Iliad translated into 'South African'

2012-11-14 08:40

Johannesburg - As Homer noted, the Trojans love nothing better than a good braai after fending off Achilles and his horde of assegai-wielding Greek impi.

Well, that is according to one retired classics professor who has spent more than 10 years putting Homer's epic poem about the Trojan war into a South African context.

Richard Whitaker says he embarked on the odyssey after coming to the conclusion that existing Eurocentric translations did not resonate with South African students.

"I came to feel that, on the one hand, 'kings', 'princes', 'palaces' and the like were remote from local experience," he said.

Spears became assegai

"On the other hand, there were many elements of the Homeric world, such as payment of bride-price in cattle, and warriors' winning praises in combat, that might resonate with South Africans."

And with that, Troy was transported to the Highveld, commanders become amakhosi, spears became assegai and glens became a kloof.

But Whitaker does acknowledge his project's Achilles heel: Not every South African is familiar with the English, Afrikaans, Portuguese, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and Tswana words that colour South African speech.

For that Whitaker provides a glossary.

Still, the text will seem less archaic to today's audience than older translations, making for a lekker (nice) read.


  • mirrorman.smith - 2012-11-14 09:14

    The exercise has merit, but what about the beauty of learning how things were in different lands and times? Now all students will learn is a story. If you are intending on studying classics, or want to read Homer, one must make an effort to learn how things were. Also, the student/learner must try and make the connections to the modern world him/herself. This is what education is all about. So what if the Iliad was written in the ancient Greek context in the 8th century BC?

      kenpeg.dawson - 2012-11-14 09:27

      I dont think it is intended to be a history hand book.

      claudia.meads - 2012-11-14 12:17

      OMG - I guess now Achilles will still be clutching his spear, when has a shower in the morning, to wash away the AIDS..! What a moronic travesty - the Iliad is just that - (Homeric) GREEK..!

  • johnbartmann - 2012-11-14 09:27

    lekker man! next step is getting it into schools

  • kenpeg.dawson - 2012-11-14 09:30

    Could be a fun read. I can think of a few others that can be hashed up ala South African style. Thanslate some Sheakespear works for example.The songoma of Macbeth.

  • Shaun Daly - 2012-11-14 09:31

    Celebration and encouragement of the mundane, how very SA

  • ian.boyd.7503 - 2012-11-14 09:55

    (Having read two translations of the Iliad) - People have been dragged out into the street and shot for less than this. I'm not sure how you could dumb it down like this and retain important strata of information, e.g. The switch from bronze to iron as a key metal, the ensuing changes to the economy and weapon types, experiments with chemical warfare, contractual obligations of princes, the origin of Olympic type games and so forth. It would make more sense to investigate and document the Ethiopian (African) involvement in that war. E.g. Memnon, the Ethiopian king & champion who fought Achilles. Sadly, the rest of the world moves forward while we're content with moving ever faster backwards.

      SNG62 - 2012-11-14 10:47

      I take it that one of the translations you have read is Whittaker's? How else could you make such insightful comments - surely not from reading a 50-line article?

      ian.boyd.7503 - 2012-11-14 11:49

      SNG62 - Are you suggesting that the only way one could make insightful comments about the Trojan War is to read Whittaker's translation??? The Trojan War was the World War of it's era. It forced new technologies that were passed down. For instance, the Phoenician innovation of using CaO to purify iron into rudimentary steel, later refined into the Bessemer process. That allowed firms like Martini-Henry to mass produce rifles for the British soldiers in Whittaker's version. I probably will read it. As an fun exercise - no problem. But to suggest using it as a proxy for South African students... now really! The arguments I'm hearing are inconsistent; On the one hand, we have historians espousing the achievements of the Nubian Empire. On the other, "...kings, princes and palaces are remote from the local experience." I find it sad that the book has to be simplified. When are we going to realise that it's us that needs to catch up? The rest of the World isn't waiting for us, neither are they interested in excuses.

      LanfearM - 2012-11-14 12:06

      @ ian.boyd - yes, I also wondered how "kings and princes and palaces" are remote from local experience? After all, we still have kings around i.e. the Zulu king, the Swazi king, the Venda Rainqueen. I see it less as a simplification, than an example of our cultural similarities and thus getting South Africans to identify with the mythology. Hopefully that will lead many to read the actual Iliad. Perhaps wishful think on my part. Agreed that we seriously need to join the 21st century!

  • LanfearM - 2012-11-14 10:18

    Excellent work, Richard Whittaker! Although I partially agree with mirrorman.smith, that in today's "global village" we must learn as much as we can about other cultures and histories, I do think it just may be an excellent way to introduce the Classics to South African students. Let them see it in a SA context, let them see and appreciate the similarities. We humans' cultures and history have far more similarities than differences, and we should appreciate that and each other.

  • glen.e.huysamer - 2012-11-14 11:12

    Great, now the next thing to do is convert the great Shakespeare, the works of Leonardo DaVinci into an African context..... quite bazaar, .... there is really no shortcuts to education, the student needs to do some work and put in some effort, the mind may have knowledge but without forcing it to calculate students remain stupid.

      ian.boyd.7503 - 2012-11-14 12:36

      Lanfear, Glen - As a literary exercise, fantastic. Good even that Whittaker has sparked debate, a Greek heritage in itself we should hold dearly. When you first open a page of a book like the Iliad, it's daunting. You have to go to it, it does not come to you. The same is true of any true learning, from architecture to zoology. So what's worrying is that we're suggesting to our young people that a version they CAN understand with minimal effort is available. That's not pushing them up but rather pulling something down. I use the term 'simplify' not to detract from Whittaker's prowess. I'm sure he's excellent. But the Illiad, like many ancient books, is a treasure of information with different levels. There are times you have to read between the lines. Sometimes only when you've read something else do parts of it make sense.

      paul.myers.984 - 2012-11-14 15:13

      Bizarre artifacts were found in a Trojan bazaar.

      mirrorman.smith - 2012-11-15 09:49

      @ian: I agree 100% percent. Couldn't have said it better.

  • dunehadad - 2012-11-14 16:37

    I was taught by Professor Whitaker. The most knowledgeable person when it comes to Epic literature. Well done Prof!

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