The Aesthetics of Greek and Latin

Chancellor Gorkon

Chancellor Gorkon famously said, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon,” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It is a trope that is expressed about basically all literature — you cannot appreciate something in a translation. Something is always lost in translation, even if a translator is capable of conveying the same, precise meaning as the original text.

One of the elements lost is the original aesthetic of the text. The sheer pleasure of reading well-wrought verbal artistry is entirely untranslatable. Anaphora, anacolouthon, assonance, alliteration, not to mention other devices that don’t begin with A are rarely, if ever, capable of reproduction in a translation. Puns are well-nigh impossible. Poetic meter and prose rhythm are almost inevitably sacrificed.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching Theocritus. It has been a few years since I last read Theocritus in the original Greek, and I find myself enjoying him much more in Greek than I had in my more recent reading of him in English translation. The aesthetic pleasures of Theocritus are in some ways, of course, those of any poet. Reading dactylic hexameters aloud, for example, has an aural significance that nothing else provides (even things equally pleasant are simply different). And then you meet his use of literary devices — playing with words, repeating various sounds across several lines of poetry as a means of tying together the concepts in a poem in a way that English, with a different vocabulary, cannot do with the same meanings.

There is also the pleasure of reading Doric Greek. Ancient Greek, if you were not aware, exists in multiple dialects. The dialect of Theocritus is primarily Doric. This means that he has certain versions of common words that different from other dialects — poti for pros, for instance. He also frequently uses long alpha where the Greek you learn in class uses eta. Some of his pronouns are different, etc. This use of a different dialect provides both an aesthetic and philological pleasure. His Greek ‘sounds’ different from Homer’s, although he does use some Homeric vocabulary and forms; it sounds different from Plato’s, as well.

Finally, part of the pleasure of reading verse written in inflected languages is the fact that word order matters a lot less than in English. As one of my students calls it, every once in a while Theocritus gives us a ‘Happy Grammar Fun Time’ — he will delay a crucial word in a sentence through enjambment so that it is both the final word of the sentence and the first word of a line of poetry. Not only this, in one of the occasions he does this, that final word of the sentence is separated from the rest of the sentence by a refrain. Without the word, as you would read the sentence naturally, it has one meaning. Suddenly, a new meaning appears after the refrain.

You cannot do this in English.

It is hard to explain the sheer pleasure that comes from reading literature in its original language, but it is a truly pleasurable aesthetic experience to read Theocritus in Greek, or Virgil in Latin, or any author in the language he or she originally used.

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