Adam Nicolson

Poetic injustice

Book review: Peter Green’s effort is not entirely successful

‘Why do another translation of Homer?’ Richmond Lattimore asked in the foreword to his own great translation of the Iliad first published in 1951. It was a doubt he was grateful his friends and family had refrained from expressing in the long labour of translating the Greek. But he had a response for any who dared: it was ‘a question which has no answer for those who do not know the answer already’. Homer exists to be translated, largely for what Peter Green has called ‘its uncanny universalist insight into the wellsprings of human nature’. Homer is one of the sources of truth; it demands to be known. The last 200 years have had no shortage of candidates come to drink at that well — more than 40 English Iliads in the 19th century, another 30 in the 20th and eight so far in the 21st, a Victorian level of production, nearly all of them coming out of America. There are several more set to emerge.

Green’s is the latest. It is the culmination of a wonderful troubadour life as a journalist, film critic, adventurer, soldier, scholar, novelist, historian, poet and translator of both Latin and Greek. He is now 90 years old, the Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, and it is no criticism to say that the best parts of his book are professorial: generously informed and clarifying footnotes, deft character summaries and subtle plot synopses, all of which are infused with a helping-hand mentality. This is an Iliad which makes something inherently strange and profoundly difficult much less so.

Where it doesn’t work is in the poetry. The question is as old as translation itself: do you make the English feel as rich and alien as the Bronze Age words of the Greek, driven along by the sombre and splendid music of their hexa-meters? Or do you drag that strangeness into the light of modern accessibility? Do you cultivate, in other words, the strange or the known, poetry or history, the remote atmosphere of violence and suffering, of fragile beauty and unforgiving force, or do you focus on the explicable facts of the case, the plainest version the words of the Greek can bear?

Green chooses the second.

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