Sunday, January 8, 2017

My new translation of the Iliad, in dactylic hexameter

I began the new year by working on a new translation of Homer's Iliad. What distinguishes my work from the many existing Iliad translations is that I am keeping to the meter of the Ancient Greek (which, to my knowledge, has only been done in one other translation, and in that, not very successfully).

Why is the meter important to the poem? The Iliad has its roots as oral poetry in Ancient Greece. It is not meant to be read, so much as performed. However, no English translation yet captures that element of it. The poem ideally should be sung or recited to an audience, and it should therefore carry a rhythm amenable to singing or recitation. Such a rhythm is what I am striving for.

The meter of the ancient epics is called "dactylic hexameter". Of course, English works a bit differently than Ancient Greek, and as a result of that, the equivalent English meter operates a bit differently than the original. Dactylic hexameter in English is best exemplified by Longfellow's poem "Evangeline". The poem is a bit long, but even the first few lines can give you an idea of how the epic meter works:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic..."
Basically, there are six metrical "feet" per line, and if we represent stressed syllables with "S" and unstressed syllables with "u", the first five feet may take either of the following forms: "Suu", "Su", or "SS" (which are called "dactyls", "trochees", or "spondees", respectively). The last foot in each line must take either "SS" or "Su" (a spondee or a trochee). The most conspicuous things you'll notice is that every line begins on a stressed syllable, and the ending of the lines is always either two stressed syllables, or a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Longfellow's poem should give you a good sense of the rhythm and music inherent in the metrical form.

I am publishing my new translation each week, as I write it, on this blog. Anyone who follows along will get to see my version of the poem as it develops. I plan on releasing each week's work on the Sunday following that week. Because of the demands of graduate school and the continuing revision of my Inferno translation, I may not be able to make rapid progress on this, at least at the start. But I will make sure to at least publish something each week.

I hope you will enjoy following along with me as I write the poem. I wish everyone a happy new year!

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