• Enduring Epics: Emily Wilson and Madeline Miller on Breathing New Life Into Ancient Classics

    The Author of Circe Talks to the Translator of The Iliad

    This conversation took place in response to my new verse translation of Homer’s The Iliad (Norton, September 2023), for which I also wrote the introduction and notes. I published a translation of The Odyssey in 2017, which Madeline very kindly reviewed. I love Madeline’s moving, vivid novels based on the Homeric poems—the tragic, Iliadic Song of Achilles (2011) and the Odyssean Circe (2018). It has been a true joy to me to become friends with Madeline over the past few years, thanks to our Homeric publications. We live near each other, we share a love of Shakespeare as well as Homer, and we both, as it turns out, have daughters named Freya. So I was delighted to get a chance to answer some questions from Madeline, on the eve of the publication of my Iliad translation.

    — Emily Wilson


    Madeline Miller: When your translation of the Odyssey came out, I was so thrilled. It was incredibly smart, thoughtful, beautiful, gripping, engaging. It brought me into the poem in new ways, and I have recommended it constantly ever since, all the while waiting patiently for your Iliad. So it is a real joy to speak with you again about Homer and your new Iliad translation, which is equally wonderful and thrilling.

    Emily Wilson: I am so grateful to you, Madeline, for taking the time to ask me these questions! As you know, I love your Homeric novels, and it’s a delight to talk to you. It’s also so fascinating to think about how your work, drawing on the Homeric epics to create new fiction, is both different and similar to mine as a translator of those same epics.

    MM: In what ways did your approach to the Iliad differ from your approach to the Odyssey? Were there things you wanted to keep consistent between the two poems, or did you start over completely from scratch?

    EW: When I was in the final stages of working on the Odyssey, I thought I’d probably take a decade off before turning to the Iliad. But I was persuaded otherwise, and I thought it might be a fairly easy transition; surely there is no better training for creating a verse translation of a Homeric epic than creating a verse translation of a Homeric epic. I hoped I was on a roll. But once I started working on the Iliad, I realized I was wrong. The Iliad, an astonishing, sublime poem that I love even more than I love the Odyssey, is completely different in mood and setting, and I could not simply assume that the stylistic mode I had developed for the other epic would work. I told myself then that it would be better to treat it as a completely new and baffling enterprise, and start as if from scratch. On the most technical level: I always knew I wanted it to be metrical, like the Odyssey translation, because meter is so essential to the experience of Homer, and it makes me sad that most modern translations aren’t metrical. When I was teaching Homer in any of the usual free verse translations (Fagles/ Lattimore/ Lombardo/ Fitzgerald/ Alexander), I always got frustrated that my students never got the sense of Homeric poetry as always rhythmical, inviting reading out loud, speaking to the body, pulsing with a regular music. But I experimented with different line lengths and metrical forms. In the end, I came back to iambic pentameter, but I used more lines than the original, while still trying to think constantly about pace. Beyond the issues of form: in working on the Iliad, I spent a lot more time thinking about sight and sound and sensation—both physical sensation and emotions. Odysseus constantly reinvents himself with words and stories—whereas in the Iliad, the three central mortal warrior-characters, Hector, Agamemnon and Achilles, are all much more forthright in their manners of speech, and we’re constantly contemplating the mortal human body, and the screams and wails of dying men and the women left to weep for them. 

    Homer’s psychologically truthful vision allows for a deep understanding and sympathy with everyone.

    MM: One of the reasons I love the Iliad is that it’s full of huge personalities. Were there characters you enjoyed exploring or especially wanted to bring a new perspective to?

    EW: I’m always happy to talk about all the characters in Homer. This seems ridiculously obvious, but the mortal characters I find most fascinating in the Iliad are Achilles and Hector and Agamemnon. All three are vulnerable, each in different ways. Sometimes, both in translation and in scholarly discussions, I think readers and commentators can under-estimate the subtlety and compassion and depth in Homeric characterization. To me, there is something so profound about how Hector’s rash courage is so closely intertwined with his fragility, his fear of shame, his desperate desire to do the right thing; and how Achilles’ fury is so intimately linked to his knowledge of his own mortality, his knowledge of his limits and inability to bear that he is so much and yet not everything; and how Agamemnon’s brash, inconsistent leadership style emerges from his knowledge that he can’t afford to lose even the slightest bit of face, and it’s all on him if the expedition fails. I think translators and readers are sometimes so invested in the greatness of these great men that they don’t see how much the poem shows us of their humanity as well.

    Homer’s psychologically truthful vision allows for a deep understanding and sympathy with everyone, female and male, mortal and divine, human, animal and even inanimate (like the hungry spears, or the marvelous A. I. golden robots in the workshop of Hephaestus). I love the horses—the poor mortal trace-horse, Jumper, who dies, and the immortal pair, Bay and Dapple, who weep for Patroclus and remind Achilles, when he re-enters the battle, that he will die. I just got tattoos of them on my arm; they are an inspiration, and a reminder of mortal limitation.

    I love all the divine characters. One I particularly love is Thetis, who is so essential to the whole plot: it’s her prayer for her short-lived mortal son that sets in motion Achilles’ absence from the battlefield, and the terrible Greek losses, including the death of Patroclus; I am moved by the immortal mother who can’t save her mortal son, and whose attempt to generate more honor for him only makes his life more full of pain and brings his death even closer. In working on the translation, I thought a lot about how to make sure the goddesses and gods feel real emotionally and in their interactions, which are almost like those of humans, but also fully real in their movements through space, which are entirely unlike humans—like the way Thetis rises from the grey salty sea, and at first it seems to be just mist on the water, but then she is there, the magical silver-footed goddess, real in the world.

    MM: Can you talk a little about the famous Helen moment in Book 3 where she reproaches herself? I love how you brought out the chilling side of Aphrodite. Your translation invites us to understand the difficulty and horror of Helen’s situation.

    EW: Helen is such a great character, in both Homeric poems. In Iliad 3, in a sequence known as the Teichoskopia (Wall Viewing), she’s hanging out with her kind old father-in-law, Priam, identifying the Greek leaders for him—Priam apparently has not taken any interest in who the various Greek leaders are for the first nine years of the siege. Helen identifies Agamemnon as her former brother-in-law (brother of Menelaus, her ex-husband), and uses a weird word: “dog-face” (kunops). I translated that word literally, as “dog-face.” In the Robert Fagles translation, it’s “whore that I am!,” and in Richmond Lattimore, it’s “slut that I am,” while Robert Fitzgerald, who often likes more Elizabethan or Jacobean language, it’s “wanton.” It really isn’t the case that we have any scholarly evidence for thinking this word is specifically about Helen ascribing the language of sexualized condemnation to herself, so I don’t think these are great translation choices—although of course I understand that “dog-face” sounds strange in English. I think it’s ok if the translation seems alien and strange sometimes, if it preserves something resonantly distinctive or ambiguous about the original poem. What exactly does it mean to be a dog-face person? “Dog-face” can be an insult for men or women, in archaic Greek poetry, a way of taking a person down a notch; Achilles accuses Agamemnon of being “dog-face” (and none of the translators I just cited use the same translation in that passage that they use for Helen). I love the ambiguity of Helen’s attitude to herself and her own history. Is she talking about how she sees herself, or is this a way of expressing her awareness of how she’s seen by others? If she looks in a mirror, does she see a dog-face looking back? Is she a fierce hunting dog, or a loyal dog like Argos in the Odyssey, or somebody’s pet—and if so, whose? Is she, as the child of Zeus, more than human or less than human, or both? Right after that line, she expresses a kind of profound alienation from her past self, perhaps the self married to Menelaus, and perhaps the self who came to Troy with Paris: “if any of these things took place at all.”

    Iliad book 3 gives us a kind of recap of “these things,” by providing a kind of echo of the scene we never get in the poem: the original abduction or seduction of Helen. The scene reminds us that every deity can be absolutely terrifying and deadly to mortals, including Aphrodite, who loves smiles, whom we might be tempted to under-estimate. If you describe her as “goddess of love,” you might think she’s loving or caring, but of course that isn’t true, unless you happen to be in her good books. Like every other immortal, she has her own agenda, her own favorites and enemies, and her own insistence on being honored and getting her own way. As an enemy, she is as dangerous as any other immortal. Aphrodite spirits Paris from the battlefield to the bedroom, and threatens Helen into joining him there, for fear of her immortal displeasure. Helen is Aphrodite’s half-sister and the closest thing to her human equivalent, but she’s also manipulated and dominated by the goddess. It’s fascinating to me that in this narrative that centers on how men abduct and capture women, the closest thing we have to a scene of abduction and abuse centers on two female characters: Aphrodite forcing Helen. We never get a description of Achilles or Agamemnon raping Briseis or anyone else, although of course it’s implied. The goddesses—Hera, Aphrodite, Athena and Eris, the goddess of Conflict—tend to be the scariest characters, scarier even than Ares, the bloody god of war. We could read the scene allegorically, as the Neo-Platonists in late antiquity read Homer: as an account of how terrifying it is to feel overwhelming lust for somebody you don’t respect. We’ve all been there, or at least I have. But in the world of the poem, the goddess is also fully real, not an abstraction but a divine being suddenly physically present, with dazzling beauty and shining eyes—and there is something so powerful and frightening about the fact that Helen has so much righteous, well-articulated fury against her, taunting her for her own crush on Paris in a speech that is funny as well as desperate—and it means nothing: “The goddess led the way.” 

    MM: Ever since I first read the Iliad, I was drawn to Patroclus because he felt like a mystery—a linchpin of the plot, who gets relatively few lines. What do you make of him, and the role he plays? As a follow up, it must be tricky to balance the way that characters have been interpreted by later writers, with the original text. For instance, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has been written and imagined so many different ways over the millennia, including becoming significant as a queer story—were you interacting with the weight of that reception as you worked, or were you trying to ignore it, or something else entirely?

    EW: Patroclus is a fascinating character. As you say, he doesn’t get all that many lines, and he’s quiet at some crucial moments—as in Book 9, when Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix come to beg Achilles to return to battle—Patroclus is present, he has been with Achilles, and we get a little tantalizing glimpse of their domestic life together, Patroclus listening to Achilles play the lyre and singing, and Patroclus serves the guests food—but while Achilles gives those wonderfully effusive, impassioned speeches about his refusal to fight—those speeches are definitely some of my very favorite passages—we don’t get to hear what exactly Patroclus thinks. At the same time, we get a little glimpse of what his possible role might be in that book from the speech of Phoenix, who talks about Cleopatra, the wife of Meleager, who persuades the enraged hero to give up his rage: “Cleo-patra”= reversed female name for “Patr-oclus.” We see several different sides to Patroclus: he’s compassionate and loyal to his own side, he helps the wounded, he’s kind to Briseis, and he’s also one of the most brilliantly violent and cruel fighters on the battlefield, eager to push ahead to the city of Troy, to win glory, and also very ready with taunts and insults for those he slaughters; in his final fighting sequence, he’s almost as agile with mocking words as he is with murderous weapons. We never see Achilles and Patroclus fight together, but the poem shows us enough of each of them fighting alone that we can understand how thrilling the battlefield is for both of them, and the fundamental bond they have formed from sharing those most exciting of experiences, sacking towns and massacring men and enslaving women together over the past nine years. The relationship is like husband and wife, or like parent and child, as several moments of imagery remind us; but it’s even more intimate than any of those, because they’ve been together during the days as well as the nights, on the chariot and on foot, engaged in the glorious dangerous bloody activity that they both love most and both excel at, which is war. At the same time, Patroclus is in a difficult position, as the one who is older but also lesser than Achilles: the son of two mere mortals, less quick footed, less essential for the Greek army. He’s the friend who is assumed to be able to influence Achilles, but can’t necessarily make this incredibly stubborn young man do what the other Greeks want. We glimpse the pathos of Patroclus’ dependence on Achilles a final time towards the end, and also their closeness, when his spirit begs Achilles to let him cross the final river of the dead—and Achilles stays up all night drinking and communing with his lost friend, the last of so many evenings they have spent together.

    I knew, of course, that many readers would come to my Iliad having read your Song of Achilles! That fact specifically did seem important for me to think about. I didn’t want readers, especially young queer readers, to feel let down. Patrochilles is a very important motif or even meme in our culture; there aren’t so many canonical queer icons of athletic and military achievement, within the rather limited gender norms of contemporary American culture. Marvel and DC heroes tend to be very heteronormative. I knew, too, of course, that the perception of Achilles and Patrolcus as lovers has a very long and distinguished history; Aeschylus’ fifth century tragedy, Myrmidons—of which we have only a few fragments—certainly depicted them as lovers, and the extant quotations include references to “many kisses” and “nearness of limbs” between the two men. Plato also seems to assume that they’re lovers. For readers of the Iliad in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, “queer” might not be quite the right term; sexual relationships between men weren’t seen as “other” or strange in classical Athens, in the way that they have been at some periods of modern history.

    It’s important for a translator from those languages to think about how to make ancient literature feel as alive as it would have felt to an ancient reader or listener.

    But of course also: the Iliad doesn’t have anything explicit, or even implicit, about our heroes having sex. Patroclus and Achilles sleep in the same tent, but the narrator tells us that each of the men has an enslaved woman at his side. I felt I had to respond to the reader’s possible expectations and possible disappointment in two ways. One was to discuss the Patrochilles relationship fairly extensively in the introduction and notes, and make clear the ways that it’s taken absolutely seriously, and is at the emotional heart of Achilles’ narrative arc. In the introduction, I also discuss the fact that the Iliad doesn’t treat sex as a measure of closeness or love—so the fact that the poem doesn’t tell us that Achilles and Patroclus had sex is in no way a sign that they’re less than everything to each other. The characters who do have sex in the Iliad—Helen and Paris, Hera and Zeus, and various warriors with the enslaved women whom they regularly rape—are not exactly doing so out of “love.” Within the translation itself, I knew that I had to convey the profound intimacy and love of Achilles and Patroclus; the reader or listener has to understand on a deep emotional level that Patroclus is Achilles’ person, and that without him, he is all but dead himself—and he also knows that his death is at least partly his own fault. You, the reader or listener, should feel his devastation.

    “My friend Patroclus, whom I loved, is dead.
    I loved him more than any other comrade.
    I loved him like my head, my life, myself.
    I lost him, killed him…. “

    By the time you get to Book 18, if you don’t feel the full horror of that moment with your whole being, I’ve failed.

    MM: From a craft perspective, what do you do when you get stuck on something in the translation? How do you work through a difficulty?

    EW: I do a lot of reading out loud, of the original and of my drafts in progress. Sometimes that helps shake out a knot or helps me see difficulties I hadn’t known were there, or see them in a new way. I also do a lot of writing by hand, crossing out ten different drafts, and then sometimes going back to something I had on the third try. If I’m really stuck, I sometimes have to leave it and go for a long walk, and come back to it after my mind is reset. I don’t have a complete solution that works every time—I wish I did! I’m constantly getting stuck, but maybe that’s part of the process.

    MM: Do you have any translations that are an inspiration for you? I don’t mean translations of the Iliad—I mean, other translators who inspire you with their visions, choices, and insight?

    EW: I love reading older English translations (pre-nineteenth century), of ancient texts (Golding’s Ovid, the Tenne Tragedies of Seneca, Chapman’s Homer and Pope’s very different version, Marlowe’s Ovid, Douglas’ and Surrey’s and Dryden’s Aeneids, and many more) and vernacular (Florio’s Montaigne, Wyatt’s Petrarch, etc), because so many of them have a vigor and artfulness that I see as often lacking from the modern versions. The pre-C20 norms of translation often wouldn’t hold up to modern scholarly norms—many are very expansive and often inaccurate, closer to what we might consider an imitation than a translation. But they usually make the assumption that a literary translation is itself a work of literature, so they don’t read like homework, or like a language part way between English and something else, in the way that some of the flatter modern classical translations do. I feel deeply inspired by these earlier models of how translation can be a literary and poetic art form in itself.

    I also feel fairly directly inspired by Matthew Arnold’s discussion of what a Homeric translation should aim for—rapidity, plainness of thought and diction, and nobility—and by his own pseudo-Homeric poem, “Sohrab and Rustum,” a poem that is certainly very much of its era, but still makes me cry every time I reread it. I always feel puzzled when people describe my Homeric translations as “modern,” because mostly, I think of myself as doing quite the opposite: I want to convey the strangeness, visceral humanity, and metrical music of Homer, by reviving an Anglophone poetic tradition that has been marginalized over the past century, with the growing dominance of free verse.

    Within contemporary translation, I always learn a great deal from reading or hearing other translators talk about process, especially translators from living languages. I think translators from Latin and ancient Greek sometimes get stuck in a little bubble, as if creating translations from languages that are no longer spoken was an entirely different thing from creating any kind of literary translation. The classicist translator always risks confusing our task as recreators of the experience of the original, with the kinds of exercises we might set our students (“translate and show you understand the syntax”), because pedagogical “translation” (translation as demonstration of comprehension, not translation as recreation) often plays an outsize role in the language classroom for Latin and Ancient Greek. I really enjoy reading Susan Bernofsky on her process as a translator of German novels—she has a great essay about revision. I’ve learned a lot from remarks about translation from the late-lamented Edith Grossman, translator of Don Quixote and many other classics of the Spanish canon. Lawrence Venuti, translator from Italian and Catalan, has written many thought-provoking books and articles about translation theory and practice, including his influential book The Translator’s Invisibility. I’ve learned a lot from the writings of both Michael Emmerich (translator of Japanese fiction) and Karen Emmerich (translator of modern Greek fiction). Ancient Greek and Latin were once living languages, too, so I think it’s important for a translator from those languages to think about how to make ancient literature feel as alive as it would have felt to an ancient reader or listener.


    The Iliad by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, is available from W.W. Norton & Company.

    Emily Wilson
    Emily Wilson
    Emily Wilson is the College for Women Class of 1963 Term Professor in the Humanities and a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been named a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome in Renaissance and Early Modern scholarship, a MacArthur Fellow, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Her best-selling 2017 translation of Homer’s Odyssey has achieved “canonical status,” according to the Atlantic and the Washington Post. Her translation of The Iliad has just been released by Norton. In addition, she has also published translations of Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca, as well as books about tragedy, Socrates, and Seneca, and serves as an editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature.

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