Tuesday, August 07, 2012


I Do Not Know Greek

Letter from Stephen MacKenna to Violet MacKenna (December 24, 1923), in Journal and Letters of Stephen MacKenna, ed. E.R. Dodds (London: Constable & Co Ltd, 1936), pp. 191-199 (at 194-195):
By the way, until I write to Bob, tell him that I didn't clairvoy anything wrong with his Greek: tell him I acted merely on my own knowledge of my own: it runs so low that I periodically have to have recourse to the one infallible method of revival, that of back-translation: I take Greek-Latin, Greek-French, Greek-German texts, and translate (generally in the mind, sometimes in writing) from the Latin, French or German, and compare my results with the authentic text there before me: a few days of this, and I find the dialect or the particular author's style coming back to me (my memory is very bad), and I can then go on reading gaily, until after putting the author by for some time I find myself rusty, then the same trick again. I think I have read again and again everything in all Greek down to Byzantine times (and much of that too, as well as a great deal of the purely modern stuff, lives of Washington, of Rodin, etc. etc.), yet at no moment can I be sure of understanding a passage put suddenly before me: after all these years and all this devotion I do not know Greek: I add that I have personally met only one who did know Greek, and I would find it hard to believe that in any one decade in any one country there have been as yet more than ten people who do know it. Mainly a matter of proper teaching: teach ancient Greek as a living spoken language (a very possible thing) for the long beginnings, then carry on by the back-translation method, and we could all know it, we who care, just as we can learn French or Russian. It's the barbarously imbecile teaching by rules and exceptions, by comprehensive paradigmas, and by premature mixing of dialects, and with stupid choice of texts and stress on foolish notes—all that most cursed folly has stupefied us into inability, at my age, to hold Greek in our poor old weary skulls.
Related post: Understanding Greek.

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