Book Review: The Iliad by Homer

Many years ago, I picked up a copy of The Odyssey and loved it. It was a great story, brilliantly told and I was riveted by it. So, having taken a short break from reading ancient Greek texts (other than the New Testament) after the mammoth effort that was needed to complete Herodotus’ Histories I returned to Homer to read his other famous work.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced I picked the best translation. Whereas the version of the Odyssey I read was written in prose form, in plain English, the translation I picked up for the Iliad was not. The translation was done over an 11 year period from 1598 to 1611 and it reads just as one might imagine if you have read much Shakespeare or The King James Bible. Only it’s not quite as clear and understandable as either of those great bodies of work.

The main trouble is that the translator (George Chapman) has attempted to keep it as an “epic poem” and so has forced the whole text to be made into rhyming couplets. In order to make each pair of lines rhyme in English, he has had to tear up the text and rearrange the sentences just to create the effect. What this does is to completely screw up the word order and to introduce all manner of odd abbreviations and turns of phrase. So in aiming to make it poetic, the whole structure has been massacred. For this reason, I would not recommend this translation to anyone who isn’t au fait with Chaucer or as qualms about reading Beowulf in its original form.

In order to try and make some sense of this, I found I had to make a conscious effort to ignore the artificial rhythm and rhyme and to try to read whole sentences. Once I managed to do this (which probably wasn’t until book 3) The Iliad became a bit more intelligible. What is then revealed is an epic story of warfare and battles. The highly anthropomorphised gods of Greek mythology fight alongside their semi-human offspring and having petty squabbles with one another. The panoply of plentiful persons which populates the prose puzzled me rather, as it was hard to keep track of them, particularly because some of them, once introduced, met a rather grizzly death.

That said, there are many moments of great poetic expression which do break through. The difficulty of the translation does make it impossible for me to give a synopsis of the plot, so this review shall be somewhat short. I may well post another review when I find the time to read a more intelligible translation.

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2 responses to “Book Review: The Iliad by Homer

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