I once asked a former Oxford classics don which verse translation of Homer he thought was best. He shrugged before saying, ‘Read Homer in Greek, or else in prose.’ On the face of it, this looks like a way of saying that Homer’s poetry is impossible to capture in English. But there’s another lesson to take from the remark. In the introduction to his new translation of The Odyssey, Peter Green is admirably clear about it. There has long been disagreement between what he calls ‘Hellenizing translators’ and ‘modernist’ ones. ‘Modernist’ translators want to imagine how ancient poets would write if they were alive now and writing in English; ‘Hellenizing’ ones want to capture the remoteness of the original.
In the case of The Iliad, a good test of a verse translation is: can you sit in a classroom and read out Book Twenty-three – the funeral games for Patroclus – making the chariot race sound like a Peter O’Sullevan commentary or the foot race like a David Coleman