BMCR 2013.03.06

The Iliad: A Southern African Translation

, The Iliad: A Southern African Translation. Cape Town: New Voices Publishing, 2012. 528. ISBN 9781920411978. $23.50.

Muse, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Akhilleus,
deadly rage that brought the Akhaians endless pain,
that hurled down to Hades many strong souls
of heroes and made their bodies meat for dogs
and vultures […]

So begins Richard Whitaker’s new translation of the Iliad. Anyone familiar with the poem’s opening lines and the multiplicity of ways in which they have been translated into English will find Whitaker’s rendering sufficient, even elegant. But this translation does not present itself as an English translation like any other; rather, the subtitle reads: “A Southern African Translation,” and it makes the translation seem more unique than it is. The first lines of the Iliad are so well known and widely translated that, on the one hand, a translation deviating too far from their generally accepted rendering might be dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, these opening lines are the ones that tell the reader exactly what s/he can expect; if one is to be radical or new, this would be the place to announce that. As these opening lines suggest, this is ultimately a rather conventional translation. Indeed, it is not until line 10 that the reader realizes what exactly is meant by “A Southern African Translation”: “he [Apollo] drove plague upon the impis – people died.” The word impis, of course, stands out as one not recognizable to a reader accustomed only to Anglo-American English. At the same time, given the familiarity of the preceding lines, the word is easily understandable from the context as “army,” for the Greek λαοί. A glossary of Southern African dialect words confirms the inference while also noting the word’s origin in Zulu. The second unfamiliar word appears 16 lines later, when Agamemnon rebukes Khryses: “Kehla, don’t let me find you hanging / around the ships, now or in the future.” As with the first example, the meaning of kehla, another Zulu loan word, is also easily understood from context as “old man,” for the Greek “γέρων.” The South African dialect is filled with such loan-words, and Whitaker incorporates them sporadically throughout his translation.

Whitaker’s translation, then, is a fine standard Anglo-American English translation studded here and there with loan-words drawn from many of South Africa’s eleven official languages, including indigenous languages (such as Ndebele, Xhosa and Zulu) and Afrikaans (the variant of Dutch brought by colonists from the Netherlands). The English who displaced the Dutch as the colonial power in the late 18 th century found South Africa already a polyglot region. Even today, Whitaker notes, English is “the mother tongue of only a relatively small number of people in South Africa. But against that, there is the fact that English is by far the most common second language amongst all language speakers in South Africa” (p. 53).

Whitaker explains the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of his translation in an introductory section appropriately entitled: “Why a ‘Southern African Iliad ?’” (p. 69). He begins this section with an insightful comment from George Steiner, a previous translator of the Iliad, who noted that translations of the poem both reflect and drive the evolution of the history of the English language in general and the cultures in which such translations are produced (p. 52). In the 21 st century, when the study of Global and World Englishes has developed into a respected area of academic inquiry, translation into the widely divergent dialects of Global English seems, following Steiner’s paradigm, a natural evolution. The theoretical problems involved are summed up when Whitaker asks himself: “What conditions in South Africa, what in the state of South Africa’s languages and culture(s), lend themselves to such a translation of the Iliad,” and later, “having chosen English” as the language of translation, he asks himself: “ what English?” (p. 53). Whitaker, then, places his Iliad in the context of a broader culture-wide movement to embrace a post-Apartheid South Africa where English is no longer “kept ‘pure’” but embraces “the happy mingling and hybridizing” of the language which had always been a feature of the spoken and vernacular languages but now “is beginning to take itself seriously” and “is staking its claim to be a distinct variety” of English (p. 53). Examples of the widespread acceptance of this blended South African English are that it “is now to be found more and more in ‘official’ media: in newspapers, in mainstream drama, and in television programmes where characters will switch between English and Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa or whatever language, often in the same sentence” and “the publication, by Oxford University Press in 1996, of the Dictionary of South African English, on Historical Principles,” which contains thousands of loan-words from other South African languages (p. 56).

Whitaker also gives a convincing justification for the use of certain loan-words, arguing that sometimes such words are more accurate than those in English: the notion of the bride-price ( hedna in Greek), for example, does not exist in Anglo-American English but has a cultural equivalent in Zulu and Xhosa, lobola; the similarity of the concept thus lends itself to an easier translation. Similarly, the word pharmakon, for which there is no single English equivalent that captures the opposite notions of medicine and poison contained in the Greek, has a parallel in Zulu and Xhosa in the word muti.

A larger question about method relates to the translator’s approach regarding syntax and style. Dialects are not just a matter of diction; they are also about aesthetics: matters of cadence, speech and thought patterns, the shapes of sentences. The Introduction offers no insight into how the translation grapples with these less concrete though still vital issues. Whitaker nods in the direction of a possible Southern African heroic idiom which would parallel the Iliad in the continued practice of orally composed African praise poems, but ultimately he shies away from this: “I am not suggesting that the manner of indigenous praise poetry provides a style suitable for translating Homeric epic. The dense, allusive and abrupt, essentially non-narrative manner of the Southern African praise poem […] is just too different from the connected narrative style of Homer” (p. 61). To me, a translation which works not only on the level of diction but also on that of style would have been fascinating: an Iliad in this “dense, allusive and abrupt, essentially non-narrative manner” would have accounted not only for the transfer across languages, but also across cultures and literary traditions, in a way that Derek Walcott’s Omeros or, to a lesser degree, Christopher Logue’s incomplete translation reimagined not just the language of the Odyssey and Iliad but the entire set of cultural assumptions, literary signs and verbal structures in which those epics are emplotted. Are there Southern African counterparts to the noun-epithet formulation, the Homeric simile or any of the other stylistic flourishes which are such strong markers of the Homeric style?

Vergil and his medieval successors – Dudo of San Quentin for the Normans, Geoffrey of Monmouth for the Britons and Martin da Canal for the Venetians – all sought to legitimize their status among the community of nations by making claims to Trojan ancestry. The epics they composed were attempts to do for their respective peoples what Homer had done for the Greeks: the production of epic was itself an important marker of national prestige. Dante’s Divine Comedy (an epic in genre) and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (an epic at least in scope) were written in the local vernacular at least in part so as to establish Italian and English as languages of literary significance on a par with Latin. In our own century, the increased importance of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sundiata, the Tale of Genji and other early heroic narratives suggest the continued importance of epic as a marker of cultural standing in the global literary scene. Whitaker’s translation, understood in this context, has similar ideological aims for the appropriation of Homer and epic: namely, to give South Africa and its dialect the cultural capital and literary legitimacy – independent of its Anglo-American heritage – which accrues to those who have a canonical translation of Homer and a connection to the Trojans. Whitaker himself makes this claim, though perhaps in less sweeping terms: “[W]hat I am trying to do is to dignify the colloquial, to take it seriously, by using it to represent a canonized text of high literature” (p. 57). Later he writes that Homeric enkhos “means just as much (or as little) Southern African English assegai or umkhonto as it does standard English ‘spear’” (p. 59). Whitaker rightly claims an ideological equivalence between target languages: Standard English has no better claim to the Iliad than Southern African English or any other of the hitherto marginalized post-colonial languages.

Though this translation, therefore, is part of a larger post-colonial and post-apartheid project of national, literary and cultural definition, it must also succeed as a translation. The best way to assess this would be to establish whether it passes an important test for a successful translation: is it more meaningful for readers of a certain language group to understand the work in their own language than in any other? In this case, would South African readers gain more from the experience of reading Whitaker’s translation than Homer’s Greek? Absolutely. But would South African readers have an easier time reading Whitaker than Lattimore or Fagles or Lombardo? A native speaker of standard Anglo-American English with no experience of the South African dialect, such as myself, would certainly have a harder time because of the dialect words, but after several hundred lines even I became familiar enough with the dialect words not to need the glossary. Indeed, were it not for these unfamiliar words, I could see myself using this clear and elegant translation in my own classes. The true test, then, is not with Anglo-American readers like me, but with South African readers themselves; theirs is, after all, the target language into which the work is translated. It would be interesting to know which Iliad s are standard in South African schools and whether Whitaker’s translation is replacing them or will come to do so in the future. Otherwise the work demonstrates only that a South African translation is possible without proving that it is necessary in the way that, say, Chapman’s translation was — by offering access to a work to which a group of language speakers would otherwise have had no access at all. I wonder if there are any South Africans for whom this translation in dialect is the only, or even the most, linguistically comfortable, means of accessing the Homeric text. If so, Whitaker’s translation will have earned a most welcome place in the annals of those who have brought Homer to new audiences.


1. Il.1.432 (Lattimore, Richmond [Transl.] The Iliad. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1961.