Emily Wilson's translation of the Iliad was released in September 2023 Elijah Ellis, with permission for varsity

“Don’t worry too much if you don’t know all the names.” This is Emily Wilson’s advice for the non-Classicist – myself, for example – who may be daunted at the prospect of reading her new translation of The Iliad, the Greek Homeric epic that recounts the darkest episode of the Trojan War. “It might be good to think, Achilles, he’s good at running around very quickly, Agamemnon, he owns a lot of stuff. But apart from that,” she shrugs, “don’t worry about all the names you haven’t heard of, and just let the story carry you along.”

It is precisely this no-nonsense approach that makes Emily’s translation of The Iliad so exciting. Fast-paced, clear, and most importantly, not-boring, this book is a far cry from the yellowed, unappetising copies that spring to mind when hearing the phrase “Homeric epic.” For the lovers of retellings by the likes of Madeline Miller and Natalie Hayes, this fresh rendition of the Ancient Greek text is for you.

“Don’t worry about all the names you haven’t heard of, and just let the story carry you along”

Emily Wilson’s love for the classics started young ( she played the goddess Athena in a school play) and grew with her, taking her to Oxford for an undergraduate course that was swiftly followed by an MPhil, a Phd at Yale, and the launch of her ongoing career in teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Having worked on novels and translations, she became internationally known for her translation of The Odyssey in 2018, with particular media buzz garnered over her gender - she was the first woman to publish the text in English translation. “It would be good if interviewers asked male writers or male translators how their gender affects their work,” she responds, when I ask her whether she loves or hates the discourse around her sex. “Presumably it does. In a way, I feel like it doesn’t have anything to do with me. I didn’t realise fifteen years ago that there weren’t any published English translations of The Odyssey done by women, and it wasn’t part of my agenda starting out.” Despite this, she tells me, the conversation is worthwhile; “at least all the ‘Emily Wilson’s a woman’ coverage invites people to reflect on the problems of ancient text translation into English.” Will this happen with The Iliad, does she think? “Caroline Alexander has already published a translation of The Iliad, which I hope will help people see that there is nuance in that headline. Her translation is completely different to mine.” She laughs dryly. “It’ll show that all women don’t translate Homer exactly the same way.”

The international acclaim that met her translation of The Odyssey made translating The Iliad all the more challenging, and for the first couple of years of the six year project she was stuck. Breaking it down into small five-line chunks helped her begin to make headway, paying particular attention to the characteristic rhythm and pace of the original text. Most pre-existing translations of The Iliad have no metre, which bothered Emily – the melody of the language felt crucial to a text that was originally designed for performance. “The Greeks heard Homer,” she points out. “They didn’t read Homer with lots of footnotes very quietly in a library.” Notably, she decided to render the text in iambic pentameter, wanting to emulate the long-standing literary significance of the Iliad’s hexameter by using a metre that bears equally significant historical resonances in English.

“These stories aren’t supposed to be hard to understand.” Emily tells me. “They wouldn’t have been to a Greek audience. A lot of translations stick closely to the word order of the original, or add in more words to explain the Greek, and if you do that it feels really clunky in English. I was always thinking how can I make this as clear as the original, as direct, as propulsive, where you want to keep on going to the next line.”

“The Greeks heard Homer, they didn’t read Homer with lots of footnotes very quietly in a library”

And she has succeeded. Stripped of dust and footnotes, her rendition is swift-moving and filled to the brim with the clashing sounds of an ancient war, fiery roars of emotion and deep, dark spells of grief. By channelling the clarity of ancient text, Emily peels away the shroud of linguistic difficulty that makes it off-putting, and space can open up to focus on other challenging things, “like the complexity of the characters, and their emotions.” In other words, the text is allowed to become what it truly is, a story, without the seemingly impenetrable barrier of convoluted clauses. Though you can read the translator’s note at the start and flip to the glossary if you so desire, no prior knowledge of the text is necessary to enjoy it. “If you want to just plunge straight in and just experience the rage and the grief, then you can do that.” There’s something deeply infectious about Emily’s enthusiasm for the story, and as she details different moments of the plot- eyes bright with energy - I feel myself being drawn into a classical Otherworld; I can almost hear the clatter of hooves and the clanging of weapons.

“This is an ancient text that channels modern anxieties in rhythmic punches”

Despite its antiquity, the epic bears chilling similarities with issues of the modern day. It starts with a medical crisis (the god Apollo causes the plague), swiftly followed by a leadership crisis as those in power struggle to deal with the sickness sweeping through their communities, a series of events that painfully resonate with a post-Covid society. Similar too is the poem’s focus on the relationship between humans and technology, detailing a human reliance on elaborate weapons that is eerily comparable to our own contemporary dependence on electronic devices. Particularly poignant is the focus on the environment; nature is alive in this story, with inanimate natural objects possessing their own agency. We are reminded of the living breathing quality of the earth, who itself is presented as a being of its own. The story is set against a landscape butchered by war, as forests are cut down for ships and funeral pyres. The human violence against nature culminates when Achilles takes to the battlefield and clogs up the river with corpses. “We have this sense of war causing this enormous environmental damage,” Emily explains. “The river rises up against him and says this is too much, you’ve got to stop.”


Mountain View

In the artist’s studio with Elaine Pamphilon and Christopher Marvell

Amidst growing hopelessness regarding the detrimental human impact on the planet, the sense of impending doom throughout the poem is pertinent. Can comparisons be made with the contemporary phenomenon of climate anxiety? Emily nods, absolutely. “The Trojans are living in a city that, like many modern places, won’t be habitable in a generation. There’s a tangible sense that this place is not going to be around for very long, and an anxiety about the future generation. The son of Hector isn’t going to survive, there isn’t going to be a place for him to live.”

This is an ancient text, then, that channels modern anxieties in rhythmic punches, gripping the reader from chilling opening to mournful end. Having worked with the characters for so long, Emily describes the affection she feels towards them. “You have to get inside of them, to write them. You have to feel like you are each of them.” Speaking of characters, I want to know whether she has a favourite. There are too many good ones to choose from, she tells me, but the rainbow goddess Iris is a great character. “She is both a diligent messenger, but also able to suggest to Poseidon, you might want to rephrase that - she has that comical tact about her.” She stops for a moment, lost in thought. “I love how scary the goddesses are. It’s very cool.”

If you want to read it but you’re worried, mid-hectic Michaelmas term, that you don’t have the time? Get the audiobook, and plunge into the fierce, tumultuous world of the Ancient Greek epic to and from your way to Sidgwick. The story, and Wilson’s translation in particular, was designed to be listened to, after all.