Sara Wheeler

Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad is a sustained flight of invention and still the best rendering in English of the epic poem. Pope’s Iliad was published in six volumes in the first half of the eighteenth century. Like the original, it is verbal music.

(I studied Ancient Greek at university, and there was so much pain involved in the endless toil of translation that I wonder now if I don’t enjoy the English version more.)

I was thinking of this yesterday as I am writing at the moment about the Russian translation wars. Is a translation to be a faithful copy of the original, no matter how wooden? Pope reminds us what can be achieved.

Pope chose to use rhyming couplets, which obviously makes the task harder. Here’s his version of the opening of  Book 22, ‘The Death of Hector’.  The Trojans (also known as Ilians) return from the fray to the safety of the city walls.

Thus to their bulwarks, smit with panic fear,

The herded Ilians rush like driven deer:

There safe they wipe the briny drops away,

And drown in bowls the labours of the day.


Consider now E V. Rieu’s 1950 prose version of the same lines.

Swept into the city like a herd of frightened deer, the Trojans dried the sweat off their bodies,

and drank and quenched their thirst as they leant against the massive battlements.


Doesn’t quite have the swing, does it? Here’s Robert Fagles, published in 1990.

So all through Troy the men who had fled like panicked fawns

were wiping off their sweat, drinking away their thirst, leaning along the city’s massive ramparts now.

Pope is better, if you can swallow the eighteenth-century vocabulary. Verbs like ‘smit’ – it hadn’t yet acquired the final ‘e’, as in the Biblical ‘smite’ – is almost Anglo-Saxon in its monosyllabic brutality, and it’s exotic flavor corresponds to what is after all an exotic setting. The alliterative ‘driven deer’ is more evocative than ‘frightened deer’ or panicked fawns’.

That’s just a couple of points about four lines. You can see one could write volumes on the merits of this translation or that. It’s a difficult issue, as I’m finding out.

The illustration shows Pope’s manuscript copy of his translation. The circular diagram on the verso is Achilles’ shield.