The Rhythm of the Epic
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Translating The ODYSSEY

The rhythm of the Homeric poems is based on a strict yet flexible meter called the dactylic hexameter. Each line contains six units or feet, each foot either a dactyl consisting of three syllables (heavy-light-light) or a spondee of two syllables (heavy-heavy), except the last foot, which always has two syllables and is either a spondee or a trochee (heavy-light). The Greek verse is measured by quantity--the length of time it takes to say a syllable--while the English meter is based on stress, so the line I have used is accentual. However, the length of each syllable is also important in the overall rhythm of the English line. Here is the "Proem," the first ten lines of the Odyssey, first in a transliteration of the Greek with a circumflex mark over the long syllables, then in my English version with an accent mark over the metrically heavy syllables; lines in both passages are divided into feet with the slash mark. If you wish, you can listen to me reciting the Proem in Greek and my translation of it; the files are .mp3s of around 400 kilobytes apiece.

Listen to the Proem in Greek

ndra moi / nnepe, / Mosa, po/ltropon, / hs mala / plla
plngthe, e/pe Tro/s hir/n ptoli/thron e/prse;
plln / d'nthr/pn iden / stea / ka non / gn,
plla d'ho / g'n pn/t pathen / lgea / hn kata / thmon
rnumen/s hn / t psch/n ka / nston he/tarn.
ll' od' / hs heta/ros r/rsato, / men/s per;
atn / gr spheter/sin a/tsthali/esin o/lnto,
npioi, / ho kata / bos hyper/onos / li/oo
sthion; / atar ho / tosin a/pheleto / nstimon / mar.
tn hamo/thn ge, the/, thuga/tr Dios, / epe kai / hmn.

The English version:

Listen to the English version

Tll m,/ Mse, of the / mn versa/tle and re/sorceful, who / wndered
mny a / se-mle,/ fter he / rnscked / Try's holy / cty.
Mny the / mn whse / twns he ob/srved, whse / mnds he dis/cvered,
mny the / pans in his / hert h / sffered tra/vrsing the / sewy,
fghting for / hs wn / lfe and a / wy bck / hme for his / cmrdes.
Nt even / s did he / sve his com/pnions, as / mch as he / wshed to,
fr by their / wn md / rcklss/nss they were / broght to des/trction,
chldsh / fols--they de/cded to / et up the / cws of the / hgh lrd
Hlios, / wh thn / tok from the / mn ther / dy of re/trning.
ven for / s, holy / daghter of / Zes, strt / thre to re/cont ths.

An understanding of such technical matters is admittedly more important for the translator than for the reader. The rhythm is easy to hear, and it comes most alive when the verse is read aloud. Then the variations on the basic rhythm take on full value, and so do the formulaic repetitions, which resemble the repetitions in musical compositions of all sorts, from songs to symphonies.