Untranslatable Joy

The best thing I read today was from a history of a department of Classics at an American university. It was written by a man I greatly admire. That is, the author is not explicitly stated, but his character clearly emerges in his mannerism.

This means, in effect, that all [classics majors at this university] make an especially close study of language itself, of its very architecture. This fact alone can bring a deep quiet joy; for all our lives, no matter what our work, language itself—which in our case means English, deepened and sharpened by knowledge of its two most illustrious ancient ancestors—is actually the lens, stereoscopic and finely adjustable, through which we perceive reality.

Of course this work of constant daily translating is specially hard. A Classics major soon discovers that Greek and Latin are but faint footprints, left by the voices of extinct peoples, and that we are tone-deaf, and at first often just half understand them. Later comes another problem: the more we do understand the bold, subtle Greek of Thucydides or Pindar, or the astonishing Latin of Vergil or Tacitus, the more we see how truly untranslatable it is, because of its density and its gigantic beauty. But to live alone with that secret is itself a happiness.

Sometimes I get the impression in my good students that they do not think it possible ever to sharpen the mind’s ear to hear the tones of these ancient languages; rarely in the very best one sees the realization dawn, at similar moments in the classroom, that it is.

When I finished college with a bachelor’s degree in Classics, I too had my doubts—though I had had moments, brushes with illumination—that it was even possible to sit on my couch with an OCT and read Caesar or Cicero or Vergil and simply enjoy them for what they are, the way I do Shakespeare or Milton or Dickens or Austen. It’s especially frustrating when one teaches oneself enough French entirely without instruction to be able to read Contes Français in half a year. But that’s the point today’s author is making after all…

But it happens, thank God, it does. In fact in my case it happened the very next semester—my first semester of graduate school. Nowadays I spend some days (weeks or months!) reading even more Latin or Greek than English…

And once you cross that line, to be satisfied with translation becomes very difficult thenceforward.

Thanks, dear reader, for being the gadfly of my discipline.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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