The famous likening of the sea to wine has endured through ages, from at least the late eighth century BC, the composition date of The Iliad, and the phrase “wine-dark” is now so securely lodged in our collective consciousness as to be known even by people who have never read Homer. It is not The Odyssey, Homer’s sailor’s saga, but the earlier, land-bound Iliad, set on Trojan soil, that first launched one of the best-known of all Homeric epithets on the world. The phrase occurs here only six times, the same incidence as “tumultuous” or “loudsounding,” while the less vivid “gray-gleaming” is used a dozen times. Yet it is “wine-dark” that has stuck with us, and it is clear why. The phrase is alluring, stirring, and indistinctly evocative. It is also, strictly speaking, incomprehensible, and for all the time the phrase has been relished, readers and scholars have debated what the term actually means. In what way did the sea remind Homer of dark wine? And of the myriad ways to evoke the sea, why compare it to wine at all? A translator’s task is to render into English both the plain meaning and the sensibility—the felt meaning—of a Homeric phrase or word, and so it is a duty, albeit a perilous one, to plunge deeper into this celebrated sea phrase, and grope for clarity. Impertinent questions must be floated: what does it mean—and is there possibly a better rendering?
more from Caroline Alexander at Lapham’s Quarterly here.