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The Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

18-and-under category, first prize

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Sam Norman


She broke off, weeping – but still, Hektor's wife
had heard nothing, no messenger had come
to warn that her husband had gone to fight
far from the city gates… So for the while
she simply wove, sat in their lofty home.

And working on her two-fold, purple lace,
weaving dappled flowers, she bade her maids go
and heat a massive cauldron straight away
so that when Hektor returned from the fray,
he'd find a steaming bath. She didn't know

that Achilleus and the one with flashing eyes
had laid him low, far-off from any bath.
But when, from the wall, she heard shouts and cries
the legs beneath her rocked dangerously
and from her hand, her shuttle fell to earth.

Then she spoke among her maids with lovely hair:
'I must see what has happened – you two, come!
That was his honoured mother's voice I heard…
Oh, in my breast I feel my very heart
leap to my mouth, and my legs are numb…

'Some evil for the house of Priam is near…
I hope such news will never be revealed,
but godlike Achilleus – I'm racked with fear –
has cut off reckless Hektor far from here,
and is driving him onto the open field

'where he will end the fatal bravery
that summed my husband up – he'd never wait,
safe in the throng of men, but rather he
would charge ahead, outstripping them greatly,
and yielding to no one in his might…'

And with these words she rushed out from the hall,
heart pounding, nearly mad – her maids came too –
but when she reached the teeming city wall
and stood there, looking out, among them all,
only then, she saw him and she knew.

There was Hektor, being dragged outside
the city to the hollow, Grecian ships
by quick horses – unburied, brutalised.
Then black night descended over her eyes,
enshrouding her, and the life passed from her lips…

Translated from the Ancient Greek by Sam Norman

The original Greek may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem and commentary, click here (opens in new window).

The Iliad, Book 22, lines 437–467

ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ᾽, ἄλοχος δ᾽ οὔ πώ τι πέπυστο
Ἕκτορος: οὐ γάρ οἵ τις ἐτήτυμος ἄγγελος ἐλθὼν
ἤγγειλ᾽ ὅττί ῥά οἱ πόσις ἔκτοθι μίμνε πυλάων,
ἀλλ᾽ ἥ γ᾽ ἱστὸν ὕφαινε μυχῷ δόμου ὑψηλοῖο
δίπλακα πορφυρέην, ἐν δὲ θρόνα ποικίλ᾽ ἔπασσε.
κέκλετο δ᾽ ἀμφιπόλοισιν ἐϋπλοκάμοις κατὰ δῶμα
ἀμφὶ πυρὶ στῆσαι τρίποδα μέγαν, ὄφρα πέλοιτο
Ἕκτορι θερμὰ λοετρὰ μάχης ἐκ νοστήσαντι
νηπίη, οὐδ᾽ ἐνόησεν ὅ μιν μάλα τῆλε λοετρῶν
χερσὶν Ἀχιλλῆος δάμασε γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη.
κωκυτοῦ δ᾽ ἤκουσε καὶ οἰμωγῆς ἀπὸ πύργου:
τῆς δ᾽ ἐλελίχθη γυῖα, χαμαὶ δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε κερκίς:
ἣ δ᾽ αὖτις δμῳῇσιν ἐϋπλοκάμοισι μετηύδα:
'δεῦτε δύω μοι ἕπεσθον, ἴδωμ᾽ ὅτιν᾽ ἔργα τέτυκται.
αἰδοίης ἑκυρῆς ὀπὸς ἔκλυον, ἐν δ᾽ ἐμοὶ αὐτῇ
στήθεσι πάλλεται ἦτορ ἀνὰ στόμα, νέρθε δὲ γοῦνα
πήγνυται: ἐγγὺς δή τι κακὸν Πριάμοιο τέκεσσιν.
αἲ γὰρ ἀπ᾽ οὔατος εἴη ἐμεῦ ἔπος: ἀλλὰ μάλ᾽ αἰνῶς
δείδω μὴ δή μοι θρασὺν Ἕκτορα δῖος Ἀχιλλεὺς
μοῦνον ἀποτμήξας πόλιος πεδίον δὲ δίηται,
καὶ δή μιν καταπαύσῃ ἀγηνορίης ἀλεγεινῆς
ἥ μιν ἔχεσκ᾽, ἐπεὶ οὔ ποτ᾽ ἐνὶ πληθυῖ μένεν ἀνδρῶν,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ προθέεσκε, τὸ ὃν μένος οὐδενὶ εἴκων.'

ὣς φαμένη μεγάροιο διέσσυτο μαινάδι ἴση
παλλομένη κραδίην: ἅμα δ᾽ ἀμφίπολοι κίον αὐτῇ
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πύργόν τε καὶ ἀνδρῶν ἷξεν ὅμιλον
ἔστη παπτήνασ᾽ ἐπὶ τείχεϊ, τὸν δὲ νόησεν
ἑλκόμενον πρόσθεν πόλιος: ταχέες δέ μιν ἵπποι
ἕλκον ἀκηδέστως κοίλας ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν.
τὴν δὲ κατ᾽ ὀφθαλμῶν ἐρεβεννὴ νὺξ ἐκάλυψεν,
ἤριπε δ᾽ ἐξοπίσω, ἀπὸ δὲ ψυχὴν ἐκάπυσσε.


Translation commentary

The Iliad is an exploration of one man's wrath. The majority of the action takes place over three days, during which Achilleus refuses to fight, indirectly allows his best friend to be killed, and subsequently exacts revenge in a prolonged fit of blind and self-hating anger. One casualty is the Trojan champion, Hektor. It was he who killed Achilleus's best friend, and Achilleus takes pleasure in defiling his corpse horribly. This passage touches on the moment near the end of the poem when Andromache becomes aware of her husband's fate.

Although people read the Iliad as a text, it is important to remember that, as the result of an oral tradition, it was composed to be sung. Thus, the principal challenge, as I saw it, was to convey something of the musicality of the Greek. Taking inspiration from Christopher Logue's wonderful War Music, I decided to write my translation in loose iambic pentameter: a highly lyrical metre. I was drawn to ABAAB quintains after reading George Herbert, who skilfully uses this form to generate a poignant and melodic effect. Where perfect rhymes were too difficult, I have used half rhymes or similar sounding words; thus 'hair' is rhymed with 'heard' and 'heart'.

Doing justice to Homer is impossible. The Greek ἀκηδέστως has the dual meanings 'remorselessly' and 'without burial rites' – what English word captures both these senses? Broadly, I thought it more important to create something that could be called a poem than to stick slavishly to the text. I have occasionally toned down the famous epithets (so wonderful in Greek, but so forced in English).

The Iliad is also a poem about tenderness. Hektor, unlike Achilleus hitherto, has shown gentleness. It is the deep, deep love that Andromache feels for him that makes the passage so moving.

Sam Norman