Mail & Guardian

Iliad's African odyssey

10 Jan 2013 23:40 | Andrea Doyle

Illustration used on book cover by Vuyile Voyiya.

Illustration used on book cover by Vuyile Voyiya.


When asked to review Richard Whitaker’s Southern African translation of Homer’s Iliad, I agreed with some trepidation. One reviewer describes it as “designed for South African readership” and I found myself asking why we need such a work “designed” for us. Are South Africans not capable of connecting with a narrative of rage, jealousy, forgiveness, pity and bad decisions without it being put into “our language”?

Whitaker, retired emeritus classics professor at the University of Cape Town, believes in the importance of post-colonial countries making their own connections with the classics. “They belong to all of us,” he said in an interview for the university’s faculty of law online News and Events Paper (November 12 2012). On this point, I couldn’t agree with him more.

Whitaker’s translation took him a decade to complete. Despite many South African publishing houses refusing to publish the work, having it included in the 2013 curriculum at Rhodes University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and UCT is a sign of academic success. This translation will be the first contact many of the students will have with Homer, certainly in literary form. One of Whitaker’s aims was to make the Iliad more accessible to South African readers and students alike, hoping that the Southern African patois might resonate with us more easily than the formal English of the translations we would usually come across, such as those of Richmond Lattimore, EV Rieu or Robert Fagles (my current favourite).

Whitaker has followed the Ancient Greek text very closely and it corresponds almost exactly line for line, which makes his translation good to teach from. He has also kept the concept of rhythm in mind, which is a feat of note. Ancient epic was written in epic hexameter, a feature that gets lost in translation when one sacrifices meaning over rhyme and rhythm. Whitaker has managed a supple line with five beats comprising 10 or 11 syllables. And so it reads easily and fluidly:

The Akhaians came on in silence, breathing force,
their purposes firm, to stand by one another.
As when a south wind mists the mountain peaks
— bad for the shepherd, like night for the thief,
and a man can see no further than a stonesthrow
— so their feet kicked up the whirling dust
as they marched and quickly crossed the plain.

This passage is free of particularly South African words such as amakhosi (commanders), muti, umkhonto (spear), kgotla (assembly), spruit, breker (tough guy) and so on. Here is a passage that isn’t, in which the aged Nestor, King of Pylos, remembers a warrior, Ereuthalion:

If only, Zeus, Athene and Apollo,
I were as young as when the Pylian impis
and the Arkadian assegai-fighters
went to war below the walls to Pheia.
Ereuthalion, their godlike champion,
stood, wearing the armour of inkosi
Areïthoös. — Men and women called him
“Stick-fighter”, because he did not fight
with a long assegai or bow, but broke
the ranks with his knobkierie of iron.
Using stealth, not strength, Lykourgos killed him
in a narrow poort where his knob­kierie of iron could not save him; …”
(Book 7:132-144)

I am not so sure that the importation of such culturally specific vocabulary in the context of Homer is that successful. This could well be that I am a purist and I have long been used to and grown to love more traditional and what I would term “culturally neutral” translations. For Whitaker, the traditional translations, some of which are mentioned above, reflect an elite European world, whereas vocabulary such as this mirrors our world better.

Ancient Greece became part of Europe and the social structures of the European world were born out of Greece, so, yes, this is true. But can one change this reflection with the substitution of mere vocabulary? The Greek gods, for example, have nothing to do with us; there is nothing “close to home” about them. Their names have not been removed from the translation nor have they been replaced with others (for this I am truly grateful, I might add). To see the names of Zeus, Athene and Apollo in the same company as impis and inkosis is disjunctive and difficult to align. Transposition of words is not all it takes to make a text more culturally accessible and the Greek gods are strong proof of this.

Language has much to do with connotation and the pictures one has in one’s mind when one reads fictional narrative in particular. Thus one hears so many people complaining of their favourite books being “ruined” when a version of it comes out on the silver screen.

I find it difficult to reconcile the image of Akhilleus the inkosi (more commonly known as Achilles) donning the exquisitely wrought armour Thetis asks Hephaistos to make for him in book 18. The weaponry and armour described in Homer’s Iliad is not consonant with that of a Zulu impi. Each reader carries their own gallery of pictures for the narratives they read and, if mine are already hanging, that is not to say new ones cannot be created for new ­readers.

Melting pot
Linguistically one can praise the work as a tribute to an astonishing version of South African English that bears the stamps of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism as well as the indigenous languages of Sesotho, Setswana, isiXhosa and isiZulu, not to mention Arabic, Berber and Swahili. The glossary supplied at the back of the translation is testimony to the extraordinary amount of work that was done to track down the words and their origins.

Regarding the practical success of such a translation, one has to ask: Who is au fait with all these Southern African terms? Is the first-year university student going to feel more at home reading this translation or more baffled than they would reading Lattimore’s translation, the universal university Iliad?

No one in South Africa speaks like this or uses this melting-pot vocabulary, thus various terms will resonate for various readers but it is unlikely that any single South African reader will feel that his or her own language is reflected in the translation.

That brings me to my next point — the issue of epic and vernacular language. The world’s great epics have survived because their narratives transcend the cultural frameworks in which they were created. If they are translated into a language that is too culturally specific, there is the very real possibility that the translation will not outlast the culture and, moreover, given how quickly language evolves and meanings reshape themselves, the translation will date far more quickly than, say, a more “neutral” one.

One of Whitaker’s motivations for his translation was the misrepresentation of Homeric culture he believes the Eurocentric translations have left. In his law faculty interview, Whitaker said that for him translations of Homer have inflated the scale of the Homeric world: “I see the Homeric world as something smaller scale — much more like a tribal world of small warring communities headed by chiefs than one of royal courts and sovereigns.”

This is an interesting point and one that could probably be more accurately answered by ancient historians. But in my mind’s gallery of the exhibition of the Trojan War, there is nothing small-scale about the launching of a thousand ships over Helen of Sparta or the rage of Achilles or the death of Hector.

There is no telling how the guinea-pig classics students of 2013 will respond and, indeed, if this brings Homer alive for them I, for one, as a teacher of Homer, will be delighted.

Andrea Doyle is the head of the Greek and Latin studies department in the faculty of humanities at the University of Johannesburg.

The Iliad of Homer: A Southern African Translation is available online at

View the original online publication here