Emily Wilson’s Sack of Homer

Valerie Stivers

Image for article: Emily Wilson’s Sack of Homer
September 27, 2023
Illustration: Pietro Testa / Public Domain

The Iliad
By Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
W.W. Norton & Company, 848 pages, $39.95

In 2017, the classicist Emily Wilson became famous for her translation of Homer’s Odyssey, the opening line of which described Odysseus as “a complicated man.” It was a bold choice that telegraphed a contemporary, colloquial style and intimated that we might be taking the Greek hero down a peg. Now Wilson has returned with a version of Homer’s other epic, which has already drawn plenty of early accolades—but has also been denounced as a “woke Iliad” and even “a crime against the classics.” The reaction is predictable but misses the point. Wilson does lay waste to the Iliad, even as she also gropes toward some of its deeper truths. But since her version is likely to be championed by leading cultural institutions for years to come, her distortions are a tragedy.

Much of the prepublication outrage has centered on Wilson’s statements about her method. She has said that she approaches translation as “a woman and a gender-aware feminist,” and that she has corrected “unexamined biases” of previous translators by, for instance, being more specific about which characters are enslaved and removing terms like “bitch” and “whore” where she believes they weren’t suggested in the original Greek. It’s an understandable occasion for eye-rolling, but capturing a work’s style and spirit is an essential part of any translation, and this will always depend heavily on individual judgment. 

As she did with the Odyssey, Wilson has set the Iliad into plain, contemporary English and made a variety of choices that she claims preserve the spirit, pacing, and musicality of the text. The result is the most readable Iliad I’ve encountered. Her varying of some of the repetitive oral conventions—all those “rosy-fingered dawns”—with original metaphors can be thrilling, and many of her turns of phrase are direct and beautiful. At the beginning of the catalog of ships in Book Two, a tribute to all the unnamed Greek soldiers who died in the war, we read: “I could not tell or name the multitude,/ not even if I had ten mouths,/ a voice that never broke, a heart of bronze….”

Despite the readability of the text, there are legitimate questions to be raised about Wilson’s approach. The Iliad wasn’t composed and performed in the plain, contemporary Greek of its time. Even Wilson says so in her introduction: “Homeric Greek is a mixture of dialects from different areas and periods, never spoken simultaneously by any single person.” In Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, the classicist Emily Katz Anhalt describes this language as “a literary composition … that would have sounded somewhat strange and elevated even to audiences in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.” By making the text plain-spoken and accessible for contemporary readers, Wilson has departed from the style and spirit of the original. Her easy, colloquial language also results in some obvious distortions: for instance, her deployment of modern pop-psychology concepts for the heroes’ states of mind—“delusional behavior,” “egotistical” and “yield[ing] to a destructive impulse.”

Wilson believes she has identified and brought out themes in Homer’s epic that other translators have missed. She writes in her translator’s note that the Iliad is “a poem about death”—which is a departure from the more conventional reading that it is about war—or, in the words of Simone Weil: “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.” For Wilson, the poem’s major insight is that “even the greatest mortals fall and clutch the dust between their bloody fingers.” The action, she thinks, “immerses us in the world of war” and “shows us what happens to all the warriors who never come home alive.” Some of the limitations of this viewpoint should already be apparent. As a unifying concept, it’s a string of generalities, from which it is difficult to imagine narrative tension arising. We begin the poem not realizing that humans die and finish with a vivid understanding that this is the case? The dramatizing language itself is a giveaway of a thin premise: Warriors who “never come home alive” … well, they die.

Wilson’s emphasis on death informs her understanding of character development. In her view, the Greek warriors are initially moved by a desire for selfish personal gain. The gain comes either as plunder in warfare, or as the honor and glory they will have earned from the fighting. She sees these desires as fundamentally misguided and writes that Achilles, traditionally considered the book’s tragic hero, needs to recognize that bargaining his life for this form of immortality “was never worth it in the first place.” His story, Wilson writes, begins with a selfish, childish, and irrational insistence on having what he wants, which is resolved only when he accepts that he, like everyone else, won’t live forever and can’t always get his way. This is a “cognitive and emotional journey, from courageous confidence to a final realization of his own mortality.”

Wilson is able to choose words that bolster her reading of the work, not least by making the heroes sound comical, unreasonable, or absurd where previous translators have chosen to valorize them. For instance, in her version Achilles, “sobbing hard,” complains to his mother, the nymph Thetis, that Agamemnon “disrespected me! He took my trophy! He seized it and now keeps it for himself!” A scholar of Homeric Greek might quibble with these choices on semantic grounds, but the deeper issue is that it doesn’t make sense on the story-level to suggest that men who risk death every day and see their fellow warriors dying all around them need help recognizing their own mortality, or to portray men seeking to immortalize their names as big babies terrified of death.

The inconsistencies in Wilson’s forced characterizations create cognitive dissonance.

The effects of Wilson’s interpretation on the reading experience are subtle, but they cumulatively drain the narrative of tension. Every paragraph contains examples. Take Book Four, in which an attempt on both sides to bring a peaceful end to the fighting is thwarted by the gods, who have tricked the Trojans into betraying a truce. Agamemnon, in a righteous fury, goes through the Greek camp spurring the warriors into battle. Here is the passage in the 1990 translation by Robert Fagles:

So the commander
ranged Achea’s ranks and brought them into line.
Moving on through the crowds he found the Cretans
arming for combat now, ringing brave Idomeneus.
Strong as a boar he urged his frontline troops
as Meriones brought the rear battalions up.
King Agamemnon, thrilled to watch them work,
was quick to salute the chief and sing his praises.

Here is the same passage from Wilson:

In this way,
he walked all through the ranks of men, displaying
his power. Then he reached the throng of Cretans
led by the skillful Idomeneus,
arming themselves. In their front line of fighters
stood Idomeneus, who had the courage
of a wild boar, while at the very back,
Meriones was urging them ahead.
Seeing them, Agamemnon, lord of men,
was glad and spoke to Idomeneus
in friendly greeting.

Fagles uses exciting verbs and military terminology, and chooses praiseful adjectives for his fighters. He calls Idomeneus “brave,” a stronger and more warlike adjective than Wilson’s “skillful.” And Fagles’s Agamemnon is “thrilled” and sings praises, while Wilson’s is merely “glad” and offers “friendly greeting.” There is no “proving” the correctness of one or the other, but Wilson’s version is flat and wants for the energy or excitement of a scene of warriors preparing for battle. The flatness might support her contention that the men are engaged in an activity the narration considers senseless and futile, but such contradictory cues disorient the reader. The passage quoted above also hints at the confusing cumulative effect of Wilson’s emphasis on cowardice. The reader might have noticed the jarring suggestion that “while at the very back,/ Meriones was urging them ahead.” This is either awkwardly phrased or a deliberate suggestion that Meriones is preserving his own skin. Wilson seems to seek out opportunities to reinforce this implication. Here is a description of Agamemnon from Robert Fagles: “King Agamemnon’s hour. You would not find him asleep,/not cringing a moment, hanging back from the struggle—/he pressed for battle now where men win glory.” And here is Wilson: “You would not see majestic Agamemnon/ nod off or cower or refuse to fight./ He rushed at top speed to the field of glory.” It’s subtle, but Fagles’s language is steeped in the conventions of bravery: “not asleep” “not cringing”; Agamemnon “pressed for battle”—a conventionally virtuous, bold, and brave activity for a commander. The action and the description are in harmony. Wilson separates the negations from the verb, raising the possibility that we might suspect Agamemnon of falling asleep while mustering the troops, or cringing or hanging back. The “rushed at top speed” is odd, as well, with its shadings of being hasty, unconsidered, and childish.

Homer may, of course, have intended Agamemnon to be the buffoon Wilson makes him out to be, but this reading isn’t supported by events in the text. After all, Agamemnon has been laying siege to Troy for nine years, and in the epic’s inciting incident, he brazenly steals some property from his star fighter just to assert his dominance. He’s an antagonist, dim, powerful, destructive, and frightening—not hasty or cowardly. The inconsistencies in Wilson’s forced characterizations create cognitive dissonance.

All of this raises a question: To what extent Wilson is imposing alien values on an ancient work? Mainstream classical scholarship, for better or worse, understands the ancient Greeks as colonizers, slaveholders, and misogynists. It looks for—and finds—these themes in works like the Iliad. If you love Homer, you might prefer a version of his work that shares contemporary values and condemns the things our culture insists should be condemned. You might believe that he is portraying the fighters as holders of a certain kind of privilege—and that he understands Achilles as coming to “share in the universal experience” by recognizing that he isn’t entitled to it. You might also, as Wilson does, insert various other contemporary preoccupations while you’re at it—“the body” particularly stands out. Quite naturally, then, the enormous amount of slaying and killing in the Iliad is a lesson about the fragility of the human body, and its bloody conclusion is ultimate proof that its heroes should check their privilege.

The fight between Agamemnon and Achilles erupts over an enslaved woman, Briseis, who was given to Achilles as bounty of war and is then taken by Agamemnon. Briseis is often referred to as a “prize” or “trophy,” and modern commentary has made much of her plight and the text’s failure to acknowledge it. In one of Briseis’s few opportunities for direct speech, she thanks Patroclus for trying to get his comrade Achilles to marry her. Modern commentary has pointed out that her real feelings would probably have been a good deal more complicated. Several reimaginings, such as the novelist Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018), have involved telling a different version of her story and those of other overlooked women from Homer. It is tempting to conclude that we are supposed to be outraged by the protagonists’ disregard for Briseis and other captives seized in war, or that we are supposed to think the heroes were uniquely evil for raping enslaved women. But the text’s very blindness to these women’s concerns suggests the opposite. Readings that include outrage over Briseis are external critiques of the original text and don’t represent its intentions. Wilson elides this crucial distinction.

The internet is littered with admiring—and sometimes perceptive—articles claiming that Wilson’s Odyssey contextualizes it “within our current political climate” or “engages the characters’ moral ambiguity in a more critical way.” Wilson herself has been quoted as saying that she is “making visible the cracks in the patriarchal fantasy.” Maybe so. But it’s impossible to simultaneously hold that Wilson’s translation critiques patriarchy, and that she has rendered the text faithfully, without violating the law of noncontradiction. What did Homer know of the contemporary political climate or the “patriarchal fantasy”? Wilson’s work can, and probably does, successfully advance a radical undertaking of erasing the old myths and writing new ones. This wouldn’t necessarily be ignoble if the process weren’t being obfuscated, but there is something brutal about taking a classic work, rewriting it against its own grain, and then passing it off as true to the original. The scene of the victorious Achilles tying his main opponent Hector’s dead body to the back of his chariot and driving around and around the camp comes to mind.

“Her Achilles is a man deluded by his privilege, and his journey is to learn how misguided he is.”

Art reveals all, and we can tell Wilson’s approach isn’t faithful to the original because it makes the story fall apart. Her Achilles is a man deluded by his privilege, and his journey is to learn just how misguided he is; his tragedy, to the extent that there is one, is that he does a lot of damage along the way. By way of contrast, consider what the poem looks like if his rage is justified and his actions are meaningful. In Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, first published in 1994, the psychiatrist Johnathan Shay recounted his work with a group of American combat veterans in the Boston area suffering from “severe, chronic” PTSD. Shay discovered that the Iliad “gives center stage to bitter experiences that actually do arise in war,” specifically the way that the experience of “heavy, continuous combat” can sever a person’s social ties and induce profound, lasting psychological damage.

In Shay’s telling, the Iliad’s inciting incident isn’t a sordid squabble between childish men, as it is for Wilson, but a crisis of authority that has parallel in the modern soldier’s experience. A fact lost in Wilson’s version becomes immediately significant: The book does not begin with the rage of Achilles, but with his willingness to confront Agamemnon, his superior officer, over a bad decision that is getting Greeks killed. Homer establishes Achilles not as a selfish man out for personal gain, but as a brave and honorable man who is willing to risk himself for the good of the group. Numerous examples of the hero’s humane and merciful behavior throughout the book support this reading. Achilles forces Agamemnon to concede, and only then does Agamemnon offer the fatal insult.

To understand the insult to Achilles we must understand two things, according to Shay. First, we must grasp that “an army is a moral construction … defined by shared expectations and values … that most of the participants most of the time regard as legitimate, ‘natural,’ and personally binding.” Second, we must “emotionally” respond to the “reality of combat danger,” in which “danger of death and mutilation is the pervading medium … a viscous liquid in which everything looks strangely refracted.” Human beings in combat situations are under enormous amounts of personal stress, and they must rely on the surrounding moral structure of the army. Violations of that structure by superiors are uniquely wounding betrayals, Shay found, and are often a preliminary source of combat trauma. The type of insult that Agamemnon inflicted upon Achilles still provokes “indignant rage,” alienation from the group, and psychological injury to this day—and the stronger a man’s sense of right and wrong is, the more likely he is to be injured.

When Achilles retires from the fighting because of his outraged honor, he is, in a sense, insisting on his own individual honor, but he is also insisting on the values of the army and the community. At the same time, by not fighting, he tragically betrays those values, and his actions rebound upon him when his closest comrade, Patroclus, is killed in his place. This touches off the second part of the Achilles saga, in which he returns to the fighting in a berserk rage, killing everything in sight, violating all the norms of combat, and eventually grotesquely mutilating Hector’s dead body. Here, too, the Iliad maps onto clinical experience, according to Shay. Men who have suffered a preliminary alienating moral injury can, following the death of a close friend, become deranged with grief and find themselves separated not just from the moral structure of the army, but from the valuation of their own lives, and from their humanity. In some cases, they commit war crimes. Shay’s book is full of the bitter testimony of Vietnam veterans who had these experiences. To return from this extreme state of alienation isn’t fully possible. Such men, if they survive at all, are damaged for life.

Homer’s epic, by these lights, is about war’s destruction of the human community, both at large and within the individual. In this one essential sense, Wilson is correct. The poem, as she argues, memorializes “warriors separated from their people” and laments “damage caused to communities”; it doesn’t glorify glory, nor does it glorify violence. The adjective “godlike” attached to its heroes is a double-edged sword, since the gods are frequently the worst actors around. The book is the prolonged, dirty, brutal dismantling of the human character. And while the narrative makes some interesting gestures toward healing, Achilles will indeed never return home. He dies at Troy, but it is significant that this prophesied event occurs outside the book’s frame—he lands in an unmarked grave, more or less. Many men damaged by war never reintegrate either; they can’t sleep, can’t feel, can’t form relationships. Many choose suicide. We could not name the multitude, not if we had ten mouths, a voice that never broke, a heart of bronze….

There is no neat moral or happy ending to the Iliad, and one reason to be suspicious of Wilson is that she finds one. Homer leaves Achilles asleep next to the ill-gotten Briseis and shows the Trojans, in the last scene, tenderly but hastily burying Hector while looking over their shoulders for marauding Greeks. The last image, at least in the Robert Fagles version, is of a burial. Yet Simone Weil wrote that “justice and love … bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent,” and as the book has been conventionally translated, this feels true, largely through the effects of the narrative voice.

“The victorious translator, lauded everywhere, drags the book behind her chariot.”

The narrator takes no side between Greeks or Trojans—both are great and noble, both have glorious warriors, both are fighting for just causes. The poem describes the human capacity for savagery in scenes of violence and desecration, but it does so sorrowfully, and it finds corresponding human capacities for goodness. Hector’s “brothers” and “friends in arms” (in Fagles’s translation), mournfully and carefully gather his bones from the ashes of his pyre “and warm tears [come] streaming down their cheeks.” They place the bones in “a golden chest,” and shroud them “round and round in soft purple cloths.” We could all wish for such an end.

To blame the tragedy on Achilles’s character flaws, the way Wilson’s translation choices tend to—or to claim that its heroes were all wrong, while we who sit in judgment of them in the present are all right—occludes the poem’s humanity and moral greatness. And it is especially frustrating to see the epic poem receive such treatment because of the essential lessons it has to offer us about the dangers and tragedies of war, and the value and fragility of communities. The victorious translator, lauded everywhere, drags the book behind her chariot. Hector is not disfigured by such treatment. When Priam comes to collect his son’s body, the young warrior “lies there fresh as dew,/ the blood washed away, and no sign of corruption./ All his wounds sealed shut, wherever they struck.” Given the ongoing canonization of Wilson’s translations, we can have no such hope for the works of Homer.