Herbert Jordan, an attorney and independent scholar of Greek, now presents a novel translation of the Iliad with an informative Introduction by classicist E. Christian Kopff. Jordan seeks to rectify the shortcomings of Lattimore’s meter with a five-beat line, avoiding unnecessary filler, which leads him, according to Kopff, to omit most formulas and translate “in creative and inventive ways reminiscent of Christopher Logue’s effective and hyper-modern Iliad versions.” Employing contemporary language, Jordan renders “supple verse that is loyal to the traditions of English blank verse.”
Alfred North Whitehead once described Western philosophy as a “series of footnotes to Plato.” If an analogy were made to literature, one could say that Western literature effectively began with the Iliad. In this respect, the Iliad is one of the greatest works of Western literature, and to translate it is both an intellective treat and intimidating task.
The Iliad is part of a larger cycle of oral epic poems, dealing with gods, heroes, monsters, and wars. It is the story of the wrath of Achilles, set during the Trojan War.
Unlike the organized armies of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, Homeric warriors exemplified the virtues of aristocratic warfare, emphasizing individual prowess in battle. Glory (kleos) directed the actions of Achilles and his comrades. Kopff aptly summarizes their world:
Every part of the narrative—characters, story, and language—is traditional, but the parts are organized to present the audience with the moral underpinnings of the heroic world. Each person has a place, with obligations to those above and below. These obligations are not theoretical, but practical and concrete. Priests build temples and sacrifice. Gods send down plagues and change the course of battles. All this happens to ensure that each figure receives the appropriate honor. This is not a world of abstract rights and general moral principles, but of what the English philosopher F.H. Bradley called “my station and its duties” and rewards.
Achilles is the fiercest fighter among the Greeks, and his battle exploits win for him the beautiful Briseis. Agamemnon, commander of the loose confederation of Greek tribes, insults Achilles by taking the warrior’s prize for himself. Seething, Achilles retires from fighting, in hopes that Agamemnon’s forces will go down in defeat. Achilles entreats his mother, the goddess Thetis, that Zeus will let the Trojans
drive the Greeks to the ships’ sterns and the sea.
Then those who survive will resent their king,
Atreus’ far-ruling son, because they will know
how foolish he was to wrong the best Achaean.
Achilles has pursued honor too far. Because of his refusal to fight, his dear friend Patroclus must stand in his place to instill courage in the Greeks. After the Trojan hero Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles transfers his wrath from Agamemnon to Hector. When the two later meet on the battlefield, Hector suggests they pledge that the winner not defile the loser’s body, whereupon Achilles responds,
As there are no pacts between lions and men—
who always mean each other only the worst—
nor meetings of minds between wolves and lambs,
so for us two there is no amity,
nor will there be truce till one of us falls
and sheds enough of his blood to glut Ares.
After slaying Hector, Achilles pierces Hector’s tendons and drags him behind his chariot, leaving the Trojan’s head to drag as he circles Troy three times.
Eventually, Achilles sets his rage aside. In the final book of the Iliad—in one of the most moving passages of all Western literature—Achilles makes amends with Priam, Hector’s father. Sitting at the feet of Achilles, Priam weeps for Hector; Achilles mourns his father and Patroclus:
[L]et our hearts be quiet despite the grief we feel.
There is nothing more to be gained by more lament.
The gods ordain that we miserable mortals
shall live in sorrow, while they have no cares.
On Zeus’s floor there stands a pair of jars,
one each for the good and ill fortune he gives.
The man who receives a mixture from both
encounters sometimes bounty, sometimes pain.
A man to whom Zeus gives only the ill
must stagger hungry over the earth’s face,
roaming, honored by neither gods nor men.
Achilles agrees to cease all fighting for Hector’s funeral, and there the Iliad ends: “So Trojans honored Hector, master of stallions.” Although the poem traces the wrath of Achilles, it ends in honor of Hector, the family man who loved his wife and son, and defended his city. “Achilles,” Kopff notes, “with his conflicts and passionate decisions, is at the center of the poem, but Hector is its heart.”
If you want an easy-to-read rendition of the Iliad, buy Herbert Jordan’s accessible translation.
[The Iliad, translated by Herbert Jordan, Introduction by E. Christian Kopff (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press) 512 pp., $16.95]