The two recent translators of the Iliad, both veteran classical scholars, have long inhabited that now largely abandoned category, Man of Letters. Barry Powell has published poems of his own; Peter Green has translated Apollonius of Rhodes, Catullus, Ovid, and Juvenal, and both are novelists. Both now bid (Green avowedly so) to seize the crown of the long-reigning king of Homer translators, Richmond Lattimore, whose Iliad of 1951 remains the standard.1 If either succeeds, I suspect it will be Green, though his competitor is a worthy one.
Like Lattimore, Green and Powell have rendered the unrhymed Greek into unrhymed verse. Green’s language tends more to the contemporary and colloquial than either of the others’ (Lattimore was not above a little light archaizing), but apart from the occasional lapse of taste, he has succeeded in producing a fluent and highly readable version that often achieves a poetry of its own. Powell is lucid and remarkably successful in making a literal translation nonetheless enjoyable, but the price is that his unobtrusive verse is slightly prosaic; his great virtue against Green is that he preserves Homer’s dignity without fail.
Green prefaces his translation with a moving account of his lifelong engagement with Homer, and his long-held, long-failed ambition to translate his poems: “Of course, it didn’t happen. A mass of other work got in the way. I married, had children, was caught up in endless responsibilities.” His life has indeed been prodigiously productive, so that the climax to his narrative of these frustrated Homeric hopes is at once both poignant and inspiring, with a charming if perhaps unintended humorous side effect:
It was only a year ago, when I realized that on my next birthday I was going to be ninety, that I asked myself what I had to lose, even now, by tackling the Iliad; and in a curiously relaxed mood sat down and tried my hand at book 1.
At age ninety Cato the Censor could boast only of having begun learning Greek—Green is about to turn ninety-one, his Iliad is out, and his Odyssey on the way: an epic coda to an epic career.
Powell has devoted almost all his scholarly energies to Homer, so his late career move to translate the author is unsurprising (though it seems to have surprised Powell: it was his Oxford publisher who suggested it, “out of the blue”).
The proem—the poem’s first seven lines—announcing the Iliad’s subject is a brilliant and influential example of how Homer can make what is difficult and dense seem easy and light. Recreating the effects in English is not an easy feat, especially when difficult decisions about textual variants are thrown into the mix. Here is Lattimore’s version of the proem, which opens with an address to the muse, the…
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