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15 may 2013

Homer's Iliad was my introduction to the classics. In the ninth grade I wandered the halls of school clutching an interlinear translation of the Iliad, which did wonders for my nonexistent popularity. I thought of casts for an all-star Hollywood version of the epic: Charlton Heston as Achilles? (Seven-year-old Brad Pitt never occurred to me.) Later, I went to college, struggled through a few declensions, and read long stretches of the poem in Greek – even committing the first thirty lines to memory, from which I can still summon them up with some prompting.

The Iliad for me in the 1970s, after I abandoned my unreadable interlinear, was E.V. Rieu's prose Penguin Classics translation. I still remember a bizarre comment from Rieu's introduction, something to the effect that he'd tried to make Homer's characters real for modern readers, even though one should not expect to find a woman like Briseis of the lovely cheeks on a street corner in Piccadilly. To a 12-year-old in New Jersey, Piccadilly was far more remote than ancient Troy, so I had no idea what Rieu was talking about. But he certainly got the story of the Iliad across, with its epitheted gods, its duels (ending in death from a single stroke or poke), its boasts and its lavish gifts.

Later, after I'd studied some Greek, I was deeply impressed by Richmond Lattimore's verse translation. Homer's epics, though full of brutally quick action, are written in long, stately lines, and Lattimore tried to offer one long stately English line for every one of Homer's. Since Homer is also full of verbatim repetition – at the level of passages, speeches, whole lines, and stock phrases – Lattimore's translation was also full of verbatim repetition, offering a stark contrast to the elegant variations of modern poetry. Though his language was 20th-century, Lattimore's translation conveyed a remote, archaic literary culture. Though I "worked with" the translation constantly, as a proxy for my slowly-improving Greek, I rarely sat down and read long passages of Lattimore at a clip. It was the kind of translation that needed to be retranslated into everday language as you read.

And then I did other things for 25 years. The world of learning is impossibly immense. Anybody who says they're currently current with all reaches of world, or Western, or even a single national literature, is not being honest with themselves. They may have a good memory for plot or verbal details, but active engagement with a wide range of texts can only exist piecemeal and sequentially in any single brain. For a quarter-century, I was aware that a poem called the Iliad existed. I knew that the poem was about the wrath of Achilles, and that somebody named Diomedes ran around killing Trojans for the greater part of the poem while Achilles was on the sidelines (smart move by Homer: make your hero mysterious). I knew that Achilles's friend Patroclus would die at the hands of Hector, and that Hector would be killed in turn by the newly-motivated Achilles, and that Hector would then be ransomed back to the Trojans and properly buried, after an inexplicable break of an entire Book for exciting sporting events.

But there were a hundred other things about the Iliad I had forgotten, and many thousands that I never knew. Recently, thanks to some retirements at my university and my general reputation as an insufferable know-it-all, I was assigned a dusty Western Civ course that was about to pass from the curriculum forever, but needed to be delivered to the last few English majors still graduating under an "old catalog." And I thought, hey, I was a Classics minor in college, I'll teach the Iliad. Or some of it, at least: books 22 and 24, the climactic death and ransoming of Hector that bracket the proto-Olympic-Games in Book 23.

In my course anthology, the Iliad translator is Stanley Lombardo. At first, I didn't think much of his translation. It lacked the Greekness of my old interlinear, the aplomb of Rieu, or the austerity of Richmond Lattimore. Nor was it as deft as the versions of Homer by Robert Fagles that I'd read in the meantime: Fagles's wonderfully fluid and even translations convey Homer's stories as if through a pane of glass. I was put off by Lombardo's decision to separate Homer's distinctive "epic similes" into blocks of lyric verse in italics, bracketed off in a sense from the main text. And of course, as some reviewers have taken Lombardo to task for, I found his translation too colloquial. "They're still galloping way the hell out there," says the swift Ajax to Idomeneus during the chariot race (454). That does not sound like the glory that was Greece. But then I thought: if your translation of the classics doesn't sound too colloquial, it probably isn't colloquial enough. I mean, hell, I was a Classics minor during the Carter Administration. If I insist that Homer in English stay where he was in the Lattimore or Fagles versions, pretty soon we'll need footnotes to the language of our translations – which defeats the purpose of translation.

Moreover, I was so slow in returning to Homer that Lombardo's Iliad itself was 15 years old by the time I read it. No doubt there's some highschooler right now who finds Lombardo's version as stilted as, in 1971, I found my turn-of-the-20th-century word-by-word interlinear version. Lombardo does not evenly deploy his colloquialisms; but he tries to elevate the language of the characters where appropriate, and to lower it where appropriate (making the "lesser," faster Ajax, for example, into a kind of street kid compared to the more refined Nestor or Odysseus).

Lombardo's English works. In verse, it conveys the story as breathlessly as Rieu did in prose. I even find Lombardo's Catalog of the Ships interesting: that long order of battle for the Greek armies in Book Two of the Iliad that is the acid test of a translator's ability to keep an audience awake. Homer himself nods through most of the Catalog, but Lombardo gives him effective digs in the ribs.

Eerily, I found the best confirmation of the quality of Lombardo's Iliad in the thirty lines of Book One that I know by heart in Greek. As I read his first thirty lines, the Greek played in counterpoint in my head. I know very few originals well enough to see if a translation meshes well with them, and when I do, the translation is usually somewhat oblique or opaque: it takes a while to recognize the original beyond it. After thirty lines, the effect died out, because my Greek died out, but that's a strong indication that the power and fidelity of Lombardo's English may continue throughout.

The Iliad itself remains an uneven, often impossibly wonderful, unimaginably contingent thing. As so many critics have noted, here we were at the dawn of Western literary history, and something unprecedented manifested itself in such exuberance and beauty that you can't even figure out how it was done. The representation of reality in the Iliad is bizarre and stylized: it's a brutal grown-up war presented at times like a series of playground fistfights. The characters' motivations are obscure; the things they value or take joy in confuse us.

One of the most gorgeous moments in the Iliad comes in Book 24, when Priam and Achilles are posturing over the corpse of Hector, and Achilles suddenly remembers that it's time for supper. Can't do without supper, he tells the old man:

Even Niobe remembered to eat
Although her twelve children were dead in her house,
Six daughters and six sturdy sons. (24:651-53, p. 486)
The scene works so well on several levels that other texts and authors would scarcely think of: two men ravaged by war, realizing that indeed one still must eat, and reinforcing the necessity with an allusion classical even to them. There's nothing like it.

Aside from the big set-piece battles of councils and the strange interludes (like the nighttime raid on the Trojan lines by Odysseus and Diomedes in Book 10), mysteries abound in the Iliad, and it's often better to cherish the mystery than to seek academic explanation. The Shield of Achilles in Book 18 is such a detail, and among the most famous. Why should Hephaestus create so intricate a work of art at this crucial juncture in the story? Granted that he's a god, and can make something miraculous in the time it takes a human to begin a thought. Still, why are the various designs on the Shield – most of them non-military, and all of them generalized and inscrutable – so appropriate to the task Achilles needs it for, or indeed worthy of description at all, since they'll never be described again? Yet this glorious digression has been the source of a whole tradition of art in itself, not least John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

But the more minor mystery I picked up on this time through is the Wall. In Book 7 of the Iliad, the Greeks, Achilles-less, decide to construct a fortification around their camp of ships. (Why this hadn't occurred to them in the nine previous years is another Homeric mystery.) It takes them about an afternoon to build something that the god Poseidon worries about with a Tower-of-Babel-like jealousy: "Fame of this will reach as far as Dawn spreads light," he tells his brother Zeus (7:466, p. 141). Zeus responds that as soon as the wall has served its purpose and the Greeks have gone home, Poseidon has his permission to sweep it away with storms.

Turns out that it's a pretty crappy wall. Hector and the Trojans no soon attack than they smash a breach in it: in fact Hector does this single-handedly at the end of Book 12, by throwing a single rock at the wall, albeit one of those rocks that no two men could lift today, yada yada. But by Book 15, the Greeks have chased the Trojans back through the breach, and all is well. Still, the wall retains a mystical quality. The opening fifty lines of Book 12 are all about how Zeus's promise of the wall's eventual destruction comes to pass.

I thought of the wall at the Trojan beaches when I was at Vicksburg, Mississippi earlier this year, tramping around earthworks that the Union and Confederate armies had thrown up, not quite as fast as the Argives at Troy, but without much thought to making them Pyramid-like or anything. Those great earthworks are there 150 years later, slowly settling; in far more than the ten years prophesied for the Greek wall, they will also be gone, but they will far outlive me. It occurs to me that Homer (whoever Homer was) had just such ruins in mind: the gradually-disintegrating temporary works of people in the process of trying to reach quite a different goal than that of wall-building.

Homer. Iliad. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.