Sunday, 1 May 2016

Age of Iliads

In her review of a new translation of The Iliad by Caroline Alexander—the first such effort by a women—A. E. Stallings flags the contemporary fascination for the epic:
The Iliad begins with a grudge and ends with a funeral. In between are passages, if not necessarily of boredom, to alter the war adage, of lists, pathos, sex, humour, fairytale strangeness (golden fembots, a talking horse) and lyric images, punctuated by moments of pure terror (eyes popped out of heads, a spear throbbing in a beating heart, a man cradling his intestines in his hands). With several new translations in the past year alone, as well as a film in 2004, and recent novels (David Malouf’s Ransom), dramatisations, and book-length poems (War Music by Christopher Logue and Memorial by Alice Oswald), we are clearly, in our era of seemingly perpetual war, in an age of Iliads.
James Romm has some concerns about the "increasingly rapid pace at which new Iliads keep emerging":
It was not ever thus. Classics graduate students in the 1980s (of whom I was one) debated the relative merits of Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald, the only two Iliads then in wide circulation. A new version by Robert Fagles appeared in 1990, and for most of that decade, the three Rs had the field of Homer translation entirely to themselves. Then Stanley Lombardo entered the ring in 1997 with his streamlined and brashly colloquial style, in an edition that shocked the academic world by putting on its cover a photo from the D-Day invasion. Since then, the graph of new Iliad translations has followed a parabolic curve.

Trends in publishing have led to greater diversity of many Greek and Roman texts, but none have multiplied quite so fast as
The Iliad, in part because none are so widely assigned by college teachers. As the Classics’ share of the curriculum has shrunk, Homer has remained the blue-chip stock that belongs in every portfolio, the one ancient author that the entire college community—including students, who increasingly challenge faculty on the makeup of their reading lists—can agree is worth reading. So The Iliad, and to a lesser extent The Odyssey, can be counted on to produce a steady stream of revenue for publishers, every time fall and spring term book orders come due. (It was reported in The Wall Street Journal that Caroline Alexander’s version, despite being the “new kid on the block,” would have an initial print run of 30,000, and that Robert Fagles’ 1990 version has by now sold more than a million.)

The profit motive may explain the spate of new translations, but the proliferation of translators is more puzzling. Given that a responsible Hellenist needs years of labor to render more than 15,000 lines of Greek verse into passably accurate, euphonious English, and can expect very little in the way of either financial reward or (in the ranks of academia at least) professional advancement, whence comes this great throng of men, and now one woman, who follow in Homer’s trail like enchanted children following the Pied Piper?

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