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‘The Iliad’ Blakely on adventure translating 'The Iliad'

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THE ILIAD. Translated by Ralph Blakely with a foreword by Keyne Cheshire. Forge Books. 496 pages. $28.99.

Ralph Blakely’s new prose translation is one of the latest in a number of recent renderings of “The Iliad” into English. Blakely differs from most translators in being an avowed amateur, rather than an academic who specializes in ancient Greek. His “Iliad” is, accordingly, first and foremost an adventure tale, with some of the original’s repetition left out and some explanatory material added. All of this makes for a story that reads easily and is unencumbered by footnotes and appendices, but that retains for the most part the colorful Homeric epithets and similes.

A few representative passages will establish the tone of Blakely’s translation. To begin at the beginning: “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles Peleusson ...” The decision to translate the Greek patronymic suffix -ides with “-son” makes the poem instantly more familiar than the usual “Peliades,” as does, for example, the colloquial “get lost!” with which the Greek commander Agamemnon rebuffs the priest in the opening scene. The prose is quick, with usually short sentences well suited to the straightforward Greek syntax. The often angry speeches of the heroes and gods in Book 1 unfold with clarity and, where necessary, bluntness: “your blood dark blood will at once gush out around a shaft,” Achilles warns Agamemnon.

Of course, one of the main tests of an “Iliad” is its battle scenes. Blakely re-creates with precision Homeric deaths like that of the Trojan warrior Pandarus in Book 5: “the spear punctured his white teeth, and the never-tiring bronze spear head cut off the base of his tongue, exiting from the lowest part of the chin.” The sense of dread is palpable when powerful warriors face one another, as when, in Book 16, Sarpedon’s spear passes “over Patroclus’s left shoulder, but did not hit him. Patroclus, at last, rushed with his bronze, and the missile did not take flight from his hand in a wasted effort.” And where the duels show war at its most personal, the similes convey its grim indifference; thus, for example, the combatants are likened in Book 11 to “reapers positioned opposite one another as they mow a swath of wheat or barley in the field.” Again, the unadorned prose helps to capture the vividness of the original.

“The Iliad” in fact offers a surprising variety of scenes, given its martial setting, and Blakely is equally adept at capturing the different moods. Thus, in one of the lighter moments, when Hera seduces Zeus in Book 14, the god’s impatience at his wife’s feigned reluctance comes across nicely in his rushed pillow-talk: “Hera, you belong there and should get going after a while. But come, let’s the two of us lie down and enjoy some lovemaking.” The seditious Greek Thersites who challenges Agamemnon in Book 2 is well described as “the ugliest man who came to Troy. He was bandy-legged and lame ... his rounded shoulders contracted over his chest ... his head was cone-shaped and bald.” This reviewer even laughed out loud at the response of the Greek warrior (Lesser) Aias to his loss after slipping and falling in a footrace: “... spitting out dung, he said to the Argives, ‘... A goddess got in the way of my feet.’ ”

A translator must also capture the story’s deep pathos, such as the pivotal moment in Book 18 when Achilles learns of the death of Patroclus: “... a dark cloud of grief enveloped Achilles. He took ashes with both hands and poured them on his head and gently dusted his eyebrows.” So also the grief of Achilles combines with that of the old king Priam in one of the poem’s final scenes: “And they both remembered, the one remembered man-killing Hector ... while Achilles wept for his father, and at another moment again for Patroclus, and his groaning roared through the house.”

Blakely makes clear in his preface that his intent is to render Homer’s poetry into the poetic prose of Faulkner, Penn Warren, Welty and Percy, and for this reason his “Iliad” will have special appeal to his fellow Southerners. The tone is serious, and strikes a balance between archaizing (one will not encounter a “thee,” nor a “doth”) and colloquial. Also voiced in the preface is the sentiment that “most of what is necessary to understand the story is contained in it.” Blakely recognizes that “The Iliad” creates a self-contained world, where the plot and the characters come through clearly whether the reader of his translation is conversant with such issues as the causes of the Trojan War, the nature of Agamemnon’s power or the extent to which Homeric warfare reflects more the Bronze or rather the Iron Age in ancient Greece.

In terms of presentation, the paragraphing breaks the individual books into defined sections that reflect both the pacing of modern novels and the structure of the original. The ancillary material that has been worked into the text is limited and judicious (a catalogue of these insertions is included in the preface), a representative example being the gloss of Hector’s son Astyanax as “King of the City.” What little trimming has been done is unobtrusive. Thus the reported speeches that occur when characters communicate through intermediaries tend to be given in full; and Blakely has very wisely chosen to include Book 10, which at least one other recent translation has omitted entirely on the (disputed) grounds that it is not authentically Homeric.

It will naturally be difficult for Blakely’s new translation to compete with the many others that already dominate the high school and college textbook markets, where the demand for “The Iliad” is the greatest. This would, however, be a fine text to use in conjunction with the original Greek, whether one is studying alone or with a group, for which purpose the inclusion of the line numbers from the Greek text is well considered. Blakely’s “Iliad” also will be enjoyable for those with an appreciation for the Southern writers mentioned above, whom one can indeed imagine reveling in its stately prose.

Reviewer James Marks is a freelance editor and former professor of classics living in Gainesville, Fla.

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