Against the classic status of Richmond Lattimore’s verse translation of the Iliad,1 and the more recent, highly acclaimed verse translation by Robert Fagles,2 one might think, with some justification, that yet another rendering of the Iliad into English verse is unwarranted. Herbert Jordan’s new translation, however, merits the praise by the poet Henry Taylor emblazoned on the book’s front cover: it is indeed ‘a splendid achievement’. This verse rendering is the product of a mature person’s desire to learn Greek (relatively late in life) in order to read Homer in the original, the culmination of a personal journey stemming from tragic circumstances (family bereavement). As such, and together with the remarkably lively and poetic nature of the translation, this work can be an inspiration to all independent late learners as well as scholars of Greek.
The book, in addition to the translation, consists of a brief preface by the translator, a short introduction by Christian Kopff, a useful map of the Aegean region, some very brief explanatory notes, a pronunciation glossary of proper names, and an index of significant similes. While Knox’s outstanding introduction to the translation of Fagles will continue to provide the benchmark, Kopff’s concise introduction (perhaps too concise for undergraduates wishing to garner as much as possible about the Iliad without having to look too far elsewhere) is also informative, giving the reader some historical background, brief excursuses on the plot, and some discussion of the poetics, ethics, and oral inheritance of Homeric poetry, as well as an overview of the world depicted in the Iliad. Section headings and a brief bibliography by Kopff would be helpful too, but the lack thereof perhaps reflects the book’s intended readership — possibly an educated public more than professional classicists. The explanatory notes, at eight pages in length, are slightly inadequate, but balanced by an excellent glossary that gives short explanations of the names and places mentioned in the epic. The index of significant (that is, long, as opposed to short) similes is also useful.
Jordan justifies his new translation in the preface by stating that it is the only recent version that is line-for-line, ‘one line of English blank verse for each line of the original Greek’, in a line format of five stressed syllables (p. ix). Given the strictures of such a meter compared to the Homeric dactylic hexameter, Jordan does not translate many words that appear in the original, such as epithets and patronyms (pp. ix-x — compare Fagles p. xi). We are informed that this is not a literal translation, but rather one whose object ‘is to capture the essence of Homer’s individual lines, not to render the Greek literally’ (p. ix). With this in mind, if we take, by way of example, the phrase
Brief analysis of a portion of text, Iliad 3.1-9, will provide further insight into the nature of Jordan’s translation. His version runs as follows: After each warrior fell in behind his chief
The Trojan army marched screaming like birds—
Cranes whose shrieks rise above the sky to heaven
When they escape winter’s wearisome storms,
Flying cacophonous over Ocean’s streams
To where they find and slaughter Pygmy men
In vicious attacks the birds launch from the air.
The Greek forces marched quietly, breathing fury,
Each man’s heart steeled to support his comrades.
The nine lines of verse here match the nine lines of hexameter in the original. The poetic quality of the English is immediately apparent: note, for example, the antithetical juxtaposition of ‘marched’ with ‘screaming’ (line 2), emphasising the unusualness of the Trojans’ military order in contrast to the silent awesomeness of the Achaeans in line 8. Note also the alliteration and rhythm of ‘when’ with ‘winter’s wearisome’ in line 4. When we compare it with the Greek, however, we discover that closeness to the original is frequently sacrificed for poetic turn of phrase. A translation of ‘screaming’, ‘shrieks’, and ‘cacophonous’ (lines 2, 3 and 5), while vivid (more so than ‘cries’, ‘cries’, and ‘shrieking’ by Fagles) does not do justice to the repetition of
Jordan’s Iliad is a very easy, vivid read, and I have already emphasised the intended audience and the aims of the translation. Taken on these terms, Jordan’s translation is highly recommended: it is perhaps the most readable of all the verse translations of the Iliad to date. Yet it should be stated that what we read in this translation is not a true reflection of “Homer”. A reader discovering the Iliad for the first time in Jordan’s translation would miss much of the oral tradition that the Iliad inherently reflects. Would a reader realise that the Greek line at 24.217 ‘Priam drew himself up like a god and said’ was actually built up of a series of stock expressions that reflect the oral poetic tradition? The Greek in this case translates literally as ‘And her in turn addressed the old man Priam the godlike’. Priam does not deliberately try to appear as a god there, but rather ‘godlike’ (
A few more points: Jordan employs a more established orthography for names than in the current trend in Classics. Achilles, Ajax, and Aeneas are much more recognisable and easy on the eye than the pedantic Akhilleus, Aias, and Aineias. Jordan also employs a system of paragraph divisions in his text that again is reader-friendly, as are the page headings for quick reference. The titles he has invented for each book are misleading and reductive in many cases (‘The Thousand Ships’ for book 2 is the worst example). On a much more minor point, we are not informed in the introduction or preface which edition of Homer has been followed. The absence of such information again underscores for whom the book is intended. This is a literary creation for an educated public, though a rendering that still tries to follow the line for line structure of the original. Those seeking a more literal translation should look elsewhere.3
1. R. Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, Translated with an Introduction by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1951)
2. R. Fagles, Homer: The Iliad: Translated by Robert Fagles; Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox (Penguin: New York / Harmondsworth, 1991)
3. Thanks to Nicola Dümmler for reading an earlier draft of this review.