The Iliad of Homer
translated by Joe Sachs
Paul Dry Books, 2018
Translator Joe Sachs follows up his 2014 version of Homer's Odyssey with a new Iliad for 2018 (both designed with beautiful understatement by Paul Dry Books), an appealingly svelte thing that launches itself straight away onto the rocks and shoals that have bedeviled Homer translators for centuries. More than almost any other ancient author, Homer invites translators onto those shoals; his two epics have immediate, fiery spirits encased in tough, thorny flesh, and all of those translators find themselves standing a the same crossroads. Do they attempt to wrestle unwilling English verse into the shape of Homer's dactylic hexameters, or do they abandon any real hope of replication and attempt instead to convey the essence, to write a version of Homer that Homer might have written if he'd written in English. The basic choice for Homer translators has always been: preserve the form, or adapt the poetry?
In his Introduction to his new version of the Iliad, Sachs addresses the choice with the kind of bluntness that tends to give publisher marketing departments heartburn: “Just as my translation has no aspiration to be literal,” he explains, “it makes no pretension to be verse.” This raises a natural question: if it's not literal and it's not verse, what is it? What options are left, if those two are removed?
It's not a question this translation ever quite manages to answer, and that's unfortunately often obvious in the course of reading it. Certainly Sachs is right about his second claim: there is no verse anywhere in his version of this long verse epic – no memorable turns of phrase, no striking renditions of Homer's imagery or dialogue, no concessions to English-language poetic sensibilities. His first claim is a bit less tenable: this translation may not be literal, but it consistently tries to be more literal than the usual modern poetic translation usually is, closer to Homer's long, multi-jointed lines in both form and impression. Take the poem's famous opening:
Sing of wrath, goddess – the deadly wrath of Peleus' son Achilles,
that brought sufferings by the thousands down on the Achaeans and
hurled so many sturdy souls to the realm of Hades, souls of splendid
warriors, while they themselves were left for dogs and all manner of
carrion birds to feast on, as the will of Zeus went driving toward its
goal; start your song from the moment when the two first stood face
to face in open strife – Agamemnon, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.
This has an appealing (though not Homeric) sonorous quality to it, but it also has a certain linguistic languor – “while they themselves,” “all manner of carrion birds” – that feels a lot like padding and that shows up all throughout the book, despite the fact that it's the slimmest unabridged verse Iliad to appear in English. Any feeling of padding is at odds with the headlong nature of the poem, which is why so many translators use the poetic artifices of their own modern tongues to preserve the odd drift of verbosity that always tends to result from trying to translate Homer more literally. By leaving out the poeticizing, Sachs is far too often left with characters who hem and haw and repeat themselves, as in the response Achilles makes to the embassy sent to woo him back to the war in Book IX:
Then Achilles, swift afoot on the battlefield, spoke to him in reply:
“Odysseus, son of Laertes, of the race of Zeus, resourceful in cunning,
I need to speak bluntly and give you a straight answer, to tell you
exactly what's in my mind and how things are going to be, so you
men won't keep sitting here murmuring inducements of one sort
and another. Because as hateful as the gates of Hades are to me
is that man who hides one thing in his breast and says another.
So I'm going to speak to you in the way that I judge to be best:
I can't see Atreus' son Agamemnon winning me over, and I don't
think any other Danaans can either, after I got no thanks at all
for battling enemy warriors incessantly, day in and day out.
Sachs does an excellent job of handling Homer's many repetitive ticks in ways that don't feel forced, and this very much has the desired accumulated effect: readers new to Homer will feel both how natural he is and how alien he is. But they'll also come away from reading this translation thinking Homer is a bit wordy and a bit murky, and they'll need other English-language translations to correct that impression. More experienced readers of Homer in translation will find more to reward them here, but they'll also finish confirmed in their belief that when it comes to that essential choice – preserve the form or adapt the poetry – there really isn't a viable third alternative.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com