Iliad Essay for Harris’ Class
I have two copies of The Iliad. My first one is a paperback version of the Robert Fagles translation. I’ve written all over it. In my freshman year, I started by identifying the Achaeans as “Greeks” in the margins, and I’ve continued to deface it since then by underlining and highlighting every piece of information that I could possibly want for a paper. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve marked on every page – as a Classics student, I’ve written quite a few papers referencing The Iliad. It looks almost like a medieval book, with equal parts ancient text and my own glose in purple pen.
The Fagles translation is almost prose, he uses complete sentences but broken into lines like a poetic translation. We’ve talked about how margins and page layout affect our reading, and I have to admit my dislike of reading broken lines. The line-by-line translation is good for study, but it breaks my concentration and keeps reminding me that I’m reading a translated poem, instead of experiencing a story. Although it’s not a translation I particularly like, it is the one with which I’m most familiar.
A couple of years ago, my old boyfriend bought me a gorgeous printing of the Samuel Butler translation. It’s leather-bound, with gold edging and a beautiful cover. In class, we discussed buying books for display, and all of the marketing the goes into bookstores. I’m sure that’s exactly what the marketing department had in mind for this volume, and my old boyfriend was probably persuaded to buy the book by placement and advertising, just as he would have been to buy flowers on Valentine’s Day. No matter how cynical we are about books and commercialism, this copy of The Iliad really is a beautiful object, and I’m pleased to own it.
The Butler translation is prose, without lines breaks. It’s harder to study from this version, but it’s more like a novel I’d read for pleasure. Because it’s a hardcover edition, it’s not something I’d curl up with and read in bed. I’d also never write in such a beautiful book, It’s not that this version of The Iliad is somehow more sacred than the other, it’s entirely because the physical book itself is so attractive.
The various translations of The Iliad constantly spark debate for classicists. Is it better to read a translation that flows well in English, or should we keep as close to the original Greek phrases as possible? Should we use a simpler version of The Iliad in high schools, in an attempt to make the text more accessible to a wider audience, or is that diluting the real meaning?
I think that a young readers’ edition of The Iliad is a great idea. It’s in the original spirit of Homer and the traveling Greek poets who brought a good story to everyone. I also think that a reimagining of the Trojan War for our time is that novelty which Horace believes is required to keep literary works interesting. This is what keeps a timeless story really timeless.
The science fiction writer Dan Simmons rewrote the Trojan War as an interplanetary battle in the novel Ilium. His protagonist is a classics professor, sent by “the gods” to compare the battle with The Iliad. This is a new twist on an old theme, the necessary novelty described by Horace. But I have totally different feelings about last year’s movie Troy!