Dec 302008

I was in the midst of reading Robert Fitzgerald’s interpretation of The Iliad when I abandoned it to read Stanley Lombardo’s work instead. Before setting out to read the poem, I wanted to make sure I was in good hands. So, I poked around on the internet and found an numerous opinions on the published efforts available. One author recommended a blank verse translation, but I was unable to obtain a copy. So, I waded into Fitzgerald’s attempt.

Recently, I’ve been studying Borges and learned the hazards of reading lousy interpretations. For the most part, I like Fitzgerald’s work; however, his use of the ancient Greek names threw me off at times. The true test of an interpretation, at least of something this ancient, is the interpreter’s ability to capture the feeling of the piece. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would take issue with that statement. But, I’m neither a Greek scholar or classical specialist. I’m a creative dilettante living in the 21st century. When I read The Iliad, I want to come as  close to what it felt like to sit in a great feasting hall: eating great amounts of roasted meat, blasted on wine, listening to a master orator. This is no time for dictionaries and Google every other line; instead, I should be able to hear the groans of the wounded and the stoic tramping of doomed legions.

Yeah, I know it sounds melodramatic. But you try marching into a wall of spears without a solid warrior code that is married to a complex belief in divine kings. For today’s reader, space flight is a little over a generation removed from being a novelty ; indeed, DNA has been mapped, and telescopes strain to look backwards through time to glimpse the very origin of our universe. Post colonialism, gender studies and deconstructionist theories all clamor to complicate and challenge any reader with the slightest awareness of theory and history. Sometimes these theories seem to exist merely to urinate on the parade. I thought that reading this epic poem from such a vantage point and not revel in the irony would be more difficult than suspending disbelief. However, this wasn’t a problem as the story is so completely alien to everything I know while making grand gestures to thousands of stories that I’m familiar with via cultural osmosis. Within the Iliad there is a multitude of narrative echoes that resonate within me, yet I’m unable to provide an exact reason why.

Anyway, after a few hundred pages of Fitzgerald I found a copy of Stanley Lombardo’s translation sitting around. I found there to be a bone jarring difference between the two. The person who elects themselves to be a neo bard has quite a task: to make the verses sing without losing the silhouette of the archetypes that inhabit it. For example, below are the first 8 lines out of both translations:

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,
akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men—carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
begin it when the first two men contending
broke with one another—” (Fitzgerald 1)

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalcuable pain, pitched countless souls
Of Heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’s will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon—
The Greek warlord—and godlike Achilles.” (Lombardo 1)

Lombardo does not concern himself with the formal cadence or elevated diction of this epic. Instead, his primary concern is how the narrative will sound as an oral presentation. To this end, he keeps a contemporary audience in mind. I think this is the primary reason that Lombardo’s version holds more appeal because he takes risks with the language other scholars seem to avoid. One of these risks is in his use of common language or slang as dialogue. Sometimes, he will have a hero turn to his men, and say things that sound like lines from The Longest day, or some other WWII era film. Lombardo makes a deliberate choice to use language in this manner, and for the most part it’s effective. Although I have to admit, I found myself wincing several times when a Greek warlord’s voice would end up sounding like James Cagney or Jimmy Stewart. Regardless, I read Lombardo’s version straight through, and will be returning Fitzgerald’s efforts to the library unmolested.

Still, I feel as though I’ve somehow cheated: on scholarly footnotes and examination of critical response. After all, this epic poem is one of the central precursors to western, narrative tradition. So, at some point I’ll take the time to read another translation. In the meantime, I have The Iliad under my belt. To my surprise, the journey was not a chore.