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Books | The Atlantic
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Doesn't Find Contemporary Fiction Very Interesting
The author of Americanah explains why freedom of expression is crucial to writers.
The Iliad We’ve Lost
Early in Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, perhaps the greatest novel about an American bureaucracy, the narrator describes a most unbureaucratic figure, a Maine fisherman named Snowman Dyer who died in 1870 in his sister’s home. Dyer once “bartered five lobsters for a small Greek tome that belonged to a classics scholar at Harvard.” The English translation, which was printed between the lines of Greek, so intrigued Dyer that he decided to read the original. Having no teacher other than the dead page before him, he assigned the letters sounds at random. “As he grew older, he grew bolder, and used to recite aloud from this unique tongue while wandering over the rocks,” Mailer writes. “They say that to spend a night in the dead sister’s house will bring Snowman Dyer’s version of Greek to your ear, and the sounds are no more barbaric than the claps and groans of our weather.”As knowledge of Greek has become more exotic—the mark of pedants, nerds, and graduates of expensive schools—capturing the barbarism of ancient Greek, and of the ancient Greeks themselves, has become harder. The ghost of Snowman Dyer would be a helpful tutor. Classical Greece is often thought to be a pillar that holds up modern civilization, and that impression is not wrong. Take away the tradition that begins with Greece, and everything political from Cicero to Machiavelli to Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama tumbles down, and along with it a literary inheritance extending through Virgil to Wole Soyinka.Learned men and women carried Greek civilization into the present. Where did the barbarism go? In The Iliad, Homer refers to the Carians, allies of the Trojans, as barbarophonoi—“barbarophones,” or speakers of gobbledygook. (The Greek adjective barbaros, whence came the English barbaric, is imitative of foreign speech, like our meaningless blah-blah-blah.) Homer contrasts the barbarians with the civilized Greeks. But any modern account of the ancient Greeks—particularly the marathon of homicide in the Trojan War—has to capture both the heights of poetry and civilization, and the total, savage negation of what we recognize today as civilized. They are in the same people; they are in the same poem.That poem has been slowly replaced in the popular imagination by a child’s storybook version of the Trojan War that bears only vague resemblance to The Iliad. This version involves a kidnapped queen, battles, a wooden horse, and the fall of a great city. Elementary schools teach about Greece and the Trojan War, but if they taught the rape- and gorefest that is the actual Iliad, I daresay parents would complain. The Iliad starts in the middle of the war, when the Greek King Agamemnon confiscates Briseis, the favorite sex slave of Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior. Achilles pouts over his loss for most of the poem and refuses to fight.Then, when the Trojans kill Achilles’s friend Patroclus, he stirs to action and slices through the Trojan ranks for more than 1,000 sanguinary verses, culminating in the slaying of the Trojan warrior Hector and desecration of his corpse. Troy still stands when the poem concludes. The Iliad ’s plot is built on honor and dishonor, the hacking of flesh, and the grief of men and gods. We should not be surprised that this unrelenting premodern carnage is not the story most people know. There is no clever trickery with a wooden horse, no tossing of a golden apple inscribed “To the fairest!” to get the goddesses squabbling. The average reader can take these Disney-ready touches but can stand only so many minutes at a time in the true Homeric abattoir of antiquity.Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad is an Iliad for the masses, written in English verse legible to people who do not normally read verse. Some readers expecting Disney will find themselves ankle-deep in viscera. Her Iliad follows her translation of The Odyssey six years ago, which was overpraised for having been written by a woman—women have been translating Homer for centuries—and praised just the right amount for having revivified Homer and made that poem readable to a new generation. Many of the most commonly read English translations had begun to sound fusty, she said, and it was time for an update. Other recent translations, of course—by Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles—were heralded in their time as having chased away the previous generation’s archaisms. The bell of fustiness: It tolls for thee.When the classicist David Grene praised early excerpts of Lattimore’s Iliad, before its final publication in 1951, he called the translation “studiously simple,” with words that are “not literary.” What was simple then has ceased to be simple, and Fitzgerald garnished his translation, published in 1974, with literary language that Lattimore had avoided. The demands of reading poetic language, even at the high level of skill displayed by Fitzgerald, are excessive for many readers today. (In the opening lines, Lattimore writes that Achilles dispatched many a warrior to the “house of Hades,” which is the Greek word as well as the English. Fitzgerald writes “the undergloom.”)Fagles’s translation, published in 1990, moved from “Hades” to “House of Death,” which I believe is an underground Norwegian heavy-metal club. Hades is Death as well as death’s domain, and the choice is defensible. It is also a sign of Fagles’s drift away from the demands of knowing context: A reader will stumble if she doesn’t know which god Hades is, but “House of Death” is legible to all English speakers. In the same spirit, Fagles drifted consistently toward phrases that were modern rather than archaic. His Homer is comprehensible because his language is tediously familiar, and indeed so saturated with modern cliché that the effect must be intentional.Take the translation of the notoriously slippery word polytropon, used in the first line of The Odyssey to describe Odysseus. It is among Homer’s most famous epithets, and therefore a helpful benchmark. It connotes cleverness, versatility, and movement. Many-turning would be the straightforward translation, although it is plainly unsatisfactory as a matter of English style. Lattimore went with: “the man of many ways.” Better, if a little cryptic. Fitzgerald allows himself more syllables: “skilled in all ways of contending.” Fagles, faced with this untranslatable word, resorts to cliché: “the man of twists and turns.” As a translation of a single word, this choice, too, is defensible, but as poetry it is a leadoff grounder to first.[From the November 1959 issue: The poet Robert Graves on Homer’s winks and nods]Confronting the same problem, Wilson calls Odysseus a “complicated” man. I doubt the irony is lost on her: The word complicated is a simple solution to a complicated, even insoluble, problem of translation. The word isn’t perfect (Odysseus’s epithet should not sound like his relationship status on Facebook), but its clarity and concision make her predecessors seem dithering and stuck. Little is known about Homer—whether he was one man or many, whether he was blind, whether he had a scribe—but we can be sure he didn’t pause with his audience to mull word choice. Wilson doesn’t either. Her choices do not call attention to themselves. They let the poem proceed.In 1860, Matthew Arnold argued that Homer’s translator should be like Homer: “rapid in movement, simple in style, plain in language, natural in thought.” Wilson is here to answer that call. Many previous translations, she writes in her translator’s note, ended in “a reading experience that mirrors how first-year language students labor valiantly through each word,” unlike the “quick energy” of the original.Here is the Trojan warrior Hector, after his wife, Andromache, has complained that by heading into battle, he could get himself killed; their son, Astyanax, orphaned; and Andromache raped and enslaved:“Strange woman! Come on now, you must not be too sad on my account.No man can send me to the house of Hadesbefore my time. No man can get awayfrom destiny, first set for us at birth,however cowardly or brave he is.Go home and do the things you have to do.Work on your loom and spindle and instructthe slaves to do their household tasks as well.War is a task for men—for every manborn here in Troy, but most especially, me.”So Andromache is the “strange” one, for objecting to these fates! (Hector says the rape and enslavement are not really his concern, because he’ll be gloriously dead by then.) Fitzgerald renders the first line as “Unquiet soul, do not be too distressed”; Lattimore, as “Poor Andromache! Why does your heart sorrow so much for me?” Fitzgerald’s Hector—like all characters in his translation—is a poet manqué. Lattimore’s Hector pities his soon-to-be-widow, also poetically. (Even in 1951, people didn’t “sorrow” for one another, except in poetry.) Wilson’s Hector, I would say, is an affectless psychopath, shifting topics abruptly from grief to neglected housework. Her translation meets only the minimal definition of metrical verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter, the business casual of English prosody), and in the bareness of her rendering, we get a refreshingly direct impression of this warrior’s unsentimentality.The critic Guy Davenport, in a pan of Lattimore, wrote that translation is a game of two languages, and that “the translator is in constant danger of inventing a third that lies between.” By this standard—and avoiding invention is more demanding than it sounds—Wilson is a prodigy. Her characters speak not like orotund Shakespeare imitators but like people talking in their native languages and registers. Wilson’s language does not challenge anyone’s idea of what English can be. When she is given a chance to coin a new and unusual phrase and free into English a word hitherto trapped in the amber of Greek, she unfailingly chooses the ordinary and imperfect English word. Strange, for example. Daimonie, the Greek word applied to Andromache by Hector (and also, a few lines earlier, by Andromache to Hector), implies both endearment and nuttiness. Strange lacks the vigor and color of “unquiet soul,” but it is something spouses might actually call each other, and anyway, the poem must go on.I can think of few poems that are less patient, more eager to proceed toward the inevitable, than The Iliad. Much of it is about appointments with fate. Impeding progress toward that end would seem wrong, although Homer himself does so, with stunning dramatic effect. Much of the poem is spent waiting for the sulking Achilles to be roused to action. When the wrath of Achilles appears, like the monster in a horror film, its anticipation has ratcheted up the effect.Before Achilles starts his rampage, his beloved fellow warrior Patroclus borrows his weapons and armor for an opening spree of death, a preview of the blood to flow. Wilson’s translation is at its minimal best:Patroclus came in close, speared [Thestor’s] right jawand drove the wooden spear shaft through his teeth,to hook and drag him over the chariot rail,as when a man sits on a jutting rock,and hooks a holy fish with shining bronzeand fishing line, and drags it from the sea—just so he dragged him from the chariot,mouth gaping round the shining spear, and hurled himface downward on the ground and as he fell,life left him.Ezra Pound claimed that Homer wrote with such anatomical precision that one might wonder whether he was an army doctor. A few lines later, Patroclus sends a spear through the torso of the Lycian warrior Sarpedon, a son of Zeus. “It struck Sarpedon’s lungs and throbbing heart”: Death veiled his eyes and blocked his nose. Patroclus set his footonto the dead man’s chest and tugged his spearout of the flesh, and with it came the lungs.He pulled out both the weapon and the life.In every line of Homer, a feast of choices is laid before the translator. But every dish chosen means a dozen others left uneaten. Ask a hoplite pikeman, if you have one handy: When you impale a man, and your spear doesn’t come out clean, is it your victim’s “diaphragm” (as Fitzgerald has it), heart sac (as some have suggested), or lung that’s likely to be clinging to your weapon? The Greek word for this mass of epigastric sinew is phrenes—the source of the English phrenology and frenzy—a word connected in ancient Greece to the idea of respiration and of the soul. It is the spirit within us that is alive as long as we breathe. In goes the spear, and out comes a chunk of lung or Lycian hanger steak, soul and flesh on the same skewer. (Fagles opts for midriff, which once meant “diaphragm” in English but today makes it sound like Sarpedon was speared somewhere between his low-rise jean shorts and his crop top.)Wilson opts for lungs, which is simple and speeds the action right along. It is folly to try to pack all knowledge of Greek medicine and etymology into one line. But we lose something in the simplicity. Compare the choice of Homer’s first English translator, George Chapman. In 1611, he rendered the same word as the film and strings of his yet panting heart, a lovely and horrid phrase worth every one of the nine extra syllables it cost.[From the January/February 2018 issue: A mind-bending translation of the New Testament]Wilson offers an Iliad that a modern reader can consume without excessive mental interruption—perhaps like an Ionian peasant would have, as part of the poem’s original listening rather than reading audience. Her method yields what to my ear are some infelicities—she expresses concern about how best to translate o popoi, a Greek interjection a bit like holy crap or sweet Jesus. After the Iliad ’s climactic duel between Hector and Achilles, the Greeks touch Hector’s once-fearsome corpse, find it softly human, and say, “o popoi.” “Look at this!” writes Wilson—a little too Well I’ll be for my taste. (Lattimore has “See now.”) Her modern language sometimes feels distractingly modern. She has Menelaus chide Antilochus, who has been driving his chariot maniacally fast, by yelling “You are the worst! Reckless endangerment!”—a phrase bizarrely transported to antiquity from American criminal law. But in general this Iliad is judicious and, yes, easy, at the expense of being poetic in the grand manner.The modern reader can have all of this. But he cannot have everything. The ease brings us back to the question of barbarity. The skewered lungs and fishhooked faces will strongly suggest to the reader that these ancient Greeks did not exactly share our modern values. To the warriors of antiquity, life has no point but to seize others’ booty and women, then die heroically and be sent on a glorious pyre to the undergloom. Anyone who hesitates in embracing this order of things is reproached. When Zeus himself wonders whether he should intervene to save Sarpedon, Hera tells him to quit being such a softy and cheer on noble Sarpedon’s death. The poem does not entertain the modern view that old age, surrounded by loved ones and beeping hospital equipment, is the death devoutly to be wished. Even in the grand duel between Achilles and Hector, the winner is the warrior less modern in his habits and predilections. Achilles has no life outside a military encampment. Hector has a wife and son and lives in a city. He dies, and his face is ground into the mud.For these homicidal aliens to speak in a crystalline modern idiom feels truer than for them to speak in a high literary style. But to sound modern at all feels, in its way, inescapably false. The older the work of literature, the tighter the translator’s bind: The authors’ and characters’ eras are gone, and the more they sound like modern men and women, the less they sound like the wild selves preserved in the Greek. Rendering them into approachable modern language, as Wilson has, brings them closer to us. But this exercise must always fail. Making them into speakers of contemporary English is like lifting up to sea level the bizarre creatures scuttling in the deepest ocean. They cannot survive the journey. You can see their ruptured remains. You cannot see them.I am aware of no literary solution to this problem, although some approaches make it worse. One way to handle it, I suppose, would be to defy Guy Davenport and invent what he warns against, a third language between the Greek and the English—“a treacherous nonexistent language suggested by the original and not recognized by the language into which the original is being transposed.” Call this the Snowman Dyer solution. Lean hard into the inhumanity, the weirdness, the foreignness. Make them speak some language never heard by man or lobster. Taking the opposite approach, Wilson no doubt pleases Norton, her publisher, which hopes that many students will buy this book as a novice-friendly Iliad. (They should.)Maybe the needed perspective is less literary than anthropological. In the early 2000s, I hiked around Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan. Violence was ubiquitous, and Pashtuns spoke of friends and relatives who’d had their brains dashed out with rocks, or died valiantly in battle. They spoke about concepts that exist only vestigially in the cultures in which I was raised but that are the warp and weft of Homer’s world: feuds, vendettas, the offering and acceptance of hospitality as a solemn bond. I told them I would prefer not to have my head crushed, and they understood. They were not stupid or savage. But they lived in more Homeric social worlds than my own. They said that because I was their guest, they would protect me even if it meant fighting, possibly to the death, their friends and neighbors. This bond is integral to Pashtun culture and is called melmastia. It is a theme in Homer, who called it xenia. I had memorized Greek verb forms and read The Iliad during my own expensive education, but the poem never felt more present than when I was listening to my Pashtun host vow to repay blood with blood.Short of getting some very nasty paper cuts, however, one can’t reasonably expect a mere book to deliver such vivid evocations of a blood culture. The next best thing is to make the text flow, to make the story proceed, and to conserve as much as possible of the direct, savage beauty of Homer. That will help a new generation understand why for thousands of years, readers have discovered that time spent reading Homer is never wasted or regretted. The original text will still retain its awful secrets.This article appears in the November 2023 print edition with the headline “The Iliad We’ve Lost.”