Making us hearers: Homer and the English Language. Asher Weisz (L6th)

A while ago I published one of my student’s essays,  

Asher had written there on Butterworth’s Jerusalem and I suggested to him that apart from entering some external competitions, I would be happy to give him space on my blog to write what he chose relating to his chosen A levels: Latin, Greek and English Literature. This is his first post, about translating Homer and the enduring power of Homer’s verse, despite or because of the range of translation.

Apart from the fact that he has unwittingly written about one of my passions, since my school and degree days – Homer – he has also hit on an issue which seems to dog the study of literature at school -Literature in Translation. I am very grateful to be able to teach Ibsen in the new OCR A Level, but still hanker after my days teaching Literature as part of the IBDP – Remarque, Camus, Anouilh, amongst others.



Iliad I


‘Homer,’ wrote Alexander Pope in the preface to his own translation, ‘makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers.’ Those who worship at the knees of the Roman, whose brilliance cannot, and must not, be denied, might beg to differ, but when it comes to English translations, it is clear to whom our finest writers have paid their tribute. The Iliad and the Odyssey, oral epics supposedly devised by one man of the 7th or 8th Century BC, a man the ancients called ‘the poet’ because his cosmic excellence needed no introduction, has had an unparalleled hold on English language writers since George Chapman in the early 17th century.

The majesty and genius of the two epics, not to speak of their study of human motives and relations under the clarity of glory and disaster, is not up for discussion, and if it were, the resulting article would be not an article, but a book. The question, perusing Chapman, Pope, Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles and their contemporaries, is: why English? What is it about the English language that inspires such Homeric fervour? I do not pretend to have the answer, but the question is always worth asking, asking, and asking again.

It is ironic that Pope, the architect of a revolutionary translation, challenging Chapman’s long-entrenched supremacy and finding the Enlightenment in the Iliad’s lines, is so dismissive of Virgil, because that poet’s Roman reimagining of the Trojan Aeneas is in many ways the strange mirror image of Homer’s place in the English-speaking world. It is testament to the universality of the epics that it was possible for Virgil to merge the bloody tumult of Homer’s defeated Troy with hazy Roman national myth to produce a work so rooted in its Greek forebear yet so Roman, an ode to Italy and its often troubled emergence as a superpower, in the wake of Augustus’ complete obliteration of the Republic. Just as Virgil makes Homer’s world sing to his own, English translators take the Greek as the springboard for a simultaneous exploration of their world and Homer’s. It is not as obvious as with Virgil, because the translator is translating, not spinning out a whole new epic, but it is just as true.

There is much to be remarked upon in Emily Wilson’s new Odyssey, not least because it is the first English translation of that work by a woman. Yet however new the work, the discussion is the same. Each detail of every translator’s art is to be dissected, commented upon, exulted or despised. Let us take, for example, the first line. Homer’s genius shows itself in the way that in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two vast epics are given their themes at their very beginning. With the former, Achilles’ menin (‘rage’) dominates, and with the latter, the description of Odysseus with the variously translated adjective polytropos (for Lattimore, ‘the man of many ways’) conveys immediately the complexity and mixed morality of our hero, as well as his intelligence, being, as we are reminded countless times in the preceding Iliad, ‘a mastermind like Zeus’. These literary opening salvos present both a challenge and an opportunity for the translator, who must nail his or her colours to the mast. In Wilson’s translation of the first line as ‘tell me about a complicated man’, the difference with Lattimore could not be more stark. ‘The man of many ways’ is a genius first and foremost, but ‘a complicated man’ is one who by no means will escape criticism for his many failings. Such is the nature of translation. Wilson’s portrait of Odysseus in that first line is still Homer’s Odysseus, but then so is Lattimore’s. And here is the crux of our initial question.

The attachment of the English speaker to Homer is more difficult to explain than the inherent suitability of the English language to unique Homeric translation. Greek is a language whose greatness rests on a wonderfully expansive and colourful vocabulary, something especially evident in Homer’s wonderful epithets, his narrative bookmarks, with his ‘rosy-fingered’ dawns and ‘far-thundering’ Zeus, and also a myriad maze of grammar, so that the smallest nuances are brought out in moods, voices, tenses and constructions. English does not have the latter to nearly the same extent, but the vast English lexicon, a diverse mass of words from varied provenances and ages, caters for the demands of Homer’s complexity, whilst giving the translator unparalleled freedom to interpret the work through their own lens. The conflict and collaboration between the roaring immediacy of Anglo-Saxon and the measured, often romantic contemplation of Latinity means the translator can take his or her pick, knowing that every word is a conscious decision to convey one meaning of the Greek, perhaps with the tacit inclusion of other meanings, perhaps at their deliberate exclusion.

English translators add not just to the sum of translations, but to the wealth of the language itself. George Steiner calls these translations  ‘a concise chronicle of English’. Together, they make clear the progress of the language and the peoples who speak them, and are thus invaluable. Homer is like the Bible in his unique cultural reach over English literature, and Chapman’s Homer, for example, is important to the English works of literature following it in the same way, if with a far more limited scope, as the King James Bible.

Like all art, translations of Homer are a joint pursuit between artist and audience, here through a written medium. And so it is true that every generation has its Homer, from the days of Chapman and Pope to the reign of Richmond Lattimore (and, to some extent, Fitzgerald) and the modern conquest of all before them by Robert Fagles’ works. In each, the language is or will be a postcard to future generations of the cultural atmosphere of the English-speaking world at the time of release. Fitzgerald, Lattimore and Fagles were all Americans, and their dominance speaks to the dominance of the American world view. As the world around us shakes with anger and volatility, it will be fascinating to see how emerging scholars paint Achilles’ rage and Odysseus’ lies.

Nilanjana Roy argues in her Financial Times review of Wilson’s Odyssey: ‘Wilson translates as though translation is a moral choice- you owe fidelity not to the author, nor to the protagonist, but to the truth behind the words and the times.’ This is a noble aim, and must surely feature in any true translation of Homer. But we must remember that the translation is the act of communion between Greek and English, and also between the ancient and modern worlds. As Matthew Arnold believed, ‘no one can tell [the translator] how Homer affected the Greeks; but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them.’ For the Victorian Arnold, these were the scholars, but now, the translator, operating in a more educated and more interconnected world, must take account of the things that unite and divide the larger modern readership, and how, therefore, their interpretation will be received and itself interpreted. Despite this distinction, Arnold’s comment remains true. Whatever the quibbles over exact meanings, and their undoubted interest and importance, the ultimate meaning of the Iliad and Odyssey to the modern English speaker is still somewhat intangible: the precious emotion of Keats, longing to be ‘with Achilles shouting in the Trenches’. The great success of Homer in English is simple enough. We hear the singing of Homer’s thea, and still today, thousands of years later, she calls to us, no matter the translation.

Further Reading (paywall)

George Steiner’s Homer in English remains unbeatable.