Translating the Iliad

Tennyson never completely translated the Iliad; however, he did try his hand at a couple of passages...

For many poets, having a stab at translating Homer is part of the process of earning the title. Homer himself is a weird figure, often lost in the poetic motions of his translators, the original work is very hard to grasp. The whole of the Iliad, and especially the fall of Troy seem to be stories that can be worked and reworked again and again with eternally new results. One of the latest to try their hand has been the new Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, in his recent stage plays ‘The Last Days of Troy’ and ‘The Story of the Iliad’. Armitage’s choice of title says a lot, this is not a straight forward translation, but rather a retelling of the ‘story’, it distances itself from the original.

Tennyson never completely translated the Iliad; however, he did try his hand at a couple of passages, the first of which he somewhat snappily titled ‘Specimen of a Translation of the Iliad in Blank Verse.’ Tennyson, like Armitage, is trying to dodge the inherent threat of suggesting an attempt to actually translate Homer. The word ‘specimen’ suggests that it is one of a series or a work in progress.

‘So Hector spake; and Trojans roar’d applause;
Then loosed their sweating horses from the yoke,
And each beside his chariot bound his own;
[…]
And these all night upon the bridge of war
Sat glorying; many a fire before them blazed:
As when in heaven the stars about the moon
Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid,
And every height comes out, and jutting peak
And valley, and the immeasurable heavens
Break open to their highest, and all the stars
Shine, and the Shepherd gladdens in his heart:
So many a fire between the ships and stream
Of Xanthus blazed before the towers of Troy,
A thousand on the plain; and close by each
Sat fifty in the blaze of burning fire;
And eating hoary grain and pulse the steeds,
Fixt by their cars, waited the golden dawn.
Iliad VIII. 542-561.’

 The second of Tennyson’s translations, possibly in order to make sure the Greeks weren’t left out, was ‘Achilles Over the Trench’

‘For like the clear voice when a trumpet shrills,
Blown by the fierce beleaguerers of a town,
So rang the clear voice of Æakidês;
And when the brazen cry of Æakidês
Was heard among the Trojans, all their hearts
Were troubled, and the full-maned horses whirl’d
The chariots backward, knowing griefs at hand;’

If Tennyson’s bite sized translations teach us anything, it is, for the modern reader, how easy it is to get lost in the names and places of the Iliad, especially if, in the style of Tennyson, the names are left in the original Greek. However, understanding was not, I think, the point of Tennyson’s translations. He has chosen two scenes with very little action, and two scenes which are visually quite beautiful, Hector surrounded by Chariots waiting for the dawn, and Achilles leaping over the trench. They are scenes, not in motion, but stilled simply for the pleasure of the verse and lines such as ‘a fire before them blazed:/As when in heaven the stars about the moon/Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid’.

Many would argue that in this case, Tennyson misses the point of the Iliad, which, as anyone will testify who has seen the 2004 film ‘Troy’ starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, contains a lot of action, blood and gore. After all, Homer most likely first spoke the Iliad rather than wrote it down, and his Greek audience would most likely have appreciated action over description. Indeed, the original text as have it, is quite spartan, and many of the more flowery metaphors we associate with the Iliad are actually the result of Alexander Pope’s famous (and hard to read) translation.

‘To these the youth of Phylace succeed,
Itona, famous for her fleecy breed,
And grassy Pteleon deck'd with cheerful greens,
The bowers of Ceres, and the sylvan scenes.
Sweet Pyrrhasus, with blooming flowerets crown'd,
And Antron's watery dens, and cavern'd ground.’– ‘The Iliad’, Alexander Pope

As with any work that poets and writers frequently return to, whether it is Shakespeare or Homer, their interpretations change alongside the time that they are written. If Pope is lyrical, and Tennyson is decorative, then Alice Oswald’s recent retelling, titled ‘Memorial’, is a very modern reflection on war. Going through the casualties one by one, Oswald gives a stanza to each, trying to regain a sense of individuality for the men whose names are lost within the Iliad’s telling.

‘The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus   Iton     Pteleus    Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years’

The poem as a whole begins by listing in order the names of all the men who die in the Trojan War, from first to last, and it takes a lot of pages. The result is a visual experience almost akin to looking at a modern war grave, particularly Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, a black marble surface engraved, in order of time, with the names of those who died in the war. The result of both laws is an epic, in both senses of the word, feeling of loss.

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