Erwin Cook

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Homer, Achilles, and Muhammad Ali

Erwin Cook, Murchison Distinguished Professor of Humanities, contributes introduction and explanatory notes–with help from Trinity students–to major new translation of the Iliad.

By Russell Guerrero '83


Erwin Cook

September  2012 - The first thing that signals this latest version of Homer's Iliad, translated by poet Edward McCrorie, is different from those in the past is the cover. The book shows Muhammad Ali in the ring during his second fight with Sonny Liston in 1965.  Ali, enraged, stands over Liston, who lies on the canvas.

For readers of the Iliad, it is not hard to see Ali's face and be reminded of the famous rage of Achilles, central to the Greek poem. As for Liston lying helpless, one is reminded of the doomed Hector, defender of Troy.

Erwin Cook, the Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University, said the cover conveys the message of the poem.  "It is Achilles' war," said Cook. "The cover captures the power of that more directly than any cover for the Iliad I have ever seen."

Cook has contributed a substantial introduction and explanatory notes to the new translation of the Iliad which is being published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, one of the leading publishers in the field of classics.

A translation that stays close to the Greek

Iliad book coverWhile the cover may be provocative, it is the translation itself that makes this retelling of the Iliad stand out. "There's been a move in translations to try to capture some of that raw energy that is in the poem," said Cook.  "McCrorie's work stays closer to the Iliad's actual language while still conveying that power."

Cook added that McCrorie created a straightforward English language translation that is true to the spirit of the poem. It even evokes the sounds of the Greek.

When the Johns Hopkins University Press first contacted him to write the introduction and notes for the Iliad, Cook said he was genuinely honored by the invitation.  And a bit surprised, too:  although he has published extensively on the Iliad, he is mainly known for his work on Homer's Odyssey.

Cook said that he was quite smitten when he first read McCrorie's translation.  He said that translating the Iliad can be a difficult process since many Greek words convey multiple meaning - for example, Cook pointed to a 474-page book devoted to the Greek word aidos, which is traditionally translated as "shame."

Knowing that McCrorie wanted to stay close to the language of the Iliad, Cook offered suggestions on parts of the poem which he felt strayed from the spirit of the original.  McCrorie then worked out his own poetic solutions to the issues Cook raised.

That was not the only collaboration Cook participated in.

Collaboration with Students

When it came time to write the explanatory notes for the poem, Cook decided to collaborate with two students, Trip Cardiff and Natalie Treviño.  "I thought this was a great opportunity for the students to develop their academic chops," said Cook.

He gave the students several commentaries on the Iliad and told them to identify areas that might be confusing to a general reader of the poem.  He also had them research the commentaries, which were written for a more advanced study of the text.  Cardiff and Treviño would end up doing research in English, German, and Latin and reviewing the Iliad in the original Greek.

Treviño '11, currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago, was excited and touched that Cook wanted to involve the students in the project.  "Any involvement on such a scale was sure to be an excellent stepping stone to my academic development," she said.  "It also meant that I was going to be working intimately with a poem to which I was personally attached and had meant a great deal to me throughout my scholarly career."

"Frankly, I was stunned.  It's not every day that you, as an undergraduate, are asked to make a sizable contribution to any publication," said Cardiff  '11, a graduate student at the University of Toronto. "Homeric epic is one of my main academic interests so my time with the project, and especially the instruction and guidance of Dr. Cook, has been instrumental in shaping and enhancing my knowledge of the Iliad."

Iliad and War

As the new translation of the Iliad reaches bookshelves, Cook talked about why the poem remains relevant.  According to Cook, the poem has much to offer a country that has been involved in major wars for the last 20 years, from the Gulf War in the early 90s to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the last decade.

"There has been an interest in the psychology of warfare and the personal costs of war," said Cook.  "Homer is one of the most sensitive poets that has created stories describing the impact of war on people's lives.  Once we are prepared to see that the Iliad is a true and faithful representation of the battlefield, it has a more powerful resonance with modern experience."

Cook has seen first-hand how his own students become captivated by the power of the Iliad.

 "For many of them, it catches fire," he said, "I simply make the poem available to them and I give all the credit to Homer."

Courses Taught

  • Intermediate Greek
  • Advanced Greek
  • Advanced Latin
  • Greek Myth
  • Epic in Translation

 Selected Publications 

  • "Introduction" to new translation of the Iliad by Edward McCrorie, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
  • "Notes," with Tripp Cardiff and Natalie Treviño, to translation of the Iliad by Edward McCrorie, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
  • The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins, Cornell University Press, 1995, reissued in 2006.
  • "Epiphany in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the Odyssey," The Preceedings of the Langford Latin Seminar 15, 2012.