The Iliad translated by Stephen Mitchell. Free Press. $35.00, 544pp
Poet and translator Stephen Mitchell, whose reconstructed Gilgamesh and elegantly translated Tao de Ching routinely out-sell all competing versions, and whose Duino Elegies did about as much to bring Rilke into the general awareness of the non-German populace as it’s possible to do, has now given readers a 21st century English-language translation of Homer’s Iliad, in a solid and aesthetically pleasing new hardcover from Free Press. It’s tempting to view the translation as some sort of de facto watershed, appearing as it does at the beginning of what Time magazine has matter-of-factly dubbed the “post-literate” age. But the temptation is an illusion—the question isn’t, Do we still need the Iliad? (some questions are too silly to merit even angry answers) but, Do we need this Iliad?
Critics are always ready to answer that question, and they have predictable methods. The most ponderous and effective of these is to run a new translation through a kind of comparative shopping test alongside other translations, judging each contestant in such categories as rhythm (Matthew Arnold’s precious flow), adaptability, and fidelity to the ancient Greek. Translators almost seem to invite such an approach—Mitchell, in his Notes, lists the previous translations he read—and even if he hadn’t made such a list, it would be implied in the very act of producing a new translation. This test is in fact useful, since English-language readers will naturally want to know both Mitchell’s philosophy and his fidelity to the original.
The Translator’s Preface is usually where readers will get some clues as to that philosophy, and this is what Mitchell writes:
Homer sees everything without judgment. He is not shocked by any form of human stupidity, violence, or greed, and finds no need for consolation. He simply observes, and in the purity of that observation he can see life in death, and death in life, the interpenetration of the human and the nonhuman, the equal truth of opposites, and the preciousness of even the smallest or most abject of creatures. His vision is not only an aesthetic but a moral one. I call it love.
To put it mildly, that’s odd stuff. Love is not a word I’ve ever seen any other translator associate with Homer—it’s so incongruous as to momentarily freeze even the instinct for inquiry. It’s like somebody saying they go to Homer for help with calculus—you just stand there, waiting for the explanation. And what’s that business about Homer never judging his characters? Even a first-time reader of Homer can’t go 30 lines without seeing that Homer judges constantly and often very harshly. Dozens and dozens of characters are hauled on-stage for six or eight lines solely for the purpose of being judged, before they meet their grisly ends.
But even questions about Mitchell’s philosophy are trumped in this case by questions about that “fidelity to Homer” concern, and here Mitchell’s introductory material bids fair to turn interested readers into quarreling grad students. Instead of giving us a translation of the Iliad as nearly three millennia of literary tradition have known the work, Mitchell has chosen in his version to pursue a cause. It’s a manifesto in anapests, and it requires readers to familiarize themselves with two items before they grapple with a word of Mitchell’s work. The first item: rhapsodes, the professional performers of Homer who flourished in the fourth and fifth centuries BC and very likely had a large hand in giving the poem the shape it has today. The second item: renowned classic scholar Martin West, who hates the rhapsodes and has spent a large part of his professional career trying, a bit belatedly, to put them out of business. West’s madcap idea—the type of thing that could only spring from academia, as witness the search for an “ur-Hamlet” text or the ongoing attempt to divvy up the Old Testament into an alphabet soup of component writers (the “book of J,” etc)—is to strip away all the additions and emendations the rhapsodes did to Homer’s original text and just give it to readers the way the Master wrote it, undeterred by the extreme unlikelihood that the Master ever existed or that there ever was an “original text” of the Iliad.
Our translator calls West’s book The Making of the Iliad “eye-opening” and maintains that it should be “required reading for every serious student of the Iliad in Greek.” West furnished Mitchell with a pre-publication copy of his treatise, and Mitchell tells us that he had it constantly before him as he shaped his translation—a translation done from West’s own 2001 edition of the Greek. In many ways, this is as much West’s translation as it is Mitchell’s, and readers need to know this because when they read this version of Homer, they’re stepping into a raging academic debate, whether they want to or not.
In the end, the debate may be the liveliest thing about this Iliad, which is marred by a problem that crops up over and over again throughout what is otherwise a fairly clear, fluid rendition. It’s most visible in the countless action-sequences that pepper the narrative. Take an example from Book 3, where Paris and Menelaus fight a one-on-one duel to determine the fate of the war:
Paris was the first to throw his long-shadowed spear,
and he hit Menelaus’s shield, right in the center,
but the spearhead did not break through; its point was bent back
by the shield’s great mass. Then Menelaus got ready
to throw his spear, first praying to Father Zeus:
“Lord Zeus, grant me revenge on the man who wronged me,
Paris, and let me kill him with my own hands,
so that for all generations a man may shudder
at doing harm to the host who offered him friendship.”
And lifting his own spear up, he hurled it at Paris.
It tore through his shield and through his finely wrought breastplate
and slit his tunic and grazed him under his ribs;
but Paris had leaned to one side and escaped destruction.
“And . . . but . . . then . . . and . . . but” . . . the effect of the loose meter Mitchell uses is curiously flattening; all that love he sees in Homer is here gumming up the works, turning a tense battlefield encounter into a series of Facebook updates. It might be true on technical grounds that the sea-swelling, headlong effect of Homer’s hexameters can’t be precisely duplicated in English (although Longfellow might contest the point, and I might as well), but there’s such a thing as being too smooth. And although Mitchell writes “I have worked hard to find a balance between end-stopping and enjambment,” that work is absolutely nowhere in evidence, not only in this passage, with that bizarre “Paris” seven lines in, but all throughout the book, which has more enjambments than a crowded parking lot. These kinds of line-break games can be wearying, and they frequently become either distracting or unintentionally funny, as when a wounded Sarpedon is being helped off the field in Book 5:
As his comrades carried Sarpedon out of the battle,
the spear dragged and weighed him down, but in their great haste
none of them noticed or thought of pulling the spear point
out of his thigh, to let him stand: so intently
were they concentrated on getting him safely out.
Fortunately, such infelicities are usually balanced out by Mitchell’s undeniable ear for drama (in a very different context, this is also what made his Rilke so remarkable). Unlike so many of his more wooden predecessors, Mitchell can reach into the heart of the many angry confrontations in Homer and bring something of their elemental fire to the modern reader, as in the famous moment when Venus almost washes her hands of Helen, her most famous protégé:
“Do not provoke me, headstrong girl, or I might
lose my temper; I might withdraw my protection
and hate you as passionately as I now adore you.
You have no idea what hatred of you I could cause
in both Trojans and Argives—how cruelly you would die.”
“Hate you as passionately as I now adore you” is very good, and that kind of disarming directness comes across just as strongly in petulant Achilles’ angry response to the embassy from Agamemnon in Book 9, where he can’t stop himself from reviling his erstwhile commander (although once again, you’ll have to mind your little toe around the awkward break at line 5):
. . . He is completely
without shame; yet the insolent son of a bitch
would not even come here and look me straight in the eye.
I will never do anything, ever again, to help him.
He cheated and wronged me. Once is enough. To hell
with that man, since Zeus has taken away his senses.
And of course the one thing—perhaps the only thing—that no translator can truly ruin in Homer is the gore. It’s at the heart of Homer’s vision of war, and, almost alone of all his effects, it retains the power to shock even now, after centuries of calamity the likes of which wouldn’t have entered Homer’s nightmares. The gore is the secret engine that powers the entire apparatus of Homer’s decidedly non-loving philosophy; it’s the coin by which he buys the right to talk about such airy matter as honor and grief and Fate. Even the most ham-fisted translators (that would be Butcher & Lang, alas) catch something of the very intimate horror Homer wishes to invoke in these awful moments, and Mitchell himself does an almost ironically vivid job, both with the medium-strength stuff,
Then Ajax the Smaller charged straight at Cleobulus
and took him alive as he stumbled amid the rout;
but immediately he killed him, slashing his neck
with his sword, and the blade grew warm with his blood, and death
took hold of him, veiling his eyes in a purple mist.
and with Homer at his horrifying best:
And Idomeneus then stabbed Erymas in the mouth
with his pitiless spear, and the point passed all the way through,
up under the brain, and smashed the white bones; his teeth
were knocked out, and a stream of blood gushed from both eyes,
and he spurted blood through his nostrils and gaping mouth
as he gasped for breath, and death in a black cloud took him.
Thinking of the Iliad, E. M. Forster once looked at the daily existence around him (“a draggled mass of elderly people and barbed wire”) and mused: “it is agreeable to glance back at those enchanted carnages, and to croon over conditions that we now subscribe to exterminate. Tight little faces from Oxford, fish-shaped faces from Cambridge—we cannot help having our dreams. Was life then warm and tremendous?”
Comparatively little of that tremendous warmth manages to emanate from Mitchell’s curiously tepid translation, but we can’t be certain if the fault lies with him or his academic Svengali. By stripping away whatever that one scholar felt was wrong, Mitchell has run the grave risk of producing an Iliad that only one scholar will call right. The heroic stock epithets, the pointed repetitions, even the textual contradictions—fluid or not, these things are a part of Homer, and a translator who removes problem-spots rather than deal with them isn’t quite doing his job. The end result almost prompts a notorious old summary: “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Mitchell, but you must not call it Homer.”
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His writing has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Lifted Brow. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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