I sometimes recall with fondness the first time I read Homer in Greek as an undergraduate. It was a thrilling and uniquely new experience for me which can be evoked even now with a rereading of even a hundred lines. I nourish the hope that some of that experience can be created by a translation; if not the same experience, at least a similar impact on the mind, for lack of a better phrase. So how can that impact be achieved? I find it remarkable but heartening that almost every year a new English version of The Iliad comes out and the main market for these volumes is the undergraduate or high school student who will first experience Homer via the medium of these translations. Perhaps when all is said and done, the most important aspect of these translations is the degree of interest they inspire in the student. Such a reader’s first impression will probably be his or her only impression of Homeric poetry and even of the “world view” of “the Greeks.” These “general readers” probably will spend no time thinking about the “nobility” (to quote Matthew Arnold) or faithfulness of the translated poem to the original. What really matters is whether the poem comes alive for them as a kind of literary adventure they will recall many years later, and whether Homer will become part of their intellectual apparatus for experiencing life. If the poem is merely an historical document—an important aspect for classical scholars—its lasting influence on these readers’ minds may be minimal. What I think most translators would like to accomplish is to make their rendition an enriching and worthwhile reading experience.
The cover design of the book, which is a black and white 1965 photograph of a fiercely scowling Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) in the ring standing over a supine Sonny Liston, grabs one’s attention and may seem incongruous at first, but anyone who has read the Iliad cannot miss the parallels of heroic battle with prize fighting—with a focus on the concept of a prize for victory (the Homeric γέρας).
The introduction and notes by Erwin Cook are helpful if mostly derivative. A classical scholar will find little in them that is new.1 But the intended reader may be coming to this poem for the first time. Cook’s introduction might better be read after the poem itself, as it assumes a familiarity with the whole poem. There are also 46 pages of endnotes by Cook and two collaborators, Hal Cardiff (for books 1-12) and Natalie Trevino (13-24). These notes are concise and aimed at a reader without much knowledge of the text or its context. They seem just enough for such a reader and no more. The plot summary in the introduction is helpful and contains interpretive comments to acquaint the reader with how scholars read the poem.
McCrorie’s English corresponds almost pari passu with the Greek, a notable feature also of Lattimore’s classic translation.2 This is no mean achievement, but perhaps of little importance to those who cannot consult the Greek text as they go along. So, in one sense, this is a translation for those who need no translation, except as a means of getting more quickly through the Greek without needing to consult a dictionary or lexicon. But, on the other hand, those who would use the translation this way might not, for example, be willing to accept at face value McCrorie’s rendering of certain words or phrases.
McCrorie’s English lines follow no strict metrical scheme although one can detect a pattern of four stresses in many lines, alternating with lines of five or six stresses. As a whole this translation can be recommended for its readability. It flows nicely line after line and generally avoids ornate or archaic English, which suits the plain diction and forward momentum of Homer’s Greek hexameters. Formulaic passages such as descriptions of feasting do not recur strictly verbatim but often the lines are the same. This repetitive aspect of the narrative should be preserved to be faithful to the orality of the original composition, I believe. However, perhaps inevitably, this translation presents some puzzling renditions of the original.
At 3.429 McCrorie translates δαμεὶς as “drubbed,” but at 436 it is rendered “be downed” (δαμήῃς). It is difficult to see how using the word “drubbed” in one place is better than using the verb “to be downed” in both places. Earlier at 424 he translates the single word δίφρον as “a good chair.” Again, why the choice to add this modifier, which corresponds to nothing in the Greek?
In general the diction is plain and unobtrusive, but sometimes a word choice is conspicuous and distracting. For example, at 9.9 we read “Atreus’ son, his heart pierced by the great stress/hastened to tell his clear-voiced heralds to summon/every man by name….” I submit that the present-day American reader associates the word “stress” with a psychological context different than that of Homer’s heroic world. By using the word “distress” instead, the faint connotation of psycho-babble can be avoided. I leave aside the question of the appropriateness of the word “pierced” to render βεβολημένος.
I could cite many more examples of translation choices in this book that I would find fault with; it is no great task to find examples as one gazes at the text from the Olympian vantage point of the reviewer. Flaws can be found in all of the translations of the Iliad now in print or out of print. Each of us who teach this text will favor one or another and probably use a slightly different set of criteria for judging. No doubt this version will find its constituency because it offers clarity and simplicity of diction and has the narrative energy to hold the reader’s attention. In the hyper- stimulating world our students inhabit nowadays holding a reader’s attention comes before everything else.
1. Cook’s 44 page introduction has 52 notes, the vast majority of which are references to the ideas of other scholars.
2. Richmond Lattimore, trans. The Iliad of Homer. University of Chicago Press, 1951, 2011.