Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληιάδεω Ἀχιλῆος—“Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’s son Achilleus …”—so begins the tradition of literature that comes to us from the ancient Greeks. Homer’s Iliad stands, as it has for time immemorial, as the solid bedrock of the Graeco-Roman and later European literary tradition. But to think of the Iliad as merely “foundational” would be a mistake—as would being satisfied with merely reading it in translation. Il traduttore è un traditore—“the translator is a traitor”—goes the Italian maxim—never truer than in the case of Homer. But what do those who read only an Iliad translation miss?
For one example, consider the verb oarizō—“to chat affectionately”—which occurs in only two places in the Iliad. It describes the sweet conversation of young lovers. Homer first uses it at the end of book 6, where Hektor “holds sweet converse” with his wife, Andromachē. It is their only meeting in the Iliad—one of the most moving passages in the poem, as Hektor, destined soon to die at the hands of Achilles, prays never to witness the day of Andromachē’s bondage and that his infant son, Astyanax, will one day excel even his father’s valor.
The word’s only other occurrence is in book 22, as Hektor now considers facing Achilles in single combat and wonders briefly whether Achilles might accept terms of Trojan surrender:
I might go up to him, and he take no pity upon me / nor respect my position, but kill me naked so, as if I were / a woman, once I stripped my armour from me. There is no way / any more from a tree or a rock to talk to him gently / whispering like a young man and a young girl, in the way / a young man and a young maiden whisper together.Trans. Richmond Lattimore
The words I’ve boldened are Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the verb oarizō. Attentive readers of the Greek will remember the previous tender converse of Hektor and Andromachē—converse described with the exact same verb. But the significant echo is impossible to reproduce in translation—not least because of the rareness and unique character of the verb oarizō, which has no precise, equally rare and specific, English equivalent.
Such are the insights open only to readers of Homer’s Greek.