Friday 29 May 2020

An experimental translation of Homer

Does Homer have flow? By which I mean, flow as in rap?

The answer is yes. Homer has flow coming out the wazoo. Unfortunately, you won’t see that in any published translation of the Iliad.
Professor Brandon Bourgeois, University of Southern California, performing his Trilliad (the Iliad in rap) in a lecture.
I’m not just talking about the idea of performing Homer in English in rap. That’s something that Brandon Bourgeois is famous for. He’s a professor at the University of Southern California, and his Trilliad is a rap adaptation of Homer — and by the way it’s absolutely fantastic and you should certainly watch it or listen to it.

Bourgeois does an outstanding job of conveying the feel of Homeric epic. What I want to get at today is a little different: the flow in the original Greek. Even students of the language might not notice Homer’s flow. They get trained in Homer’s dialect, scansion rules, caesuras, metrical bridges. But it’s hard to see the rhythmical forest for the technical trees. It’s all analytic.

It’s all there between the lines — so to speak — if you read about the work of Parry on the Homeric formulaic system, Kirk’s theory of colons and the accumulative style, Nagy and West on the building blocks of the Homeric hexameter. But it’s pretty indirect. If you’re thinking metrical scholars have any notion of flow, even heroic figures like Bryan Hainsworth or Rainer Friedrich ... well, no offence to them intended, but I’m pretty confident that isn’t how they think of it.

My advice: why not put away caesuras for a century or two. They’ve had their day. Learn about flow instead.

If you want to learn about flow, watching YouTube tutorials will give some basic musical guidance. But I don’t think that’ll help you appreciate what happens when a rap god goes to work. Better to look at some favourites, especially with a focus on freestyling (improvised rap) and rap battles. You’ll get a much better sense of how much variety there can be, and the importance of rhythmic versatility.

For flow in Homer, think about colometry. Homeric Greek has a very distinctive style. When students of ancient Greek come to Homer, after reading things like Sophocles and Lysias, they’re often amazed at how simple the syntax is, once they get past the hurdle of the strange vocabulary. But there’s a specific reason for the syntactical style.
‘Looking like a cyclone hit you, tank top screaming “Lotto, I don’t fit you!”’ — B-Rabbit vs Lotto (Eminem and NaShawn ‘Ox’ Breedlove), 8 Mile (Universal, 2002)
And that reason is flow. Flow and colometry. A colon is a rhythmic phrase, which is partially or completely syntactically independent of its context. In Homeric poetry colons are important because many of them are formulas. Modern rappers use rhymes; Homer uses formulas. The idea is that you can freestyle by chaining colons together, so that the result simultaneously makes sense and also fits the strict rhythms of Homeric epic.

The base rhythm has twelve beats, called hemipedes:
♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♫ ♩ ♩
That’s the modern musical notation. In academic notation it looks like:
— ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏖ — ×
but in most cases ♫ can be replaced by ♩.

Chaining (or as Kirk puts it, accumulation) works like this. You can have a line with two colons of 5 + 7 hemipedes, or 5½ + 6½ hemipedes, with a stock of formulas to fit each of those rhythms. Put them together, and hey presto, you have a meaningful line of Homeric Greek. Or you could have three colons: 2 + 6 + 4, or 5 + 2 + 5, or 3 + 2½ + 6½, or other combinations. With each of these there’s a huge range of traditional formulas that you can slot into each colon. Alternatively, you can adapt them if desired. Here are some examples of 5 + 2 + 5 lines:
ton d’ apalon gelasas — prosephē — Dios huion Apollōn
laughing gently — he spoke to him — Zeus’ son Apollo

ton d’ epimeidēsas — prosephē — nephelēgeretā Zeus
smiling at him — he spoke to him — cloud-gathering Zeus

ton de meg’ ochthēsas — prosephē — polymētis Odysseus
greatly angered — he spoke to him — cunning Odysseus

ton de cholōsamenos — prosephē — krateros Diomēdēs
in anger — he spoke to him — strong Diomedes
What if our whole translation looked like that? The result, I find, has some striking similarities to hip hop. Here’s a snippet from Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Triumph’ (1997):
I bomb atomic’lly — Socrates’ philosophies —
and hypotheses — can’t define how I be dropping these —
mockeries — lyric’lly perform armed robbery —
flee with the lottery — possibly they spotted me —
battle-scarred shogun — explosion when my pen hits —
tremendous — ultra-violet shine — blind forensics —
I inspect — view through the future — see millennium —
Killa Beez sold fifty gold — sixty platinum —
I’ve put in line divisions to match the musical beat, and dashes to mark the colons. And here’s a bit from Odyssey book 1:
he grasped her right hand — he took the bronze spear —
speaking to her — he said winged words out loud —
welcome — guest among us — good to see you — but later —
when you’ve eaten a meal — you can tell me what you want —
that’s what he said — he led the way — she followed — Pallas Athena —
when they were inside — they were in the high-roofed hall —
he set the spear down — he took it to a tall pillar —
inside the spear-holder — well-polished — where the other ones were —
spears of Odysseus — patient-suffering — they were set there —
There are differences: Inspectah Deck uses rhyme, Homer doesn’t; Homer’s rhythms are much stricter than in modern rap. But I hope you can see the syntactical similarities. Each new colon is either (a) a sense-break, (b) an expansion or clarification of the previous colon, or (c) a grammatical supplement of the previous colon.

That’s Kirk’s accumulative style in action. And that’s flow.
‘You don’t even get enough credit for being Atlanta’s first mumble-rapper’ — Pass vs Ness Lee, KOTD’s ‘Blackout 7’ (Toronto, April 2017)
So, without further ado, here’s a colon-by-colon translation of the start of the Iliad. I don’t think this kind of translation could ever be published — can you really imagine reading 16,000 lines of this? — but it’s a nifty experiment.

Iliad book 1, lines 1-52

sing of wrath — goddess — of Peleus’ son Achilles —
destructive — it put endless pains — on the Achaians —
and many strong souls — it sent them to Hades —
heroes’ souls — and them — it made them a feast for dogs —
and for all birds — it was all Zeus’ will —
since that time — that first moment — those two took each other on —
Atreus’ son — the king of men — and excellent Achilles —
so which god did it to those two — set them arguing and fighting —
Leto’s and Zeus’ son — because he was furious at the king —
a disease on the army — he sent a deadly one — and the people perished —
because of Chryses — he dishonoured the priest —
Atreus’ son did — when he came — it was at the Achaians’ swift ships —
meant to ransom his daughter — bringing a huge ransom payment —
holding the ribbons in his hands — far-shooter Apollo’s —
they hung along the golden sceptre — he beseeched them — all the Achaians —
especially Atreus’ two sons — marshals of the people —
sons of Atreus — and the others too — well-greaved Achaians —
may the gods grant you — they’re the ones who hold Olympus’ halls —
to sack Priam’s city — and to get home well —
but ransom my daughter to me — accept this compensation —
honour Zeus’ son — far-shooter Apollo —
then all the others — the Achaians approved —
honour the priest — take the shining pay-off —
but not Atreus’ son — it didn’t please Agamemnon in his heart —
he sent him away badly — he dumped violent speech on him —
better not, old man — if I find you by the hollow ships —
better not delay — better not come again later —
that won’t help you — the sceptre and the god’s ribbon —
I won’t ransom her — old age will come on her first —
in our house — in Argos — far from her homeland —
back and forth at the loom — and coming to my bed —
but go — don’t provoke me — safer if you go —
that’s what he said — that old man was scared — he obeyed the speech —
he walked in silence — by the shore — by the ever-roaring sea —
then a very long way off — he prayed as he walked — that old man —
to king Apollo — lovely-haired Leto bore him —
hear me — silver-bowed — the one who walks around Chryse —
and holy Killa — and you rule Tenedos with your might —
Smintheus — if I ever served you — fed you pleasing offerings in your shrine —
if I ever served you — burnt a sacrifice of fat thighs —
of bulls and of goats — grant my wish —
make the Danaans pay — for my tears — with your arrows —
that’s what he said — praying — and he heard him — Phoibos Apollo —
he came down from Olympus — from the peaks — his heart was angry —
bringing the bow on his shoulders — and the covered quiver —
they rattled — the arrows — on his shoulders — he was angry —
as he raced — he moved — he looked like night —
then he set down — a long way off from the ships — he fired one shot —
a horrific noise — it came from the silver bow —
first the mules — he visited them — then the eager dogs —
but then on the men — firing the sharp arrow —
he shot — constant pyres of the dead — they burned all the time —


  1. This is interesting! How does this relate to accentuation? Isn't there a back-and-forth between the regularity of the metre and the randomness of the accent?

    1. Accentuation, in the sense of the early Greek pitch accent, is mostly unrelated to metre. Having said that, there's some limited evidence of Hellenistic-era editions of the older poets containing selective accentuation to indicate contours on the scale of a colon (see Nagy in Quaderni Urbinati di cultura classica 64, 2000). And there are certainly some striking lines where pitch accent does have a close relationship to metre (like the first line of the Odyssey). But the evidence is so limited that it's risky to draw conclusions.

      Or are you maybe thinking of the relationship between stress and metre in Latin poetry, esp. Vergil? That's certainly well documented and well studied.