By Tom Mueller
A year ago I began to learn a dead language, and it has subtly changed my view of life. Yet no one seems to believe me. When I say Iʼm studying ancient Greek, people usually respond, with a cocked eyebrow and a heavy diphthong of mistrust, in one of three ways. “Building your vocabulary?” Or: “Why donʼt you just read translations?” Or, most damning of all, “A dead language?”
These are all fair questions, and at times, caught in a bruising clinch with Attic grammar, I ask them of myself. By the standards of my native English, Greek is fabulously—some might say perversely—complex. In college Latin I learned the joys of a synthetic language, in which words are modified (“inflected”) to mark their tense, voice, number, gender, and other grammatical attributes, and even proper names have multiple forms. But nothing had prepared me for the Greek notion of dual number, which is neither singular nor plural but applies to eyes, friends, and other pairs that belong together. After almost a year of study I am still grappling with the vagaries of accentuation, the protean use of participles, and the mysteries of the Greek middle voice, which is neither active (“I lead”) nor passive (“I am led”) but an indefinable, reflexive middle ground (“I lead to or for myself”). And then there are the verbs, those fearsome verbs. In English, verbs have a manageable four main forms: yodel, yodels, yodeled, yodeling. Spanish verbs have about 50. Classical Greek? Three hundred and fifty. “They might yodel (in the past) for themselves” (the first aorist middle optative third person plural) and “You are about to be having been yodeled” (the second person singular future perfect passive) are but two of the ways one can yodel in Greek. And just about the time youʼve memorized all the rules of verb formation, you discover that many Greek verbs are irregular anyway and recklessly break them.
Some of the best Greek of all is still denser and stranger. The reason I started learning the language in the first place was to read The Iliad, the most famous and influential poem in Western culture, in the original. In fact “Homer” may well be a collective pseudonym for many generations of wandering bards, whose slowly evolving oral “text” was only written down circa 700 B.C., several centuries after they had begun to sing it. Their Iliad is a linguistic fossil bed, crammed with archaisms and odd dialects that the Greeks of the fifth century B.C. already found tough going. So imagine me. As I do battle with Book I, reaching the end of each line looking through my ear-hole, as my high-school football coach used to say, I begin to see why “Greek to me,” for Shakespeare, meant gibberish.
Yet in the end, these oddments and complexities are precisely what fuel my efforts. They remind me just how different the people must have been who used this language—people who sang their heroes and their myths, creating them anew at each performance instead of reading them, unchanging, from the page. In them I sense a whole new world-view. Which, after all, is among the best reasons going to learn a new language. Or to read. Or to think at all.
So no: To get back to the first of those nagging Whys, Iʼm not doing this to build my vocabulary or for mental calisthenics. As a word buff Iʼm naturally delighted by my new X-ray view of English, which reveals the Greek bones under the skin of familiar friends like psychology (psyche, “breath, life, soul” + logos, “word, discourse, reason” = the reason of the soul) and dinosaur (from deinos, “terrible, fearful, great” + sauros, “lizard”) and helps me understand lingo in medicine and natural history that Iʼd never encountered before. If getting pages of strange runes down by heart improves my memory, or if I feel a certain cryptographic kick in discerning meaning in what at first glance seems an impenetrable waterfall of words, thatʼs grand. But more than words themselves, what interests me is the Greek thought that underlies them.
So why not just read translations? Bookstores are filled with polished renderings by people whose Greek is far better than mine will ever be. Whatʼs wrong with those? Absolutely nothing, of course. Yet the more Greek I read in the original, the more translations seem a pale two-dimensional shadow of a shapely, muscular, three-dimensional body whose form and content are one. Take the first few words of The Iliad. The superb Robert Fagles translation runs:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleusʼ son Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses …
A no less distinguished rendering, by the eminent classicist Richard Lattimore, has it quite differently:
Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleusʼ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians …
Fagles begins in rage, Lattimore in song; for one it is “Achilles” who is “murderous, doomed,” while for the other anger itself is the active force. Which is it? In the original it is both, and a good deal more besides.
In Sophoclesʼ Antigone, the chorus sings of mankindʼs ambivalent greatness: “polla ta deina kouden anthropou deinoteron pelei.” The phrase can be translated in two very different ways, because of the inherent ambiguity of the adjective deinos (as in dinosaur), which may be positive (“great”) or negative (“fearful,” “terrible”). So as the chorus sings “many things are terrible, but nothing is more terrible than mankind,” it is also singing “many things are great (clever, able …), but nothing is greater than mankind.” Compare a line from Periclesʼ famous funeral oration to the Athenians killed in the first year of the Peloponnesian War: “philokaloumen te gar metʼeuteleias kai philosophoumen aneu malakias.” The Penguin translation reads: “Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.” This is a fine rendering, but it cannot measure up. The music of the line is inevitably lost: the satisfying echo of philokaloumen and philosophoumen, the singular sing-song beauty of the word eleuteleias, meaning “thrift” or “economy,” the rhythmic tension of the whole line that makes the English seem fussy and verbose. Translation has once again compressed original meanings: Philokaloumen means “love of the beautiful,” but it could just as easily be rendered “nobility.” Malakias is “softness,” but also “cowardice.” Each word has a whole series of associations, a vast bubble chart of intersecting meanings shimmering in the mind as one reads.
When the translator makes his fatal choice—one word only, please—all but one of the beautiful bubbles burst. Put another way, the result is a black-and-white photo of an orchid grove: satisfying in its own way, perhaps, but nowhere near as perfumed and animate as the original. Of course this impoverishment happens, in varying degree, every time one language is forced to flow into the conduit of another. Last December, in a German-speaking village in the Swiss Alps, I bought a packet of paper tissues emblazoned, in German, with the proud marketing boast Durchschnupfsicher! As often happens in Switzerland, the package was multilingual, and the term was variously rendered in English, Italian, and French, as “three-ply,” assorbente, and résistent; the English stressed the productʼs structure, the Italian its absorbency, the French its toughness. But the German term contained all three: Compounded of three separate words, it literally means “sneeze-through-proof.” A concept of singular power.
Distinguished linguists and cognitive scientists argue convincingly that words themselves do not circumscribe reality—that different languages donʼt create different mentalities (the Eskimos, it turns out, actually do not have 20 different words for snow). Still, a concept like Durchschnupfsicher-ness is nothing to sneeze at. Wherever in this chicken-or-egg world they come from, different mentalities do exist in various lands, and local languages do mirror them. Hence the old Italian proverb traduttore traditore is entirely justified: “The translator is a traitor.” Reading texts in the original is the only hope of a direct approach to the people who wrote them.
And here, another chorus of objections. Many people question pointedly whether we have any business getting to know the ancient Greeks better in the first place. Broadly speaking, these critics fall into two camps, which cast the Greeks as either benign or malignant. The former, following the “dead language” line, question whether books written 2,500 years ago can really contain anything that is still relevant today. Surely their thought has long ago been superseded?
Itʼs true in hard science, where Ptolemyʼs astronomy, Aristotleʼs physics, and the medicine of Galen and Hippocrates have been bettered by several centuries of scientific method. Yet in a wide range of other fields, including philosophy, architecture, sculpture, religion, and literature, the Greeks remain seminal. They invented democracy, pioneered concepts of the citizen and the state. Some of our most basic social and political concepts—private property, civil liberties, and free speech—and our most frequently capitalized ideals—Justice, Beauty, Morality, Free Will—appear first among the Greeks, who wrote about them with a clarity and insight that richly repays attention to this day. Even where modern science has outstripped them, the Greeks remain sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued in the background. Doctors in many countries still take the oath ascribed to Hippocrates, and with good reason, for in a few pithy lines it considers topics such as euthanasia, abortion, and the delicate nature of the patient-doctor relationship. Here, as in the many spheres of knowledge where science loses its hard edges and grades into the nebulous realms of ethics and law, the Greeks excel. They were remarkably astute students of humanity.
Statements like this draw the loudest hoots and jeers of all, of course, from people who consider the Greeks not just irrelevant but downright dangerous, members of a slave-owning, xenophobic, misogynist society who donʼt deserve our attention in the first place. They are, according to this reasoning, the leading figures of that most loathsome group, the Dead White Males, who have twisted the Western cultural canon to serve their none-too-hidden political agendas.
Call me a dupe, but when I read Aristotleʼs Physics or Poetics Iʼm not focusing on the fact that he defended slavery, any more than I reject the U.S. Constitution because the Founding Fathers themselves owned slaves and would have been thunderstruck by womenʼs suffrage, or allow memories of Mozartʼs smutty letters to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla to sully the pleasure of his horn concertos. Maybe Iʼm an apolitical nincompoop, but I believe in great books and read them for the same reasons that I look at paintings by Picasso and sculpture by Praxiteles, stare long and silent at Notre Dameʼs façade in dawn light, and listen to the chaconne from Bachʼs violin concerto in D-minor at full, thorax-thrumming volume: to celebrate and heighten my humanity, to drink deep of life, and to partake in mysterious pleasures that I (quite obviously) canʼt capture in words, but recognize when they happen … in the immortal words of Hallmark, to Take Joy.
This is not string theory, but common sense: In art as in life, some things are more complex, stimulating, enduring, and ultimately more rewarding than others. Over the ages a few painters, sculptors, architects, and, yes, a few writers too—some of whom were dear, sweet-natured souls, others master manipulators or thoroughgoing bastards—have by talent, elbow grease, or pure luck arrived at a deeper perception of human existence than is vouchsafed to most of us. They have crystallized this perception in their art, an art whose force, elegance, and economy speaks to all people in all times (or more so than most). This, in fact, is how we know an artistʼs work is universal: when it passes through the sands of Time, the most effective filter of wheat and chaff there is. Not to belittle contemporary writers—I wouldnʼt give up my Banville and Proulx and Hamsun and Heaney for any money. They may even turn out to be among the Greats. Just that itʼs too early to say. Only with time will we see whether their works age like a legendary Bordeaux vintage or like cheap plonk. Jane Austen, whose writing has held up marvelously for more than two centuries, we can be a little more confident about. Dante, with another 500 years of fame under his belt, is a safe bet. Virgil is a sure thing. Homer is a lead-pipe cinch.
And the closer I can come to meeting them on their home turf—to conversing with them in their native languages—the more I may be able to learn from them. Or so I believe. Which is why I labor over my flash cards and conjugations, seeking elusive communion with Homer and the Greeks. For 25 centuries now people have turned to their writings, 75 generations of readers with vastly different expectations and outlooks, who have found there something pure and profound, a new way of seeing the world that streams by them. Itʼs time I saw for myself.
**** From Hemispheres Magazine of United Airlines, November 2006 issue.
**** Tom Mueller speaks six languages fluently but wishes ancient Greek were his mother tongue.