A new translation of the Iliad of Homer is cause for general celebration, especially when the translator is Emily Wilson of the University of Pennsylvania. Having turned her hand to translations of other Greek and Latin texts – notably Seneca, Euripides, Oedipus Tyrannos, and Homer’s Odyssey – Wilson has moved on to the Iliad, joining an exclusive club of translators of this great work that includes Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fagles.

This is an excellent publication where some bold decisions have been made to provide a sense of the sound and pace of the original text. As Wilson says in the translator’s note:

I wanted to honour the poem’s oral heritage with a regular and audible rhythm, and with language that would, like the original, invite reading out loud, and come to life in the mouth.  

Thus, when reading Wilson’s Iliad one senses something of the chant of Homer’s verse, even through the written word.

A free translation

Wilson’s book is much more than a translation. It contains a detailed introduction to the nature and dating of Homeric verse, the historical and archaeological issues of the Trojan war, the code of honour within which the Homeric heroes operate, and the broader mythical context of the war. The book could be a whole course in itself if you wanted to make it one.

We are reminded, for instance, in a discrete section of the introduction, that the Iliad describes the destruction of Troy and the fate of its women, raped and abused by the conquering Greeks. Wilson writes that the “silencing, rape, subjugation, kidnapping and enslavement of women in war are essential instruments for the construction of male honour”.

The more one engages with the Iliad, the more one sees that it is not just a poem of immense power and beauty. It cast such a spell over antiquity that poets and artists after Homer spent much of their time engaging with it.

The Roman poet Vergil, for instance, whose epic poem The Aeneid (written about 700 years after the Iliad) was also focused on the Trojan War theme, may have known the Iliad by heart. When we pick up Wilson’s translation we realise what a task that must have been.

One of the first things to note about Wilson’s translation is that it makes no attempt to offer line-by-line equivalence with the Greek text, as Lattimore does in his 1951 translation. Thus, the 24 books of the poem have both the original Greek line numbers and the line numbers of her translation. This means students of Homeric Greek will not find Wilson’s text such an easy point of reference to check up on their translations.

For Wilson, it was liberating to free herself from the same number of lines as the original Greek. “Once I understood that I needed more lines than the original,” she writes, “I realised I could sometimes use lovely long polysyllabic English words, echoing the original’s use of powerfully long, often compound words interspersed with many shorter connectives, verbs and particles.”

Inevitably, the plethora of names, and the Homeric penchant for repetition in a broader sense, caused Wilson plenty of hard thinking, not to mention the matter of the epithets – the formulaic phrases that appear throughout the poem. How would she deal with “swift-footed Achilles” rather than just “Achilles”, or “Phoebus Apollo”, or “rosy-fingered Dawn”?

Some of the most prominent and radical research in Homeric scholarship over the past hundred years or so (after Milman Parry, who established that Homer’s poetry was most likely not the work of a single poet) has involved scholarly analysis of the epithets. Wilson’s response is to vary the use of Homeric repetition as determined by poetic considerations:

Like almost all modern translators, I have sometimes varied the phrasing of certain formulaic phrases, usually for sonic or rhythmical reasons. So, for example, Zeus appears in this translation both as “cloud-gathering Zeus” and as “Zeus who gathers clouds together”. Minor variations of this kind seemed to me in keeping with the poetic techniques of the original poem, in which epithets are often chosen for metrical reasons as much as anything.  

Such a statement will inevitably provide reassurance for textual purists. The epiphany of the goddess Athena to the Greek warrior Achilles, in the midst of Achilles’ feud with Agamemnon in Book 1, gives us a sense of how this plays out and shows what a fine translator Wilson is:

But then Athena swooped down from the sky.
She had been sent forth by the white-armed goddess
Hera, who loved both men. Athena stood
behind Achilles, son of Peleus,
and grabbed him by his chestnut hair. She was
invisible to everyone but him.
Achilles, startled, turned and recognized Athena. She had bright, unearthly eyes.
His words flew out.
                                    “Why have you come here daughter
of Zeus, the god who holds the royal aegis?
Was it to see the cruel violence
of Agamemnon, son of Atreus?”  

In such a busy scene as this, with seven individuals mentioned, both deities and mortals – Zeus, Athena, Hera, Achilles, Peleus, Agamemnon and Atreus – it might have been tempting to take out some of the names. Nothing like this happens and the translation is a lot richer for it.

Devotees of Book 6 will also note how the text flows with remarkable ease:

When Hector finished speaking, Hecuba
went in the house and shouted to her slaves
to go through town and call the older women,
and then she went inside her fragrant storeroom.
In it, she kept her fine embroidered robes,
Made by the women of Sidonia
Whom godlike Paris Alexander brought
to Troy across the wide back of the sea,
on that same journey when he brought back Helen,
the daughter of the mightiest of fathers.  

Book 6 is one of the more poignant books of the poem. The Trojan warrior Hector returns to the city from the fighting and talks with the women in his family: Hecuba, Andromache and Helen. It loses nothing in the Wilson translation. The reader might also note the reference to Paris as “Paris Alexander” – a rather brilliant way of engaging with the fact that both names (i.e. “Paris” and “Alexander”) are used to describe him in the Iliad.

A long love affair

So on the one hand Homeric purists should not be concerned about the disappearance of certain names or traditions from the Wilson translation. But this is not always the case.

The final book of the poem tells of the ransom mission undertaken by the Trojan king Priam and an old attendant to retrieve the body of Hector from Achilles, who has refused to give it over. The presence of Hermes is crucial in this particular book of the Iliad, because he is the god who oversees reciprocity and exchange. He acts as a guide to the two old men.

But more often than not in Book 24 (and elsewhere in Homer), Hermes is called “Argeïphontês” (11 times), rather than “Hermes” (nine times). The name Argeïphontês seems to mean “Slayer of Argos”. It refers to a somewhat obscure narrative set in earlier times, in which Hermes killed a monster called Argos by first putting him to sleep and then striking him. The name Argeïphontês, it seems to me, is important in various ways, and it is something of a pity that it is dropped from the poem – although Wilson does maintain the monster-killing tradition by calling Hermes “the giant-slayer”.

Another surprising passage from Book 24 is Hermes’s arrival at Troy and his encounter with the two old Trojan men, Priam and Idaeus:

He reached the Hellespont and Troy. He touched down in a human guise.
He looked like a young man, a magistrate,
with beard first sprouting, the most handsome age.
The humans drove beside the tomb of Ilus,
then at the river made the mules and horses
halt for a drink. Dark night already covered
the earth. Idaeus looked around and noticed
Hermes right next to them and said to Priam …  

This passage, when I read it, seemed to me a strange translation, not the least for the references to a “magistrate” (i.e. a youthful Hermes) and “the humans” who drive past the tomb of Ilus. A “magistrate” in Homer’s Iliad? I don’t think so.

I don’t know what Wilson was thinking at this point, but she is alert to the danger of anachronism, which needs “to be balanced against an equally pressing danger: that archaism or unidiomatic English risks suggesting that the Iliad is more alien and more simplistic in its values than it really is”.

My two quibbles about Book 24 don’t add up to much in the context of this big work. I offer them as something to reflect upon. What is important about Wilson as a translator is that she has an unequivocal love for the text, which dictates almost all that she does:

I first began reading Homer in high school, early in the study of Ancient Greek. I liked the Odyssey, but I loved the Iliad with a passionate devotion. I have now lived with this poem for some 35 years.  

We may be thankful for her love for the Iliad, and the longevity of it, and her generosity in offering it up to readers with very different backgrounds.

Chris Mackie is an Emeritus Professor of Classics at La Trobe University.
This article first appeared on
The Conversation.