Chapter & Verse: On Translating Homer’s Iliad

Chapter and Verse is a series where JHU Press authors and editors discuss the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

guest post by Edward McCrorie

You translate for many reasons, no doubt, but I think the most important are a strong response to the author’s vision and a conviction that you can render that vision accurately and musically in English.

I did not always feel strongly about Homer’s Iliad. So much of it struck me as gore—the build-up to often overlapping and extremely graphic gore. No re-write or film version depicts every wound and killing that Homer depicts.

But I was lucky in college to study the Odyssey’s Greek first. (My translation was also published by the JHU Press in 2004.)  Homecoming dominates that story, women play a much more important role, and welcoming strangers is a key moral obligation. But what of the Greek’s music? Again, I was lucky to have spent months with the music of Virgil’s Aeneid. Both Virgil and Homer work with a line called dactylic hexameter. Once I devised an English line to approximate Virgil’s, I could experiment, similarly, with Homer’s music.

Then something else happened. The gore in the Iliad no longer lay there, inert, because I could hear it, feel it as part of a vast verbal orchestration. Though there’s no mystery to bloody violence on the battlefield or on the streets of New York, though it sickens and cries out for help, bloodshed in poetry is aesthetically rendered. Homer’s great style scores the suffering, not killing all the pain, but controlling reactions. I often remind myself that Homer sang his verse, indeed the word for ‘poet’ in his time was aoidos, or ‘singer.’ He accompanied himself with a lute-like instrument called the phorminx.

Finally, after years of translating, and after intense help from Professor Erwin Cook, responsible for the Introduction and Notes in this Iliad, I deeply appreciated Homer’s dramatization of values important in any age: honor, courage, physical and mental strength, and persistent effort. In battle, in private and public debate as well, these virtues get the bard’s emphasis repeatedly. Invaders and defenders both embody them.

Less is said, I find, about another powerful cluster of values underscored by the Trojans only: ardent love of  homeland, aggressive defense of one’s own house, longing for peace and preservation of one’s kind and, most important I think, passionate  determination in marriage. Hektor and Andromakhe evince this kind of emotion and action fully. A child like their Astuanax appears nowhere else in the poem.

Their doom at the hands of brutal gods is the subject of another blog–or book.

Edward McCrorie is professor emeritus of English at Providence College.  He is author of four collections of poems, including Gone Games, and has translated classics, including Homer’s Odyssey, also published by Johns Hopkins.