Richard Whitaker’s translation of the Iliad has been more than ten years in the making. His poetic translation makes use of a flexible 5-beat line, usually ten or eleven syllables long.


The translation uses many South African English words such as amakhosi (commanders), kgotla (assembly), outspan (unyoke), kloof (glen), sloot (ditch), assegai or umkhonto (spear). For readers to whom such words may be unfamiliar, a Glossary at the end of the book explains their meaning and gives the Standard English equivalents.


Although the Iliad of Homer: A Southern African Translation is aimed at the general reader of literature, it should be particularly useful as a text to teach from. This is because the translation has exactly the same number of lines as the Ancient Greek text, corresponding virtually line-for-line with the original. Which means that lecturers, or students with no Greek, can link commentaries on, or critical discussions of, the Iliad directly to the relevant lines of the translation.



Reviews of the SA Iliad:

In-depth review article:

Wall Street Journal front-page article about SA Iliad : 

Daily Telegraph article about SA Iliad :

Five lectures on the Iliad by the translator:

Homeric blog: ‘From Troy to Ithaca’

Patricia Schonstein blog on ‘Books Live’: The Iliad of Homer in Africa





Even before publication, the translation was the subject of scholarly and critical appraisal. In her essay, ‘Translated Classics Around the Millennium: Vibrant Hybrids or Shattered Icons’, the scholar Lorna Hardwick discussed this Southern African version of the Iliad as an ‘instance of linguistic hybridity in the translation of classical texts’ (in Translation and the Classic, edited by Lianeri, A. & Zajko, V. [Oxford: Oxford University Press  2008], pages 346-347).


In a letter to the translator, the distinguished South African poet and critic, the late Stephen Watson, wrote, commenting on part of the work:

I thought [the translation] . . . worked quite brilliantly. It has all the movement, as well as the clarity, you were aiming at. Moreover, I felt – keenly – the bite both of the lines & the individual words. The cumulative effect . . . was to remind me of the title of Simone Weil’s essay on The Iliad – “The Iliad, Poem of Might”. The bloodthirsty force, the mayhem of the thing, come through that strongly – & clearly. So – congratulations!


Published comments on the translation:

The publication of Professor Whitaker’s translation has been eagerly awaited . . . Matthew Arnold might not have understood the South African imperatives that inspired the work, but he would surely have warmed to the vitality and directness of the narrative, speech and imagery. This is no leaden prose work that removes challenge and ambivalence in the interests of accessibility. Equally, the language never becomes bogged down in an attempt to ‘elevate’ the subject matter or to mimic archaism in the receiving language. It is, quite simply, a good read . . . rewarding and thought-provoking . . .

Lorna Hardwick, review article in Acta Classica


Speaking as a Cambridge-trained classicist who has spent the past 30 years writing for and about South Africa, I cannot recommend Whitaker’s translation too highly, and not simply because of its South Africanisms. This is a great translation, finish and klaar. As for the South African vocabulary and idiom, words like inkosi, indaba, induna and impi actually take us much closer to what Homer was singing about than their English equivalents.

Simon Barber (comment on Wall Street Journal story)


This Iliad translation may replicate the early Homeric Bronze/Iron [Age] Greek better than any other living modern language. I hope it grows to gain a wide appeal.

James Devaney (comment on Wall Street Journal story)


Whitaker’s . . . translation of the Iliad, although faithful to the original text, could also be read as an adaptation of Homer’s poem in the tradition of previous adaptations of Homeric epic by such writers as Christopher Logue and Derek Walcott, and his choice to render Homer into Southern African English might just evoke the Iliad‘s atmosphere more than a Standard English translation could.

Review in English Today


. . . I could see myself using this clear and elegant translation in my own classes.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review


. . .  Richard Whitaker’s outstanding ‘African’ translation of the Iliad . . . rich in African idiom and language. It uses words like assegaiumkhonto and impi. There is a sense of this epic war unfolding right here within our own landscape, the very dust of which, with its ochre and rust-red colours, amplifies the sense of carnage on Homeric battlefields.

Patricia Schonstein blog on ‘Books Live’


Readers’ comments:


Wow. What a wonderful translation! . . . I think it may be the best I have ever read. The English is so simple and unaffected and right, and the use of terms like indaba, impi and inkosi brings the whole thing to life in an extraordinary way.


I have to say I am enthralled by [your Southern African Iliad]. Allow me to congratulate you on a masterpiece of translation and rendition and the achievement of what you set out to do, so clearly explained in your introduction. I am gripped by every line and it greatly enriches my amateurish enjoyment of the original.


. . .  your super translation. I feel it really captures the spirit of Homer and the South African words are a really good reminder to Europeans that Mycenaean Greece was a very different time and place to ours; also, that Homer belongs to the world, not just to Europe and the stories are relevant to all cultures.


I’ve just read your translation of the Iliad. I think it’s a brilliant translation! You have breathed life into the story and given it the power that I’m sure Homer intended. I am not able to read it in the original Greek but I enjoy knowing that you have been working from the original and that your work is as close as possible to that. It’s much more accessible than the E.V. Rieu translation; not only because of the SA slant but also because it is poetically presented.


The reviewer who said [your Iliad-translation] put him in mind of Simone Weil’s essay Poem of Might had it just right. I have always thought her reading of Homer was a very profound one. As her essay does, your translation conveys the simple brutality of war while preserving the human depth of Homer’s narrative. I think you have achieved something really splendid.




from the author’s ‘Preface’:


Though I could never tire of Homer, when teaching the Iliad in English I did grow dissatisfied with the Anglo-American translations that I and my South African students were forced to use, since they were the only ones available to us. I came to feel that, on the one hand, ‘kings’, ‘princes’, ‘palaces’ and the like were remote from local experience; while, 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. Further, it seemed to me that Southern African English by now had a vocabulary and register of its own that deserved to be reflected in poetic translation.

        And so I began the many years’ work that went into this Southern African translation of the Iliad . . .

from the author’s ‘Introduction’:


As an educated South African, I speak Standard English, but I, like most, also speak a Southern African English that is studded with words from other local languages, words like lekker (nice, from Afrikaans), mugu (a bumpkin, fool, urban African slang), fundi (an expert or authority, from cognate words in Ndebele, Xhosa and Zulu, meaning ‘teach’, ‘teacher’), muti, meaning ‘medicine’, and so on . . .


There is a clear indication that South African English is beginning to take itself seriously, is staking a claim to be a distinct variety, namely, the publication, by Oxford University Press in 1996, of the Dictionary of South African English, on Historical Principles. The Dictionary lists 5,000 words, from many sources, from the Bushman (San) and Khoikhoi tongues, from many African languages, and especially from Afrikaans. The English of my translation includes many local words drawn from the indigenous languages, all of which are in the Dictionary.


Translators are, and must necessarily be, opportunists . . . In some cases I am able to use Southern African English words to render Homeric Greek terms more precisely, or economically, than Standard English could. Here are three examples (all quotations are from the Dictionary of South African English entries for the terms discussed):

        1) In the society depicted by Homer, the man who wants to marry offers his bride’s father gifts, hedna or eedna, for her hand, and these are usually gifts of cattle . . . This practice has a close parallel in South Africa, as represented by the Zulu and Xhosa word, very familiar in local English, lobola. The Dictionary defines the noun lobola as follows : ‘1. The custom among many southern African peoples of giving cattle, goods, or (now usu.) money to the parents of a woman or girl in order to secure her hand in marriage; 2. Goods, cattle, or money given as dowry according to traditional African custom’. Lobola, then, provides an accurate, one-word, translation for hedna.

        2) No single word in Standard English captures the full range of the Homeric word pharmakon, which means ‘medicine’, ‘medicinal herbs’, ‘drug’, but also ‘magic potion’, ‘poisonous drink’, ‘poison’. However, the African-language term muti, widely used by South African English-speakers, has this precise meaning: ‘A substance or object which has or is believed to have curative, preventive, protective, or harmful powers of a medicinal or supernatural kind’. So, using Southern African English muti, I am able to render Homeric pharmakon in all its senses with a single term.

        3) Homeric ieter or ietros is often translated ‘doctor’ or ‘physician’. But the connotations of these Standard English terms seem fairly distant from those of the Homeric words, the associations of which are much more with traditional healing, by means of folk-remedies and herbs . . . than with the practices of modern physicians and doctors. I use the South African English inyanga, ‘a traditional healer or diviner, esp. one specializing in herbalism’, to render Homeric ieter or ietros.