An Epic Tragedy
Emily Wilson’s Iliad is a disservice to the classical tradition as a whole.
The Iliad by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, W.W. Norton & Company, 848 pages
My introduction to the world of ancient Greek epic was Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales from the Odyssey series. I vividly remember being eight years old and earnestly flipping through “The One-Eyed Giant” and “The Gray-Eyed Goddess,” munching on Little Bites chocolate muffins completely unaware of how important the world of Homer would become to me later on. Osborne’s prose was simple and straightforward—a great starting point for a child who might, in the years to come, read the epic poem unabridged, or even in the original Greek.
I was reminded of this experience while reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey in college, and once again while reading her newest English rendition of the Iliad.
Dr. Emily Wilson, a self-proclaimed classicist, translator, and “human” (as per her X bio), has been butchering classical works since 2010 with her Six Tragedies of Seneca. She has been widely lauded for her contributions to the classics community, largely due to the fact that she is a woman, which is confusingly considered novel—for some reason, people forget that women have been translating classic texts (and writing them) for a very long time. It does not help that she finds herself unable to leave her modern misgivings and politics at the door when translating works that have traveled through millennia, largely cherished and preserved, until falling into her lap to be dragged like Hector’s body around Troy.
The problems with Wilson’s Iliad are clear already in her lengthy introduction. The Iliad is a tale of war, gods and goddesses, rage, brotherhood, sacrifice. It is a stirring epic that chronicles the stories of countless heroes who have convened on the shores of Troy to achieve kleos—the ancient Greek word for “glory.” However, Wilson directs her readers elsewhere, suggesting that the intention of the Iliad is not to preserve the glory of its heroes but to catalog their untimely and senseless deaths: “The Iliad, set in the final year of the Trojan War, immerses us in the world of war, and shows us what happens to all the warriors who never come home alive… The Iliad is framed by scenes of loss and restitution.” Right away, this sets up major issues for her translation: if she is missing the point of the story, diminishing it to a simple tale of needlessly dead soldiers, how could the true depth and emotion of the poem be brought forth with justice?
Wilson also works to reduce every main male character in the Iliad down to a foolish, selfish simpleton. Achilles and Hector are two characters Wilson treats with the utmost disrespect—even though both exemplify the traditional markings of a hero, despite being on opposite sides of the war. Homer’s “swift-footed” Achilles surely is wrathful, stubborn, and violent; but he is also courageous, loyal, and skilled beyond typical human constraints. Hector is smart, calculating, and devoted to his family and city. He wakes up every day to fight a battle he did not start but chooses to continue anyway to preserve his honor and keep those he loves safe. Wilson finds ways to annul these praises and actively seeks to diminish both men.
Since Hector is my favorite character in the Iliad, I will admit some bias here, but, overall, it does not take much brain power to see what Wilson is doing with her slaughter of this particular character. Towards the end of Book VI, Hector has a long conversation with his wife, Andromache, who is concerned for his safety and afraid he will soon join the mounds of dead on the battlefield. Hector is moved by her pleas but remains steadfast in his commitment to protecting the city. His honor would be compromised if he withdrew from the fight, and he feels called to remain on the front lines of battle. He acknowledges that, if the Trojans lose, Andromache will be enslaved, and he will be dead, unable to save her. In 1951, Richard Lattimore translated the raw, devastating end of this particular exchange: “But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.” (Emphasis added.) Wilson, on the other hand, writes,
But as for me, I hope I will be dead,
and lying underneath a pile of earth,
so that I do not have to hear your screams
or watch when they are dragging you away.
At first glance, the discrepancies between these two translations may seem insignificant. In reality though, there are several layers of error in Wilson’s rendition, especially by comparison to Lattimore’s. In an article titled “Iliad: Why the Lattimore Translation,” theologian Fred Sanders writes,
Every line of Lattimore corresponds to a line of Homer, which makes it easy for readers to cross-check commentaries on specific lines and words. … The commitment to line-for-line matching also meant that Lattimore kept himself on a short leash as a translator; he couldn’t let himself say too much more or less than Homer said about anything.
Wilson’s approach is very different. In her translator’s note, she recognizes that Homeric Greek “has a limpid clarity and freshness that needs to sparkle in the English, like the clear, almost painful brightness of sunlight on bronze.” She goes on,
I wanted my English to enable an experience more like that of an ancient listener who would have heard and understood Homer in oral performance from childhood onward, as a gripping form of live entertainment, and as a formative guide to life—not as a difficult old book requiring slow, belabored reading and a mountainous set of footnotes.
Surely, that is a noble cause—no one really likes footnotes anymore. Homeric Greek is, indeed, beautiful and unique, and deserves a translation that might bring its original oral qualities to life. As the excerpt from Book VI above suggests, Wilson’s translation is nothing of the sort. It simply falls short of the expectations she sets in her introduction. Wilson’s poetry, although written in loose iambic pentameter, is clunky, verbose (not because of difficult words but pronouns and pointless expansions of simple phrases), and overall hard to read out loud. It’s so simple that it is almost confusing. On the other hand, Lattimore’s is dramatic, loyal to the Greek, elevated yet comprehensible to any listener or reader.
Wilson admits her misguided perspective in her introduction: “For Hector, the priority is his own individual glory (kleos). Fighting alone, out ahead of all his fellow fighters, is his best chance of avoiding the pain of humiliation for himself—even if this prize is won at the cost of everything and anybody else.” She cites his “intense desire for social approval,” like he’s some teenage girl in an early 2000s chick-flick. But Hector is not selfish, as she tries so hard to convey in her translation (even just reading excerpts from Book VI, her agenda is glaringly obvious). He is a hero—one with a tragic end, but a brave and worthy character who deserves the respect the original text gives him.
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Circling back to my Mary Pope Osborne memory, I could not shake the feeling, while reading Wilson’s Iliad, that it was meant for children. Everything is so explicitly spelled out with such basic language that it becomes a drag to read after the first few pages. Her language oftentimes is so modern that it is impossible to reconcile the dialogue with the characters who are speaking: For some reason, replacing the word “father” with “daddy” in an ancient work of epic poetry just feels ridiculous. The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood puts it very well:
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 would wager that this failure to adhere to her original mission of making her translation a “formative guide to life” is a result of her pushing a progressive agenda into the subtext of the Iliad’s narrative. “Twenty-first century readers and listeners may see the inequalities in the poem’s social worlds with particular clarity.” Yes, because everyone sets out to read the Iliad of all things through the lens of social justice and progressive politics. “We are now in a period of crisis not for a specific nation but for humanity, inhabiting a planet that is becoming less and less habitable.” Yes, because climate change is really what is at the core of the Trojan War. “You will die. Everyone you love will die. … You know this. Your knowing changes nothing. This poem will make you understand this unfathomable truth again and again, as if for the very first time.” Yes, because epic is really only tragedy cleverly disguised, and we are just finding this out in 2023 thanks to Dr. Classicist, translator, human.