BMCR 1997.07.20

1997.07.20, The Iliad

, , , Iliad. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. lvii, 516 pages : map ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780872203532

Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Iliad is well-suited to the needs of instructors who have become increasingly frustrated with their students’ intolerance for the simple act of sustained reading, but in rendering the epic palatable to the contemporary undergraduate Mr. Lombardo sacrifices the austere diction of Homer’s verse. The student who wants to get on with the story will be well served by the crisp narrative in a passage such as this:

So Achilles defiled Hector in his rage.
The gods, looking on, pitied Hector,
And urged Hermes to steal the body,
A plan that pleased all but Hera,
Poseidon, and the Grey-Eyed One,
Who were steady in their hatred
For sacred Ilion and Priam’s people
Ever since Paris in his blindness
Offended these two goddesses
And honored the one who fed his fatal lust. (24. 25-34)

But won’t that same student be deprived of the experience of Homer’s grandeur when Apollo addresses the gods two lines later?

How callous can you get? Has Hector
Never burned for you thighs of bulls and goats?
Of course he has. (24. 37-39)

Apollo’s argument appears in language as simple and as colloquial as that heard in a check-out line. That is good, for our students may need a friendly Iliad, if they are to read an Iliad at all. But it is also unfortunate, for first readers of the poem will here miss the remote and literary language which is so crucial a part of Homer’s epic. Lombardo’s version will certainly not distract the young reader with alien or archaic diction. The language of the translator never overshadows the events of the story. Homer’s often-confusing array of proper names has been greatly simplified. No longer must students wonder about the difference between an Achaean and a Danaan, for Lombardo makes them all “Greeks.” He reduces and modifies the formulaic system to allow various translations for a single epithet. He renders the spelling of proper names with simple and traditional clarity, so that students need not wonder if Fitzgerald’s “Akhilleus” bears any relation to the “Achilles” of whom they may have heard. Lombardo’s choices on these matters make Homer’s poem both accessible and appealing. Lombardo’s line has an easy grace and the ever-vaunted Homeric rapidity. His translation therefore shines brightest in some of the simplest passages of narrated action, particularly the type-scenes:

He spoke. They poured their libations
And headed for the ships, Odysseus leading.
Patroclus ordered a bed made ready
For Phoenix, and the old man lay down
On fleeces and rugs covered with linen
And waited for bright dawn. (9. 679-84)

In comparison, Fagles’s version of this passage is more poetic, but perhaps more ponderous for first time readers:

So he finished.
Then each man, lifting his own two-handled cup,
poured it out to the gods, and back they went
along the ships, Odysseus in the lead.
Patroclus told his friends and serving-women
to pile a deep warm bed for Phoenix, quickly.
They obeyed and spread the bed as he ordered,
with fleeces, woolen throws and soft linen sheets.
There the old man lay, awaiting shining Dawn. (9. 802-9)

In Lombardo’s version, by comparison, nothing stands between the reader and the envisioned action. We scarcely notice that we are reading poetry at all. Since many of our students are profoundly uncomfortable reading poetry, there may be some advantages to this strategy. To complete the package required for beginning students, Sheila Murnaghan has supplied a superb introduction which elegantly provides background and cultural context to help make the student’s first reading of the epic as rich as possible. Ms. Murnaghan directs the reader’s attention to the story of Achilles and explains the function of those passages of military narrative which most often alienate first readers of the poem. The volume I received for review shows a photo of the D-Day landing at Normandy on the cover. This is a fitting announcement of the mission of this translation. Lombardo invites readers to experience the horror of war, mediated by a gently distancing historical perspective. Less clear are the functions of two appendices: a “Catalogue of Combat Deaths” and an “Index of Speeches,” neither of which seems to be of obvious utility to the translation’s apparently intended audience. The index of “Major Characters” is also poorly organized, separating the names of characters into “Gods and Goddesses,” “The Greeks,” and “The Trojans and Allies.” The entries for each character are fully descriptive but lack line numbers referring to the text. Readers familiar with the Iliad in Greek, or even readers who are comfortable with a slightly elevated level of English diction, may be disappointed in Lombardo’s version of the poem. To render Homer’s epic modern and familiar, Lombardo has necessarily lost much of its grandeur. As Achilles quarrels with Agamemnon in book one he says:

You keep your goddamn hands off, you hear? (1. 315)

Hector sounds similarly folksy when he rebukes Andromache:

You worry too much about me, Andromache (6. 511)

Do we want our students to encounter Homeric heroes who sound like talk-show guests? This translation’s ability to avoid offense to unsophisticated students has clear advantages, but the lines I quote above may grate on the sensibilities of those readers whose ears are less untutored. Lombardo’s translation raises a serious question for Classicists about the tension between familiarity and distance. Do we sell Homer’s world as no more alien from our own than the world of Lombardo’s D-Day cover photo? Even a seventh century Ionian must have heard Homer’s poetic language as highly artificial. Must we eliminate that experience of distance for our students, or do we need to create opportunities for them to appreciate artifice as artifice? The Odyssey as a recent TV adventure eliminated the complex temporal structure of Homer’s narrative, presumably because contemporary audiences are assumed incapable of tolerating even this tiny degree of literary sophistication. Lombardo has certainly not gone so far in the direction of popularization as this, but his characters do sound like folks on the street rather than heroes capable of lifting a stone such as ten men today could not budge. Despite this very serious concern for an excessive “dumbing down” of Homer’s poem, I must close by praising the spare clarity of Lombardo’s verse. He has set off the similes in italics and renders them often with the grace of Haiku:

A cloud detaches itself from Olympus
And moves across the clear blue sky
When Zeus is about to unleash a storm. (16. 388-90)

This may very well be the right first Iliad for some students.