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Stephen Mitchell (Handout)
Stephen Mitchell (Handout)

Review: Epic poetry

An Iliad for our times Add to ...

It is true that every generation needs a translation of The Iliad that relates to what its readers bring with them to the poem. It is also true that many potential current readers now bring so much less general knowledge of classical literature to this work. Almost in response to this, translator Stephen Mitchell tries to bring Homer’s Iliad to the contemporary reader.

Mitchell’s career in letters has been prolific, to say the least. He has written a book of poetry, both fiction and non-fiction books, as well as 18 translations and adaptations of famous works of world literature. Several of his translations have sold exceptionally well. His adaptations of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Tao Te Ching, along with his translations of Rilke, have found mass appeal.

And it is in this way he approaches Homer’s roughly 2,800-year-old epic poem about war and the emotional impact of war. Despite its age, it is still deeply relevant today. Its construction is remarkable in its beauty, describing a period of roughly 40 days toward the end of a 10-year war. It was a mainstay of ancient Greek culture and has often been described as “the Bible of the Greeks.” Its influence has been immense, from Roman literature, into which it was first translated, through Western medieval poetry and storytelling down to our own time.

Along with using a more recent Greek text by M.L. West, Mitchell does some new things in his version. He cuts out shorter passages of the poem some scholars have questioned as later interpolations. He also takes out some of the feel of Homer’s oral tradition by editing out a considerable amount of Homer’s fixed or stock epithets: “flashing-helmeted Hector,” “bronze-clad Achaeans” and “single-hoofed horses,” to mention but a few. Mitchell feels it was a convenience of meter for the reciter in ancient Greek to fill out lines with fixed epithets. He also cuts out much use of patronymics: Achilleus “son of Peleus,” Agamemnon “son of Atreus” and so forth.

Mitchell cuts out one book entirely from the 24 books, considering it a later interpolation. He humorously calls it “the baroque and nasty episode of book 10.” All of this creates an Iliad more accessible to those new to epic poetry.

What Mitchell does very well is to convey the mythic headspace of The Iliad through its metonymic language. Here is an example (Book 2, Lines 5-10) in the crafted and minimally iambic 11-to-15-syllable line that maintains for the whole poem.

And in the end, he decided that the best way was to send a malicious dream to King Agamemnon. So he summoned the dream. It came to him, and he said, “Go now dream, to the army of the Achaeans, And when you have slipped in to King Agamemnon’s hut, repeat these words, exactly as I command you. Tell him to arm the Achaeans, quickly, and have them attack, since they now can seize the great city of Troy.

There is everyday language and some slang in parts, and sometimes it reads like film dialogue. There are lines where Achilles insults Hector in a very modern idiom, or when Diomedes says to Paris, “You girl-crazed seducer, you perfumed sissy.”

Mitchell also takes some creative turns away from other translations. For example, the famous first mention of Apollo (Book 1, Lines 37-40: “God of the silver bow, all-glorious ruler/ of the isle of Tenedos, lord of the holy cities/ of Chryse and Cilla, O Mouse-god, god of the plague,/ hear me now.”

Although there is a mouse-god reference in the original Greek, Mitchell, always looking for a way to connect to his audience, makes the association of the god bringing the plague with what later times associate plagues with: rats. Mitchell brings our time into Homer’s time, along with bringing Homer into our time. Mitchell may not field as many as 20,000 people to hear a reading from his Iliad, as Plato describes in his dialogue the Ion, but Mitchell’s very readable Iliad could well prove to be more popular than his rival translators’.

Ewan Whyte is a Toronto writer and poet who has published a translation of Catullus.

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