Comparing translations of the Iliad

Several years ago, Daniel Mendelsohn looked at how four different translators rendered lines 795-800 of Book 13. After giving a phonetic rendering of the original Greek poetry, he writes:

Note, first of all, how the last words of the first, third, fifth, and sixth lines of this passage all end with the same sound combination, loaded with liquid “l”s (aellêi, “maelstrom”; polla, “many”: ep’ alla, “others hard behind,” ep’alloi, “others hard behind”): these liquid “l” sounds (with some explosive “p”s thrown in in the third, fifth, and sixth lines) beautifully evoke the sounds of the roiling waters, even as the insistent repetition of the “p-ll” sound cluster from line to line gives a sense of whitecaps breaking on the beach, one after another. (In other words, the near-rhyming words do what the waves do.) And, as if to make the analogy concrete, the sixth line—which reconnects the imagined world of the sea to the narrated world of the Trojans at war—repeats the “some before … others hard behind” language of the fifth: the waves are all’ … ep alla; the Trojans are alloi … ep’ alloi. So the sixth line is packed behind the fifth, imitating its sound cluster precisely the way in which the Trojan ranks, packed together in battle formation, are massed one behind the other.

Also of note is the way that the two adjectives in the fourth line—paphladzonta, the “roiling” waves, and polyphloisboio, the “greatly-roaring” sea—replicate each other’s consonants: the “p”s, the “ph”s, the “l”s, the soft “s”s and “z” sounds. If you repeat those languidly unspooling words, you’re making the noises of the surf.

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