Obey the Spirit, Not the Letter

Here are three important things we don’t know about “The Iliad,” the Greek epic poem set during the Trojan War: how much of it is based on fact, whether it was all written down at one time, and whether it was composed by one poet or many. Guesses at the author’s identity range from a single blind poet named Homer to an entire group of poets calling themselves the Homeridai (who might have been inspired by a single blind poet).

“In my mind, there is no doubt that there was one anonymous poet, coming from a long tradition of oral singers, who wrote or dictated ‘The Iliad,’” says Stephen Mitchell, whose translation of the eighth-century B.C. work came out Tuesday ($35, Free Press). “His genius is stamped on the whole poem.”

A profound understanding of an author is vital for translators like Mitchell, to whom writerly intent matters as much, if not more than, word choice, cadence and line length.

“There’s a famous essay by [19th-century poet] Matthew Arnold called ‘On Translating Homer,’ and one of the things he says is that the essential qualities of the language of Homer are simplicity, clarity, speed and nobility,” Mitchell says. “When you’re trying to recreate that in English, the literal often has to go out the window.”

So does rhythm. Poet Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 “Iliad,” considered by many to be the definitive modern English edition, adheres to the original Greek poetic meter, dactylic hexameter. (That’s six three-syllable units, or feet, per line, with the first syllable of each stressed.) “Lattimore, to my mind, is unreadable,” Mitchell says. “It’s so awkward and un-English and unimaginative.” Mitchell chose to use pentameter (five feet per line), which sounds more natural in English.

Story’s the primary focus in Mitchell’s work. Still, rhythm resonates.

You see, that paragraph’s hexameter! This one’s pentameter, and thus it wins. And now your Homer-work is: Read the book.

The Slog of War

“The Iliad” covers, in excruciating detail, a few weeks near the end of the Trojan War. (And the horse isn’t even in there!) Greek warrior Achilles bails after his boss steals his girlfriend. Ilium (Troy) starts winning. When Trojan war leader Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’ BFF, Achilles returns to battle and slays Hector.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 1 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Also on Express

On the Spot: Lucie Arnaz