In a critically acclaimed new translation of The Iliad, CU Boulder classics Professor Laurialan Reitzammer sees the enduring relevance of Homer
It’s not easy to create a work of literature that truly lasts. Many authors considered the brightest lights of the 20th century are now virtually unknown, while countless critically acclaimed novels fade into oblivion once they slide too far down The New York Times bestseller list.
So, it’s no little feat that The Iliad and The Odyssey—attributed to the ancient Greek writer Homer, but the product of a thousand-year oral tradition—are not only read and studied nearly three millennia after their creation, but still generate excitement among both critics and readers.
Enter Emily Wilson, a University of Pennsylvania classicist who earned rave reviews for her 2017 English translation of The Odyssey.
“In the history of Odyssey translations, few have exerted such a cultural influence that they become ‘classics’ in their own right,” one critic wrote. “I predict that Emily Wilson will win a place in this roll-call of the most significant translations of the poem in history.”
The enthusiasm and plaudits have continued with the release of Wilson’s translation of The Iliad (W.W. Norton & Co.) in September, which The Washington Post called “a genuine page-turner,” despite its reputation as the considerably more challenging of Homer’s two famous epic poems.
Not everyone’s a fan, of course. Some critics and scholars have balked at her modern sensibilities, word choices and even the meter of her translations.
But whatever the translation, Homer clearly remains relevant all these centuries later. Why does the work continue to speak to modern audiences?
“Because some things don’t change—we still have war, unfortunately, and (The Iliad) doesn’t really take a side; it shows that everyone is human, the cost of war, what violence does to people and what is left behind when people die,” says Laurialan Reitzammer, associate professor of classics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The end of the poem is about grief and pain, big issues that speak to us all.”
Yet The Iliad complicates that sense of familiarity with its portrait of a “deeply alien, radically foreign” culture, Reitzammer says.
She points to a famous episode in which Hector stands on the walls of Troy and prays to the gods that his infant son will grow up to “kill his enemies and bring home the bloody spoils”—not exactly the first impulse of most contemporary parents when trying to sooth a crying baby. Hector feels utterly compelled to go to war to maintain his status, and his wife agrees, though both understand that she will be violated and enslaved, and his own child will be hurled from the same high walls, as a result.
“These moments are about the glory of the warrior and violence. … Yet the end of the poem is a scene of lamentation in which three women speak about what it means to lose Hector,” Reitzammer says.
Having read The Iliad in English and the original Greek dozens of times over the past three decades, Reitzammer also is struck by how different facets of the poem have shone through or faded away with each new season of her life.
For example, when she first read the poem as an undergraduate, she took little notice of Achilles’ mother, the minor goddess Thetis, who seeks intervention by Zeus, the big dog of the Greek pantheon, when her valiant warrior son comes to her for help.
“She was really involved in his life. In a lot of ways, she was the first ‘helicopter mom’,” Reitzammer says with a laugh.
Yet now that she’s been a mother herself for some 13 years, Reitzammer better understands the powerful impulse to protect and help one’s children.
“We see ourselves in this epic, but in different ways each time, because we ourselves change,” she says.
Wilson has chafed at oft-made, well-intended praise for being the first woman to translate, and providing the first “feminist” translation, of Homer into English, which generated a backlash on social media (no doubt by many who had not read the book) accusing her of being “woke.”
“It may be the first non-misogynistic translation,” Reitzammer notes wryly.
For example, she praises Wilson's avoidance of words like “servant” or “maid” to describe the enslaved women slaughtered by Odysseus upon returning from his eponymous journey, a translation of a Greek word usually rendered as “sluts” or “disobedient maids.”
She praises Wilson’s careful choices in bringing Homer to a modern audience without diluting his potency or poetry. She points to Wilson’s use of “cataclysmic” wrath for a Greek word that similarly has four syllables describing Achilles’ rage in the first lines of the poem, usually translated as “destructive.”
“It defamiliarizes ‘destructive’ and makes us think of a washing over, torrential violence, being flooded with emotions, and flooded with rage that will have such dire consequences,” Reitzammer says.
“(Wilson’s) attention to these kinds of things shows why we need new translations,” Reitzammer says. “We don’t see things the way someone in 1950 or even 2000 saw them.”
The fact that women in Homer’s time were viewed as objects and property is part of what gives The Iliad its “alien nature,” she says.
“I think (Homer) is worth reading,” she says, “in part because our own culture has deeply embedded misogyny.”
And rather than flatly rejecting Homer because of offensive norms held by a culture so far removed in space and time, Reitzammer argues that studying his work can help students think about modern societal ills.
“When teaching ancient Greek literature, especially fifth-century Athenian literature, I get to have intense conversations with students about gender or citizenship or immigration, in the context of a culture from thousands of years ago,” she says. “My hope is that they will come back to modern times and think about our modern constructions in different ways.”
Reading Homer may be uncomfortable, Reitzammer says, but it’s a valid reflection of the real world’s complexity and messiness. And that’s another reason we’re still reading, translating and arguing over his work.
“(The Iliad) offers this complexity, celebrating the warrior, then showing us what is left behind,” she says. “It’s so much harder to hold different strands and perspectives at once than to have just one perspective.”
Top image: "Hektor wirft Paris seine Weichlichkeit vor" by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1786)