Agamemnon, Smith and Thomson

Claude Rawson

  • Homer: The ‘Iliad’ translated by Robert Fagles
    Viking, 683 pp, £17.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 670 83510 2
  • Kings by Christopher Logue
    Faber, 86 pp, £4.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 571 16141 3

At the end of Book Two of the Iliad, in the famous catalogue of the Greek and Trojan forces, the Carians, allies of Troy, led by their chief Nastes, are referred to as barbarophonoi, literally ‘of barbarian (i.e. non-Greek) speech’. Since barbaros (an onomatopoeic term suggesting babble, which does not occur in Homer) meant ‘one who does not speak Greek’, Homer’s compound word – the only occurrence in the Iliad of any derivative of barbaros – is pleonastic, or perhaps overemphatic or fussy (according to G.S. Kirk’s Commentary, it is also ‘surprising’, because the land of the Carians was inhabited by Mycenaean Greeks toward the end of the Bronze Age’). Not speaking Greek might signify other forms of outlandishness, including primitive habits and wild or uncivilised behaviour, and the subsequent history of the term ‘barbarian’ in various languages has been ethnocentric in a sense which tended to link civilised status with possession of the approved dominant language (first Greek, then Latin, followed by the various world-languages of later imperial hegemonies). ‘Barbarian’ and ‘barbarous’ are now typically used to suggest the savage or uncivilised without any strong consciousness of a linguistic factor, but the history of modern encounters with ‘primitive’ peoples, from 16th-century Amerindians to the various subject races of more recent colonial perspectives, shows that the barbarian has continued to be conceived as speaking a non-speech or ‘jabber’. And those who, like Montaigne, adopted the traditional ‘anti-colonialist’ or relativist counter-argument that the barbarians were less barbaric than their conquerors were fond of suggesting, in a table-turning appeal to etymology, that Amerindian languages resembled, or might have been related to, Greek.

‘Barbarian’ is thus a term fraught with nuances, crude in the intentions of its use but calling for delicate decoding, especially in translations of foreign texts of distant times and places. Richmond Lattimore, the more or less canonical translator of Homer in our time, renders barbarophonoi as ‘of the outland speech’. This has a mannered inelegance, typical of the less happy moments of this thoughtful and sensitive translator – a little stiff and academic at times, but at his best still the Finest English translator I have read. I take it that his idea was to convey some element of general outlandishness while preserving a primary linguistic emphasis, something which A.T. Murray, the Loeb translator, whose function was to provide a no-frills prose version, achieved more economically in the words ‘uncouth of speech’. The relentlessly reader-friendly translation by Robert Fitzgerald departs from the usual reading to say the Carians were led by their chief ‘in their own tongue’. Robert Fagles, whose version aims at an idiomatic directness lacking in Lattimore, without the sacrifice of poetic force which is an almost inevitable feature of the literal Loeb translations, is the only one of the four to capture both the main linguistic sense and a suggestion of larger resonances with appropriate fidelity and thrust: ‘the Carians wild with barbarous tongues’. Fagles greatly admires Pope’s 18th-century translation, and seems here to have borrowed from it: ‘with mingled Clamors, and with barb’ rous Tongues’. The first half of Pope’s line anticipates a scene, a few lines later, at the beginning of the next book, of Trojan armies emitting noisy animal cries. There, as in other places in the Iliad, they are contrasted with the quiet, disciplined Greek forces, and suggestions arise of a loud multilingual chaos, more or less literally a Babel or a collective babble. Such multilingual situations, in another ancient stereotype, are a variant form of linguistic barbarism, an incommunicable multiplicity of speech effectively redefined as non-speech.

It is the Trojans’ armies taken collectively and including their assorted allies, and not the Trojans themselves, in so far as they operate as individual protagonists, who appear in this way. For the purposes of the poem, the Trojan leaders, and perhaps all Trojans proper, are able to communicate directly with the Greeks and with each other, in some fictional common tongue which is vaguely assumed to be Greek or the special formalised version of it which functions as an official epic idiom. In isolation from the allies Trojans are not barbarians in any ordinary sense, and have been seen by some as ‘honorary Greeks’. There is a tripartite ethnocentrism, more complex than any binary arrangement of a them-and-us kind, in which Trojans are seen as adversaries of appropriate standing, equal to Greeks or only slightly below them, while a third force of allied or mercenary riff-raff is contrasted with both main contestants.

Such a pattern is found, for example, in the Histories of the Greek Polybius, writing about the Punic Mercenary War, in which the Roman and Carthaginian camps are contrasted with the rabble of mercenary troops, undisciplined, multilingual, and (such imputations often go together) capable of cannibal atrocities. (Polybius was a historical source of Flaubert’s Salammbô, which outdoes Montaigne’s reversal by seeing all parties as barbaric).

Cannibalism is a subdued theme in the Iliad, though it appears more significantly than is sometimes recognised, but the specific point about the Trojans and their allies in Books Two and Three and elsewhere is what Pope referred to as their ‘mingled Clamor’. His words anticipate in Book Two what Homer makes more explicit in the opening of Book Three, where Pope in turn ‘softens’ (his own term in another context) the impression of Homeric disorder which he had already inserted earlier, with its enhanced intimation of brutish behaviour beyond any limited conception of linguistic foreignness.

In addition to his well-justified borrowing of Pope’s ‘barbarous tongues’ in Book Two, Fagles uses the B-word a number of times in his own right. In this he also follows a habit of Pope’s, though not in the same places or to the same effect. Pope almost always uses such terms, in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, to refer to foreign (including Trojan) or outlandish places and people, though in two passages in the Iliad they are applied to a Greek: once when Idomeneus insults Little Ajax as ‘Barb’rous of Words’, and once when Hecuba denounces the ‘Barbarities’ Achilles has committed on her son Hector (a special case to which I shall return). Fagles by contrast applies the term to Achilles, not only in speeches by individual characters but in the official narrative voice, a practice which is insensitive in its cumulative as well as its local effects.

In two places in Book Twenty, Achilles is described as uttering, in the words of the Loeb translator, ‘a terrible cry’ (smerdalea iachon). Fagles translates the adjective first as ‘barbaric’ and then as ‘savage’, presumably as part of his project of playing down formulaic repetitions which would not appear natural to a modern reader. Other modern translators, including Lattimore and Fitzgerald, as well as Pope, have varied what Homer repeated, while the Loeb translator uses the same phrase in both places. None of them uses the B-word in either place. Elsewhere, in Books Twenty-Two and Twenty-Four, Fagles speaks of Achilles as ‘bursting with rage, barbaric’, or ‘like some lion/going his own barbaric way’, where the other four translators use other terms.

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