14 Chapter Eleven In Chapman’s Forge: Mistranslation as Ekphrastic Resistance

Javier Ibáñez

George Chapman produced the first complete English translation of the epic poems attributed to Homer. He began publishing his work in installments in 1598 and in 1616 published the Iliad and the Odyssey in a single volume under the title The Whole Works of Homer. The present chapter focuses on Chapman’s treatment of the episode of the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad. I analyze Chapman’s frequent mistranslations and largely subtle intrusions as manifestations of his resistance to the ekphrastic tenor of the passage, and argue that this resistance stems from a rejection of the incidental and from a lack of interest in pictorial description whose semantic referentiality seems limited or non-existent.[1]

The reader will recall that towards the end of Book 18 of the Iliad, Thetis asks Hephaestus to make a new armor for Achilles. In addition to a breastplate and a helmet, the god forges a shield, which he decorates with a number of images, the description of which takes up 130 lines (18.478­–608). In the original Greek, the episode follows a fairly consistent syntactical and lexical pattern, which is consonant with the formulaic character of the epic genre. Every verse paragraph save for one (ll. 509 ff.) opens with a reference to Hephaestus as the subject of a verb of making (ποιέω, τεύχω, both meaning “to make,” or ποικίλλω, meaning “to fashion”) or of placing (τίθημι, meaning “to set,” or “to put”), foregrounding the shield as the physical work of an artificer. However, for the most part, the text then goes on to deal exclusively with visual description of the picture portrayed on the shield or with the narration of the story illustrated by this picture. In this way, Hephaestus tends to recede into the background along with the materiality of the shield. The original text, in other words, tends constantly to move away from thinking about the shield as an object to thinking about the art depicted on the shield and the loose narrative episodes that it represents.

Chapman’s frequent insertions and alterations, however, hinder the reader’s ability to become immersed in this picture. For example, in the description of the besieged city, Chapman writes,

The Queene of martials,
And Mars himselfe conducted them; both which being forg’d of gold,
Must needs have golden furniture: and men might so behold,
They were presented deities. The people, Vulcan forg’d
Of meaner metall.[2]

The phrase “forg’d of gold” translates the single word χρυσείω,[3] meaning “golden,” which is ultimately a reference to the material Hephaestus is using to create the picture, but which in context may conceivably be read as simply indicating color. Chapman’s translation works to eliminate any possible ambiguity (material/color) in the phrase and to emphasize the material over the visual. Further, “must needs have golden furniture” implies a material constraint, almost as if Chapman were saying that, because Hephaestus is using gold to forge the image of Mars and Athena, it follows that their garments will be golden colored. This implication is absent from the original, which simply tells us that the gods were clad in golden garments (“χρύσεια δὲ εἵματα ἕσθην”[4]), a statement requiring even less of a reference to the material than the adjective modifying the gods themselves earlier in the line. Lastly, the mention of Vulcan, the second occurrence of “forg’d,” and the reference to metal are all Chapman’s own insertions. The original simply reads, “λαοὶ δ᾽ ὑπολίζονες ἦσαν,”[5] a clause containing no reference to making, maker, or material, and which Murray faithfully translates, “the folk at their feet were smaller.”[6] In this passage, then, Chapman insistently pulls the reader away from the visual picture and back to an awareness of the shield as material object.

A more elaborate example occurs towards the end of the episode, where Chapman writes,

Then in a passing pleasant vale, the famous Artsman fed,
(Upon a goodly pasture ground) rich flocks, of white-fleec’t sheepe;
Built stables, cottages, and cotes; that did the sheapheards keepe
From winde and weather.[7]

This is a particularly interesting case. “Fed” is Chapman’s rendering of ποίησε,[8] the third person singular aorist indicative active of ποιέω.[9] It is an exceptional choice, as Chapman usually translates this verb fairly literally as “forg’d,”[10] “built,”[11] or “carv’d.”[12] It could be argued that since “fed” has the effect of recursively placing Hephaestus inside the picture he is producing and in this way concealing his role as artificer, the resulting passage is actually more visually immersive than it was in the original. However, not only is this one exceptional instance not quite enough to counterbalance the effect of all the previous verbs of making that Chapman has faithfully reproduced, but “Built,” which is Chapman’s own insertion in the third line quoted above, problematizes our reading of the passage. The word is ambiguous in context: on the one hand, it follows the pattern of “fed” in that it could be read as inserting Hephaestus into the narrative picture; he fed the flocks and built the stables. On the other hand, however, “Built” is yet another verb of making. In fact, as mentioned above, it is one of the possible translations of ποίησε, the very word Chapman has just ignored by rendering it “fed.” In other words, Chapman ends up using a verb of making where the original had none. The original opens with ποίησε and simply omits the verb in subsequent clauses that are understood elliptically to be objects of it as well:

ἐν δὲ νομὸν ποίησε περικλυτὸς ἀμφιγυήεις
ἐν καλῇ βήσσῃ μέγαν οἰῶν ἀργεννάων,
σταθμούς τε κλισίας τε κατηρεφέας ἰδὲ σηκούς.[13]

In Murray’s translation, the lines read as follows: “Therein also the famed god of the two string arms wrought a pasture in a fair dell, a great pasture of white-fleeced sheep, and folds, and roofed huts, and pens.”[14] This kind of syntax is unavailable to Chapman because his choice of the verb “fed” instead of his usual “forg’d” or “built” or “carved” forces him to use a different verb in the following clause, since an elliptical reference back to the same verb would render the sentence nonsensical. Whatever the reason for his choice of “fed,” therefore, the passage not only ends up having the usual verb of making, but because of the necessity imposed by the new syntax of the sentence to restate the verbal unit (“fed,” “Built”), Chapman reiterates the implicit invocation of the verbs’ subject (Hephaestus), and in this way refuses to let the subject be forgotten—along with the materiality that it signals—at the beginning of the sentence.

Even on the few occasions in which the Greek does zoom out from ekphrasis to speak materially about the shield in places other than the formulaic openings of verse paragraphs, Chapman still manages to display his general method by seizing the opportunity and placing more emphasis on materiality than the original would seem to allow. In lines 18.548–9, for example, χρυσείη (“golden”) and τέτυκτο (“made” or “built”) are the only words making direct material reference to the shield. Murray translates, “And the field grew black behind and seemed verily as it had been ploughed, for all that it was of gold; herein was the great marvel of the work.”[15] The point seems to be to note the skilled execution of the work, manifest in the fact that gold appears black, and this point, moreover, is secondary to and dependent on the more important one of the verisimilitude of the picture itself. In other words, the only reason for zooming out of ekphrasis is to point out one of the ways in which the picture being described is visually realistic. In contrast, Chapman writes:

The soyle turnd up behind the plow, all blacke like earth arose,
Though forg’d of nothing else but gold, and lay in show as light,
As if it had bene plowd indeed; miraculous to sight.[16]

Χρυσείη, which Murray simply and literally translates “of gold,” Chapman turns into “forg’d of nothing else but gold.” By moving τέτυκτο (his “forg’d”) to the front of the phrase, Chapman once again eliminates ambiguity, precluding any possibility of even a momentary non-material reading of χρυσείη. Moreover, the clause, “and lay in show as light,” is entirely Chapman’s own and further contributes to removing the reader from the visual narrative and eliciting an awareness of the material presence of the shield. This is because the only possible subject of the verb “lay” is the shield itself rather than any element of the fictional picture, and both “show” and “as light”(i.e., it was not light, but gold) work against the production of a contained diegesis by calling attention to the picture’s representationality. This is also the general effect of the phrase “miraculous to sight.” The prepositional phrase “to sight” is also Chapman’s addition, and the introduction of the gaze of the viewing subject puts everything at a greater remove from the picture than the original, more impersonal—and therefore more pictorially self-contained—formulation does.

The question, of course, is how are we to interpret Chapman’s pattern of resistance to ekphrasis? A hint may be provided by another idiosyncratic rendering. Chapman’s description of the forging of the shield reads thus:

And first he forg’d, a strong and spacious shield
Adornd with twenty severall hewes: about whose    verge he beate,
A ring, three-fold and radiant; and on the backe he set
A silver handle; five-fold were, the equall lines he drew
About the whole circumference: in which his hand did shew,
(Directed with a knowing mind) a rare varietie.[17]

This is inaccurate for a couple of reasons. The original reads,

ποίει δὲ πρώτιστα σάκος μέγα τε στιβαρόν τε
πάντοσε δαιδάλλων, περὶ δ᾽ ἄντυγα βάλλε φαεινὴν
τρίπλακα μαρμαρέην, ἐκ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον τελαμῶνα.
πέντε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἔσαν σάκεος πτύχες: αὐτὰρ ἐν αὐτῷ
ποίει δαίδαλα πολλὰ ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσιν.[18]

As James Heffernan points out, “For all that has been written about the presumed circularity of the shield and its pattern of concentric circles, nowhere in the 130 lines on its making does Homer call it circular.”[19] This absence of textual evidence does not, of course, necessarily preclude the possibility that the shield might nevertheless be circular. The detail of the concentric circles, however, seems to be textually inadmissible. As Walter Leaf has pointed out, “It seems necessary to take αὐτοῦ, on account of its combination with ‘σάκεος,’ in a different sense from αὐτῶι, the former meaning ‘the shield itself,’ i.e. the body as opposed to the surface, while the latter is used in the weak anaphoric sense ‘in it.’”[20] This distinction between αὐτοῦ, meaning the shield itself, and αὐτῶι, meaning the surface of the shield, is maintained in Murray’s rendering, which reads, “Five were the layers of the shield itself [i.e., αὐτοῦ]; and on it [i.e., αὐτῶι] he wrought many curious devices with cunning skill.”[21] Chapman’s translation is wrong, but it points towards what he is trying to find in the text, namely, overarching structure and meaning.

The Homeric episode is digressive, seemingly aimless, and incidental to the main narrative. Heffernan states the problem clearly: unlike other instances of ekphrasis in the poem, “the scenes wrought in metal on the shield do not seem […] to mirror the action of the poem. Nor do they open a window on the past of the major characters.” Indeed, “The fact that the making of the shield plays a crucial part in developing the action of the poem does not by itself explain what the scenes on the shield contribute to our understanding of the poem.”[22] This digressive impulse is a generic feature of the oral epic. Particularly in a poem about the brutality of war, incidental digression serves a role similar to that of comedic relief in modern film: on the one hand, it allows the audience a break from the demand for sustained attention that the main story makes upon them, and, on the other, as Kenneth Atchity puts it, “the shield of Achilles is a suspension of the narrative momentum, a respite from the brutal reality of the battle […], a time of re-creative detachment […] from the pressures of reality.”[23] Chapman, however, wants the episode to have significance for the work as a whole; he wants it to mean something.[24] For him, then, the surface of the shield is marked with five concentric circles (“the equall lines”), yielding something similar to a typical medieval or early modern diagrammatic representation of the hierarchical structure of the cosmos, and tacitly exemplifying in this way a frequent interpretation of the passage, namely, that the shield is intended to function as a microcosm.[25] Read in this way, the shield recursively inscribes the whole story within itself, becoming a sort of framework for it and providing a familiar cosmic structure within which its particulars may be fixed and placed in significant relationships with one another.

This concern with overarching meaning and structure also manifests itself in Chapman’s handling of one of the many hapax legomena in the Iliad. A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs only once in a particular work, or in the body of work of a particular author, or in the extant written record of a language—in which case, the word is termed a “singularity.” Due to their rarity, hapax legomena can pose particular difficulties for a translator, but they can also become sites of relative freedom from the perceived authority of the text. In the description of the besieged city discussed earlier, we encounter the word ὑπολίζονες,[26] which appears to be a Greek singularity.[27] Chapman translates the relevant passage thus:

The Queene of martials
And Mars himselfe conducted them; both which being forg’d
of gold
Must needs have golden furniture: and men might so behold
They were presented deities. The people, Vulcan forg’d
Of meaner mettall.[28]

“Meaner” is Chapman’s rendering of ὑπολίζονες, but the word actually means “Smaller than and under something else.”[29] Murray therefore translates, “Goodly were they and tall in their harness, as beseemeth gods, clear to view amid the rest, and the folk at their feet were smaller.”[30] As we saw earlier, Chapman here refuses to describe the picture on the shield and concentrates instead on the materiality of the shield itself. What our attention to his treatment of the hapax legomenon adds to this account is a possible motivation. “Meaner” introduces a value judgment (which, in this case, seems ultimately to imply a moral judgment) into a passage that was initially concerned exclusively with visual detail. Homer’s ὑπολίζονες helps us visualize the picture: the people are “smaller” because they are presented to us relative to the size of the gods next to whom they are standing. But Chapman seems to be interested in visuality only insofar as it may function as evidence of the relationships between signifiers. The original, as we saw, moves quickly back from material description to ekphrasis: “but the rest were faring forth, led of Ares and Pallas Athene, both fashioned in gold, and of gold was the raiment wherewith they were clad.”[31] The reference to the metal is brief and gold immediately goes from being that from which Hephaestus fashioned the figures on the shield to being the color of the garments of the gods. But Chapman sustains the reference to materiality as long as he can, because the materials that the shield is made of function for him as semantic markers in a way that the picture on its own does not. This is emphasized by the formulation, “and men might so behold / They were presented deities,” which essentially suggests that, because the figures are fashioned in gold, the viewer ought to be able to recognize that they are deities. Were they not, they would have been made out of meaner metal. Chapman’s “meaner,” then, takes us outside of the realm of non-signifying visuality and into that of relational meaning and structure.

All of Chapman’s authorial intrusions examined here seem, then, to signal a struggle against the circumstantiality of ekphrasis. Of course, Chapman’s efforts must meet with the resistance of the text, as the intention of the passage as a whole seems to be almost exclusively ekphrastic. In spite of this, where possible, Chapman attempts to (or perhaps cannot help but, in the case of the hapax legomenon) redirect the episode to the concrete (the actual shield) and the symbolic (the meaning of the images), and away from the purely visual and descriptive. This impulse, as I have suggested, may be read as symptomatic of a larger issue in Homeric translation more generally: the imposition of the needs, conventions, and expectations of a written culture onto a work rooted in an oral tradition.



Keywords: ambiguity, Kenneth Atchity, George Chapman, Stephen Cheeke, ekphrasis, Quee Elizabeth I, epic genre, Greek, hapax legomena, James A. W. Heffernan, interpretation, Michael M. Kumpf, Walter Leaf, W. J. T. Mitchell, A. T. Murray, commentary, Claire Preston, E.M.W. Tillyard




Atchity, Kenneth John. Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Chapman, George. The Whole Works of Homer; Prince of Poetts. London: Nathaniel Butter, 1616.

Cheeke, Stephen. Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Cunliffe, Richard John. A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

Heffernan, James A. W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Kumpf, Michael M. Four Indices of the Homeric Hapax Legomena. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1984.

Leaf, Walter. Commentary on the Iliad. London: Macmillan, 1900.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Murray, A. T., ed. and trans. The Iliad. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Preston, Claire. “Ekphrasis: Painting in Words.” In Renaissance Figures of Speech, edited by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber, 113–29. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Sihler, Andrew L. New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1966.

  1. Generally speaking, “ekphrasis” refers to a sustained literary description of a work of art. Particularly in classical and Renaissance literary theory, it is a vaguely defined and slippery term. See Claire Preston, “Ekphrasis: Painting in Words,” in Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 116. For this reason, I prefer to rely on modern scholars. Heffernan provides the following definition: “Ekphrasis is the verbal representation of visual representation.” James A. W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 3. Mitchell uses the same formulation and implies the same definition when he writes, “In so far as art history is a verbal representation of visual representation, it is an elevation of ekphrasis to a disciplinary principle.” W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 157.
  2. George Chapman, The Whole Works of Homer; Prince of Poetts (London: Nathaniel Butter, 1616), Z6v.
  3. A. T. Murray, ed. and trans., The Iliad, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 18.517.

    I cite the Greek text in this edition by book and line number, while a page number indicates Murray’s translation.

  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 18.519.
  6. Ibid., 327. Murray’s remarkably literal translation provides a useful contrast to Chapman, and helps make his idiosyncrasies more salient.
  7. Chapman, Works of Homer, Aa1r.
  8. Murray, Iliad, 18.587.
  9. In Homeric Greek, it is not infrequent for aorist verbs to occur without an augment. See Andrew L. Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 484.
  10. Chapman, Works of Homer, Z6r.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., Aa1r.
  13. Murray, Iliad, 18.587–9.
  14. Ibid., 333.
  15. Ibid., 329.
  16. Chapman, Works of Homer, Z6v.
  17. Ibid., Z6r
  18. “First fashioned he a shield, great and sturdy, adorning it cunningly in every part, and round about it set a bright rim, threefold and glittering, and therefrom made fast a silver baldric. Five were the layers of the shield itself; and on it he wrought many curious devices with cunning skill” (323). Murray, Iliad, 18.478–82.
  19. Heffernan, Museum of Words, 12–13.
  20. Walter Leaf, Commentary on the Iliad (London: Macmillan, 1900), 18.481.
  21. Murray, Iliad, 323.
  22. Heffernan, Museum of Words, 10.
  23. Kenneth John Atchity, Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), 160.
  24. The question as to whether and how images (and consequently their descriptions) mean is a complex one whose long history lies outside the scope of this chapter, as does the only slightly less complex question as to whether the episode of the shield of Achilles is meant to convey a coherent meaning and if so what this meaning might be. I do not intend to weigh in on either side of either of these questions. The point is merely that it is difficult to determine what, if anything, these particular pictures mean in the context of the larger work, and that Chapman is attempting to deal with this difficulty. For a good overview of the problem of the meaning of images, see Stephen Cheeke, Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), chapter 1 passim. On the digressiveness of ekphrasis as potentially disruptive of meaning, see Preston, “Ekphrasis: Painting in Words,” 119–20.
  25. For the idea of the symbolic structure of the cosmos in the English Renaissance and its relation to notions of macrocosm and microcosm, see E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1966), particularly chs. 2 and 7.
  26. Murray, Iliad, 18.519.
  27. Michael M. Kumpf, Four Indices of the Homeric Hapax Legomena (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1984), 198. Kumpf considers Homeric hapax legomena for which neither Liddell and Scott nor Pape and Benseler have given a single other literary use to be Greek singularities (20).
  28. Chapman, Works of Homer, Z6v.
  29. Richard John Cunliffe, A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012), s.v. “ὑπολίζων.”
  30. Murray, Iliad, 327.
  31. Ibid.


Homer Among the Moderns Copyright © by Javier Ibáñez. All Rights Reserved.

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