Translucence and Translation in Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Illiad

Most translations of Homer’s The Iliad keep the entire narrative of the story, incorporating Homer’s themes on the glory of war. Alice Oswald, however, chooses to deviate from this aspect of Homer’s epic in her Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad. Oswald aims to translate The Iliad’s “atmosphere, not it’s story,” by showcasing its “enargeia” or its “bright unbearable reality,” instead of its “nobility,” making her version more “translucence” than “translation” (Oswald, ix). To achieve this, Oswald cuts out the narrative of the story, leaving behind only the gruesome scenes of two hundred Greek and Trojan deaths. Although at first read, Oswald’s deformation of the Iliad’s narrative seems counteractive to her goal of capturing its “bright unbearable reality,” she argues that loss, not war in general, is central to The Iliad (Oswald, ix). Using elemental similes, especially in the death of of Podes, Oswald strips away the glory of war and leaves behind a reflection on the cyclical and inevitable nature of death. For Oswald, The Iliad’s enargeia emerges not from the narrative itself, but from the destruction left behind.

In her depiction of Podes’s death, Oswald’s removal of his killer shifts the focus of war from its glory to its destruction, and shows the inevitability of death. In The Iliad, as well as in Memorial, Podes’s death is brief, only taking up a few lines of the text: “Podes a close friend of Hector/ They used to have meals together/ He panicked he tried to run back to those times/ But time itself finished him”(Oswald, 62). In Memorial, however, Oswald omits Podes’s killer, whereas in his translation of The Iliad, Lattimore states that “fair-haired Menelaus struck [Podes] at the war belt/ As he swept away in flight, and drove the bronze spear clean through it” (Lattimore, 578-579). Lattimore’s translation adheres to the traditional depiction of war as glorious, focusing on not only the deaths of war, but its victories as well. Lattimore’s translation depicts Menelaus, Podes’s killer, as a winner, while Oswald doesn’t even think it necessary to mention his name, instead saying that Podes is “finished” by time (Oswald, 62). This translation of Podes’s death alludes to Oswald’s belief that death and destruction await all of us, and cannot be avoided, especially in situations of war. To her, Podes’s killer isn’t important when describing his death, because had Menelaus not have killed him, somebody—or something—else probably would have.

Another way that Oswald fixates on war as an outlet for destruction, not nobility, is by meticulously picking the details she includes in her short, four-line description of Podes’s death. While Lattimore’s translation never describes Podes’s actions as he dies, Oswald describes Podes “panick[ing]” and trying to “run back” to the times when he and Hector would “have meals together” (Oswald, 62). With this description, Oswald implies that Hector regrets fighting and fears his death. Instead of dying with nobility and bravery, he runs away, wishing he was somewhere else, enjoying a meal with a good friend. This disrupts the classical image of a valorous death, instead depicting fear and cowardice on the battlefield, and portrays war as a destructive force not only for bodies, but for spirit.

Interestingly enough, Oswald also tries to find The Iliad’s “bright, unbearable reality” through the bits of narrative that she omits in her translation (ix). By choosing to include only scenes of death, she cuts scenes that might distract from this aspect of war. Even the compilation of these deaths in a ninety page books says something dismal about the vast amounts of death associated with war. The Iliad contains so many deaths that even if you were to only briefly describe every death scene, you would have enough text to fill a novel.

In Podes’s death scene, Oswald’s omits Podes’s social status and Hector’s attempt at avenging him to further argue that death is inevitable and that noble actions in war don’t detract from it’s insurmountable amount of death. In Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad, Lattimore continuously refers to Podes as “Eëtion’s son” and also refers to his wealth by calling him a “rich man” (Lattimore, 576). By not including these details, Oswald equalizes Podes’s death with the deaths of every other character in The Iliad, wealthy or not. By doing this, not only does Oswald imply that all deaths are equally tragic and significant, but she also implies that wealth and social status can’t save somebody from meeting their inevitable end. Oswald also omits a scene in which Hector attempts to avenge Podes’s death. In Lattimore’s translation, Apollo approaches Hector after Podes’s death and says “Hecktor, what other Achaian now shall be frightened before you?/ See, you have shrunk before Menelaos, who in times before this/ was a soft spearfighter; and now has gone taking off single-handed/ a body from among the Trojans. He has killed your trusted companion,/ valiant among the champions, Podes, the son of Eëtion” (Lattimore, 585-590). Hector’s inability to protect his friend from Menelaus brings shame to the Trojans. In response, he “[takes] his way among the champions helmed in shining bronze” and prepares to fight to avenge the death of his friend and dissipate the dishonor his failure has brought on (Lattimore, 592). By cutting this scene, Oswald argues that Podes’s death is irreversible. Not even a noble act of vengeance from Hector can bring Podes back or alleviate the damage brought on by his death.

Perhaps one of the most distinguishing factors of Oswald’s adaptation of The Iliad is the elemental similes that make up a bulk of the novel. Every episode of death in Memorial is followed by a comparison to some natural force, levelling death with something as natural and destructive as things like thunder or, in the case of Podes’s death, fire. Using these elemental similes, Oswald once again argues that death is inevitable, even natural, and cannot be controlled or contained. Death is elemental, not glorious. Furthermore, by comparing war to a destructive natural phenomenon like fire, Oswald expresses a negative opinion on human nature, its inherent violence. Oswald believes that humans, like the elements, naturally tend toward hate, violence. Unlike the original translation, Oswald finds The Iliad’s “bright, unbearable reality” not in humankind’s glory, but in humankind’s striking tendency toward destruction, and the loss left behind (Oswald, ix).

The similes employed by Oswald in comparing the Trojan war to the elemental world also serve to bring the themes of the Iliad to a more contemporary audience. Many readers in 2011—the date of Memorial’s publication—wouldn’t have been familiar with the Trojan war, or the general landscape of war in general. It is incredibly difficult for readers who have never experienced war to be able to truly understand its destruction and intensity. It’s much easier, however, for readers to imagine waves crashing into the face of a rocky cliff or bright flames consuming a large tree. Oswald uses these images to transcend The Iliad’s enargeia across time and knowledge. One must not need to be familiar with the entire storyline of The Iliad or have experienced the chaos of warfare to understand The Iliad’s atmosphere.

Oswald’s aims in compiling descriptions of every death in Homer’s The Iliad are explicitly stated at the beginning of Memorial. She herself recognizes that her attempt to capture The Iliad’s “enargeia” or “bright, unbearable reality” makes her version deviate from a traditional translation. Her fixation on death and use of elemental similes, however, do uproot a truth about war deeply hidden under all of the nobility in Homer’s epic; that war, though it may seem glorious at times, inevitably leads to death and destruction. And although Oswald neglects to incorporate The Iliad’s storyline into her version, Memorial succeeds in reflecting on destruction and war, and the inescapable reality waiting for us all.