Thursday, December 31, 2015


Classics in Translation

John St. Loe Strachey (1860-1927), The Adventure of Living: A Subjective Autobiography (1860-1922) (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1922), pp. 155-160:
Owing to having been forced to try to learn the Greek Grammar instead of reading the books written by the Greeks in a language which I could understand, I very nearly made an intellectual shipwreck. Indeed, it was only by a series of lucky accidents that I escaped complete ignorance of the Greek spirit, though retaining a certain knowledge of the grammar.

It was only after I had miserably squirmed my way through Mods., as a man may squirm through some hole in a prison wall, that I had the slightest idea of what was meant by the Greek spirit.

I closed my grammar, with all the miserable and complicated stuff about τύπτω and its aorists, the enclitic and the double-damned Digamma, to open my Jowett's Plato, my Dakyns' Xenophon, and, later, Gilbert Murray's Dramatists and Mackail's Anthology. It is true that in the squirming process I have described I had to read a portion of the Anabasis and of the Odyssey and Memorabilia, as well as books of Caesar, Livy, Horace, and Virgil.

In the case of these books I acquired nothing but a distaste so deep that it has only just worn off. Only after an interval of forty years could I bear to read these kill-joys in translation. No doubt some of the fault was mine. Possibly I was born with an inability to learn languages. But if that is so it is a misfortune, not a crime for which one should be put on the rack!

By the time I realised fully the glory of Greek letters, I was a very busy man, and bitter indeed was the thought that the well-meaning persons who maintain our university system had actually been keeping me all those years from the divine wells of grace and beauty. But for them, how many more years of enjoyment might I have drawn from the Socratic Dialogues, from the Apology, and from the Republic! Think of it! It was not till four years ago that I read Thucydides and had my soul shaken by the supreme wickedness, the intellectual devilry of the Melian controversy. How I thrilled at the awful picture of the supreme tragedy at Syracuse! How I saw! How I perished with the Greek warriors standing to arms on the shore, and watching in their swaying agony the Athenian ships sink one by one, without being able to lift a hand, or cast a long or short spear to help them! Yet the watchers knew that the awful spectacle on which they gazed meant death, or a slavery worse than death, for every one of them!

Almost worse to me than the denial of Plato, the dramatists, Thucydides, and Homer, was the refusal to allow me to walk or hunt with Xenophon, and to saunter through his kitchen or his grounds. And all because I could not show the requisite grammatical ticket. Could anything be more fascinating than the tale of Xenophon's prim yet most lovable young wife, or the glorious picture of the boy and girl lovers with which Xenophon closes his Symposium?

My sense of a deprivation unnecessary and yet deliberate was as great in regard to Latin literature. It was only in 1919, owing to what I had almost called a fortunate illness, that I took to reading Cicero's Letters and came under an enchantment greater than that cast even by Walpole, Madame de Sévigné, or Madame du Deffand.

For forty years I was kept in ignorance of a book which painted the great world of Rome with a touch more intimate than even that of St. Simon. Cicero in his Letters makes the most dramatic moment in Roman history, the end of the Oligarchic Republic, live before one. Even Macaulay's account of the Revolution of 1688 seems tame when called in comparison.

I know that by the time some Greek or Latin scholar has got as far as this he will ask with a smile,
Why is this self-dubbed ignoramus making all this pother about being deprived of the classics? Surely he cannot have failed to realise that it is impossible to understand and appreciate the classics properly without having learnt Latin and Greek? But you cannot learn Latin and Greek without learning the grammar. He not only on his own showing has no grievance, but is giving support to those who desire that the classics should remain the centrepiece of our educational system.
For all such objections I have one, and I think a final, argument. When people ask me how I propose to enjoy Plato without knowing Greek, I ask them to tell me, in return, how they manage to enjoy reading one of the greatest poets in the world, Isaiah, without knowing Hebrew. How have they found consolation in the Psalms; how have they absorbed the worldly wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; how have they read the lyric choruses of the Song of Solomon; how have they followed the majestic drama of the Book of Job? They read them in translations. That is the way in which they have filled their minds with the noble deeds and thoughts of the Hebrew history and Hebrew literature. That is the answer, the true answer, and the only answer.

A good, practical, commonsense proof of what I am saying is to be found in the fact that the ordinary man and also the man of brains who has gone through the good old fortifying classical curriculum, to quote Matthew Arnold once more, and who theoretically can read the great Greek and Latin authors in their own languages, and without translations, hardly reads them at all. Those who know that it is a translation or nothing will be found to be far closer and more constant readers of Plato and Thucydides. Certainly that is my case. To this day I find myself reading the Greek and Latin authors in translation when many of my friends, who took Honours Mods. and Honours Greats, would no more think of opening books which they are supposed to have read than they would attempt to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. The man with a classical education will still worry himself over an accidental false quantity or a wrongly-placed Greek accent, but it is extraordinary how seldom, unless he is a schoolmaster, you hear of him enjoying the classics or applying knowledge drawn from the classics to modern literature or to modern politics.

A further proof of this view, which I admit sounds strange, may be registered. The only man I have known who habitually read Greek in the original was Lord Cromer, and he had not had a classical education. He left a private day-school in London to go straight to Chatham, where he was prepared for entry into the artillery. And at Chatham they did not teach Greek. Therefore when, as a gunner subaltern, he went to the Ionian Islands on the staff of Sir Henry Storks, he was without any knowledge of Greek. He wanted, however, as he told me, to know modern Greek, as the language of the islands. Also, like the natural Englishman he was, to be able to talk with the Albanian hunters with whom he went shooting in the hills of the mainland. But when he had mastered enough modern Greek to read the newspaper and so forth, he began to wonder whether he could not use his knowledge to find out what Homer was like.

He very soon found out that he could read him as one reads Chaucer. From this point he went on till he made himself—I will not say a Greek scholar, but something much better—a person able to read Greek and enjoy it in the original. Throughout the period of my friendship with him, which lasted for nearly a quarter of a century, he was constantly reading and translating from Greek authors and talking about them in an intimate and stimulating way.

Once more, it is because I want people to study and to love classical literature and to imbibe the Greek spirit that I desire that the ordinary man should not be forced to grind away at Greek grammar when he might be getting in touch with great minds and great books. I am not blind, of course, to the gymnastic defence of the classics, though I do not share it. All I say is, do not let us make a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages a sine qua non in our educational system, on the ground that such knowledge brings the ordinary man into touch with the Greek spirit. It does nothing of the kind.

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