The Tears of Achilles

  Monsacré, Hélène. 2018. The Tears of Achilles. Trans. Nicholas J. Snead. Introduction by Richard P. Martin. Hellenic Studies Series 75. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Translator’s Note: Truchement ≈ Caretaker

Nicholas J. Snead

I learned the term truchement as a first-year M.A. student studying French language and literature at the University of Virginia, where I had the wonderful good fortune to take a Balzac seminar with Peter Brooks, a visiting professor there that year. Truchement is an archaic French word meaning ‘translator’ or ‘interpreter.’ If you traveled to France today, it is highly unlikely you would ever hear anyone use it.

I consider my role to be that of the truchement ‘caretaker’ of Hélène Monsacré’s writing. I have undertaken this project feeling grateful and honored—but also with a deep sense of responsibility. Having spent so much of the last few months immersed in her vision of the Iliad and the Odyssey, I think I can safely say that writing such a clear analysis of epic tears was a massive undertaking that required great effort and patience. I hope to have done right by the text and by its author.

Another of the specific challenges for this translation was rendering a group of French words that relate in some way to light. Monsacré weaves a series of nouns like lumière, éclat, lueur, ardeur and verbs like briller, illuminer, scintiller, irradier, étinceler, resplendir into her discussion of the sparkling, shining radiance of Homeric heroes and the major women of epic. I have found French to be far richer for these types of terms, which connect physical beauty to differently nuanced conceptions of light.

The French verb pleurer (‘to cry’ or ‘to weep’) also required considerable energy and attention. Of course, there is almost always more than one choice to translate any given word or phrase. In a book about tears, the English words ‘cry’ and ‘weep’ are two very similar options, though they are certainly not identical. In my translation, I have not attempted to develop any cohesive semantic approach to distinguish between them. I have relied instead on my ear for style to judge which term sounds better in the surrounding English context. I realize that this approach does create the risk of errors in judgment.

The final challenge I need to mention is the level, stylistic rhythm that makes Les Larmes d’Achille such a powerful text. The original is stylistically clean, smooth, even. It makes for a deceptively effortless read. I say deceptive because, while it is easy for a reader of French to get through, it is not at all easy to hone these complex ideas into such sharp and clear focus. Trying to replicate that style in English has proven to be the most difficult piece of the present volume. But it has also been the piece I have enjoyed working on the most.

As with any book-length translation, this one would not have been possible without the support, encouragement, guidance, and trust of a number of wonderful people. I would like to thank Noel Spencer, who first contacted me about the project and who has always believed me capable of taking on something of this magnitude, even through a weepy season of my own. Friends Erik Bobilin, Cason and Emily Elam, Sarah Beth and Tom Gehl, R. D. Perry, and Ethan Spencer supported me during that same difficult period. Dr. Kate Lakin-Schultz helped me formulate my thoughts about the concept of truchement. Robert and Linda Snead (aka Mom and Dad) and my brother Eric have supported me as a translator for as long as I can remember.

I would like to thank Ioanna Papadopoulou and Leonard Muellner at the Center for Hellenic Studies, who agreed to bring me on board and who helped address the difficulties involved in reconciling French and English citations of Homer. I would also like to thank my teachers and role models from my time as a French graduate student at UVA. I have to recognize two by name: Mary McKinley and Jean-Yves Pouilloux. If I have succeeded in my role as Monsacré’s truchement, it is largely thanks to them and everything they taught me about interpretation. My understanding of the role of a translator is rooted deep in their conscientious instruction. From them, I learned to tend carefully to a text, both through their direct classroom instruction on how to be a good reader and, perhaps more importantly, by watching, reading, and listening to the solid foundational model of interpretation they provide when they speak and write about Montaigne and Proust.

Finally, I want to express my gratitude to the author herself. Advancing towards the end of the final chapter, enthralled by the discussion of how Achilles merges temporarily with the body of his departed friend Patroclus, I glanced at my copy of the original Les Larmes d’Achille. There was hardly anything left to do. Seeing that I was so near the end brought on a momentary tinge of sadness, that same seeping disappointment that creeps in when you are coming to the end of book you have loved and realize that the pages on the right have shrunk down to almost nothing. I wanted there to be more. I have come to know Achilles and the meaning of his tears far better than before. Hopefully, this new version of Monsacré’s work will now bring that same epic knowledge to a great many students and scholars.


[ back ] 1. “Balzac: Epistemophilia and the Collapse of the Restoration.” Yale French Studies (Fragments of Revolution) 101:119–131.

[ back ] 2. Brooks 126.

[ back ] 3. These translations are available online in the Publications section at