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Brilliant epic poem, dull prose
on 11 February 2013
This is a review of the E.V. Rieu prose translation of `The Iliad', revised by D.C.H. Rieu, published by Penguin Classics.
I never thought that the day would come, but here I am, much to my dismay, writing a largely unfavourable review of one of mankind's greatest achievements, Homer's `The Iliad'. Before you chastise me and call me an uneducated cretin (and I don't blame you if that's exactly what you're thinking right now), please allow me a chance to emphasise just how much I wanted to love this, to give it a five star review, and to heap praise upon praise onto this monumental piece of work. However, try as I might, I'd be lying to myself if I did that to this particular translation.
E.V. Rieu's translation of `The Odyssey' was actually the very first Penguin Classics book and so, from a historical perspective, it should come as no surprise that that and his `Iliad' are considered "classics" in of themselves. But times have changed since Rieu first opened up these cornerstones of Western civilisation to the masses. Scholarly research has progressed, the English language has evolved, and so Rieu's son, D.C.H. Rieu, was charged with the task of revising his father's original translation for a modern audience. As far as a prose translation of `The Iliad' goes, then, you probably can't do much better than this.
However, this begs the question, why exactly would you want to read a prose translation of `The Iliad' anyway? It is, after all, supposed to be a poem, not prose. Buying this book a few years ago, but not reading it until very recently, I chose to read a prose version because, in my naïve youth, I thought it would be easier and more accessible than a poetic equivalent. And, indeed, it probably is. But, at the expense of lively and flowing language, we now have "accessible", but extremely dull, prose. You're not supposed to read `The Iliad' like a normal book, but that's all you can really do with a prose translation like this. What we're then left with is one of the most tedious, repetitive stories you'll ever encounter in your life, and something that does a serious disservice to Homer. Okay, I haven't actually read the whole of a poetic translation of `The Iliad' to compare this to, but I have spent a lot of time, since I started this book, looking inside other editions, comparing the language, and being struck at how the words in some of the modern poetic versions jump of the page and come to life. That didn't happen here. One good point I can say about this translation, however, a very real saving grace, is that having now read this, I'll be in a better position to tackle a poetic translation by myself when I do inevitably rise to the challenge.
But it's still `The Iliad', a story which I love and always will, though certainly a story that isn't for everybody. And, if you absolutely must read a prose translation, Rieu and son have done about as much as they can for it. The language is modern and readable, it's definitely accessible, and the powerful moments in the story have been expressed wonderfully. But, looking through other translations, I can't help but feel that the prose form has destroyed the "epic" beauty that some other editions have, and has reduced this great work into something very dull indeed.