I have spent the last three years translating Homer’s “Iliad,” a project I began because none of the English translations on my bookshelf interested my ear enough to get past Book 1. Translating is a specialized kind of work, but in the most general sense, it is the art of listening. It has lessons for anyone who cares about the sound of their writing.
With Homer, the first thing that I do is my homework, looking up the Greek words I don’t know and studying the commentaries. I’m left with a bramble of possibilities handwritten on the right-hand page of my notebook and a blank page on the left.
Below, for example, is a passage from the very beginning of the “Iliad.” Apollo’s priest has been offended by King Agamemnon and prays to the god to inflict disaster on the Greek army camped before Troy. Apollo strides down from Mount Olympus and starts shooting his plague arrows.
Then he sat down apart from (opposite) the ships and shot (let fly) an arrow,
and terrible was the twang from the silver bow.
First he attacked the mules and the swift dogs,
then he shot his sharp (piercing) arrows on the men themselves,
and forever the pyres of the dead kept burning thick (close together).
This is raw stuff, as any literal version must be, with no life in the language. At this point I begin to listen for the rhythm (a music that I hear before the words themselves come into focus in my ear), and line by line, sometimes after a minute, sometimes after 10—magically, it seems—the words begin to configure themselves, my hearing creates what I want to hear, the pen starts to write, and I am a fascinated witness.
Here is my second draft:
Then he dropped to one knee and an arrow flew,
and a dreadful twang arose from the silver bow.
First he attacked the mules and the flickering dogs,
then he let fly his arrows on the men themselves.
And night and day the pyres of the dead kept burning.
Not bad, but the language is still quite awkward, the rhythm choppy, and it ends with a fizzle, not with the kind of commanding harmonic cadence I am listening for.
The rest of the work, over the next few days or weeks, is a process of refining, of testing every word, every sound, against my sense of what Homer’s music should sound like in English, an English that is rapid, direct and noble, as his Greek is. Sometimes it takes five or six drafts until my ear is satisfied, sometimes 30 or 40.
Here is the passage in its final form:
He dropped to one knee and drew back a deadly arrow,
and a dreadful twang rang out from the silver bow.
First he attacked the mules and the dogs, but soon
he shifted his aim and struck down the men themselves.
And the close-packed pyres of the dead kept burning, burning,
beside the Achaean ships, all day and all night.
I like the insistent sound of the d’s in the first line here. “Dreadful twang” was good already, I thought, but “twang/rang” sounded even better. And the extra “burning,” which I stumbled upon in the fourth draft, made my skin tingle.
Before you finish a piece of your own writing, you might try reading it out loud or silently, paying attention just to the sound of the words. If you come to a phrase that doesn’t sound quite right, let your ear, rather than your thinking, revise the line. You may be surprised by what you didn’t know you knew.
—Mr. Mitchell is a writer and translator whose many books include “Tao Te Ching,” “The Book of Job” and “Gilgamesh.” His translation of Homer’s “Iliad” was published last month.