In Book IV of the Iliad, there are several instances where the translation refers to someone speaking "plainly":

Athena now took the form of a Trojan, the doughty warrior Laodocos Antenor's son, and went about searching for Pandaros. She found him standing among the ranks of targeteers who had marched with him from Aisepos river, and she spoke to him plainly:
"Will you take my advice, and show your good skill? Then dare to have a quick shot at Menelaus! This will give you great credit, and all the Trojans will thank you, most of all Prince Alexandros. [...]"

And later on, a page or so later:

Talthybios went off at once, looking everywhere in the lines for Machaon. At last he found him standing among his own targeteers, the men from Trica. Talthybios came up and told him plainly what had happened. "Quick, Asclepiadês, King Agamemnon wants you, to have a look at our commander Menelaos. Some one has shot him with an arrow, a Trojan or some good Lycian archer. He says it was a fine shot, but bad luck for us!"
(translation by W.H.D. Rouse, 1938)

What does "plainly" mean in this context? I'm assuming there's some nuance that's being lost in translation; why is this speech "plain" as opposed to... not plain? When the speech isn't defined as being "plain", does that have any significance?

What's going on here?


1 Answer 1


The first case is book IV, line 92:

ἀγχοῦ δ᾽ ἱσταμένη ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα:

Here ἀγχοῦ = near; ἱσταμένη = standing; ἔπεα = words; πτερόεντα = feathered, winged; προσηύδα = spoke to, addressed. So literally, “standing near, [Athena] addressed winged words”.

The second case is book IV, line 203:

ἀγχοῦ δ᾽ ἱσταμένη ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα:

This is completely identical to IV.92! Evidently this is one of Homer’s set formulas fitting the rhythm of the poem (dactylic hexameter). In this particular formula a speaker addresses someone with “feathered/winged words”, that is, words that go to the heart or mind of the listener as quickly and directly as a fletched arrow or a stooping bird of prey.

Rouse’s translation of ἔπεα πτερόεντα as “plainly” is thus justifiable on grounds of meaning, but it loses the metaphor. This is a deliberate strategy on the translator’s part: Rouse adopted a less elevated register, to make the text more accessible, treating the Iliad as more of an adventure story and less of an epic poem, and this required some substitution of plain language for metaphor. From his preface:

This book is a translation into plain English of the plain story of Homer, omitting the embellishments which were meant only to please the ear—stock epithets and recurring phrases where the meaning is of no account.

W. H. Rouse (1938), p. 5.

However, I am not convinced that the recurring metaphor of the “feathered/winged words” is “of no account” in this case. The start of book IV is concerned with arrows, as Athena is urging Pandarus to shoot one at Menelaus, so that the fragile truce will be broken and the war resumed:

“Wilt thou now hearken to me, thou wise-hearted son of Lycaon? Then wouldst thou dare to let fly a swift arrow upon Menelaus, and wouldst win favour and renown in the eyes of all the Trojans, and of king Alexander most of all. From him of a surety wouldst thou before all others bear off glorious gifts, should he see Menelaus, the warlike son of Atreus, laid low by thy shaft, and set upon the grievous pyre. Nay, come, shoot thine arrow at glorious Menelaus, and vow to Apollo, the wolf-born god, famed for his bow, that thou wilt sacrifice a glorious hecatomb of firstling lambs, when thou shalt come to thy home, the city of sacred Zeleia.” So spake Athene.

A. T. Murray (1924), p. 171.

In this context, the metaphor of Athena’s “feathered/winged words” has extra resonance.

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