“Cannibal king, you eat your people up!/You are a leader of nonentities!” the famed hero Achilles spits at fellow Greek warrior Agamemnon early on in Emily Wilson’s stunning new translation of Homer’s “Iliad.” The battle epic begins with what seems to be a largely unimportant personal argument between the two stubborn leaders, yet the detailed narrative and Wilson’s meter and commanding use of the English language bring out the themes of pride, fate, mortality and choice that define the “Iliad.”
Wilson is a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and has been working on her translation of the “Iliad” since completing her widely celebrated translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” in 2017. The “Iliad” was composed around the eighth or seventh century B.C., and there have been countless translations since then, but Wilson’s version manages a rare feat: in reading it, one loses themselves in the story and forgets that they are not hearing it in the original Greek oral tradition. By modernizing the language and using straightforward descriptions, Wilson manages to erase the barrier between translation and original. In addition to the actual translation, her endlessly useful introduction, translator’s note, extensive notes on word choice, genealogies and glossary make her copy of the “Iliad” a fascinating look into the translation process, give context to the Trojan War and form an essential resource for any Homeric scholar.
In her book Babel, R.F. Kuang writes that “an act of translation is always an act of betrayal.” If translations warp an author’s original intent, then Wilson’s effect on Homer’s epic poem is to assert its continued relevance and transform the “Iliad” from a familiar narrative students are made to read in high school and college into a gripping story that will seem new even to “Iliad” aficionados. Wilson writes in loose iambic pentameter, a choice that defines and revolutionizes her translation. Most contemporary scholars assert that both “The Odyssey” and the “Iliad” were not written by a single poet but instead were independently created through a long oral history of retelling before they were written down. In this sense, if one asks whether Wilson’s translation is true to the original, the answer must be yes. Her “Iliad” is meant to be read aloud just as the original was. Her gorgeous rhythm is hidden on the page, but it appears in all its glory when one reads out loud or listens to the audiobook version. No other translation has rendered the original so well, either in line-by-line translation or, more importantly, in intent. Though a veritable tome, Wilson’s “Iliad” flies by astonishingly quickly and is a joy to spend time with. Take, as an example of her dazzling meter, Achilles’ refusal to accept Agamemnon’s bounty of gifts that act as a peace offering in Book 9: “Not even if his gifts to me could match/the grains of dust and sand! Not even then/would Agamemnon ever sway my heart,/till he had paid me back for the abuse/that caused my heart such pain.” Wilson’s words beg to be read out loud and sections like this recall a time when narratives were passed from generation to generation through spoken word.
In addition to conveying the depths of anger and despair in the “Iliad,” Wilson takes care to highlight the poem’s humor and wit, particularly through the bold and boisterous character of Odysseus. At one point in the narrative, Odysseus orders a soldier named Thersites, in no uncertain terms, to “shut up!” In addition to providing levity, Wilson’s use of such everyday language melded with epic descriptions shifts the “Iliad” from a tale of heroics to one of humanity. In her translation, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, Patroclus and all the others become real people the reader can empathize with and mourn rather than untouchable heroes of antiquity. Those new to the “Iliad” and those familiar with its depiction of the conclusion of the Trojan War would do themselves a disservice by missing Wilson’s transformative new translation.