Ah, every semester of life seems to encapsculate a new challenge. This semester’s has more than a few. Currently, I’m happily, willfully suffering through Latin and Ancient Greek and I for some reason I thought keeping a sort of progress benchmark will not only show me that I am learning and progressing but it will also keep me accountable to my self. This week I’ve spent approximately 21 hours on Latin. That’s a lot. I still can’t sight identify the cases of nouns and am still shaky on both their meanings and the meaning of the cases. I’m far better at it than I was on Monday, however, and that’s a win for me. I’m happy to have people on my side cheering me along in my journey through the Classics–the “real classics”. These grievances are some of the reasons that classicists are known to be so “scrupulous” (and I secretly love it).
The other reason I decided to write about my experiences with Latin and Greek is to come up with a goal–to know when I’ve really ‘made it’. Think of my goal literature as a the pair of pants that you buy a size or two small and hope to get into. Going into this language journey, I don’t think I knew what a reasonable expectation was. I know very little but that’s how everyone starts out, right?
Let me first touch on how I got here in the first place. It all started day one of my honors course Freshman year. We were reading Homer’s Iliad and the first thing my teacher day after introduction was ask for questions. I, having read all the translation notes in the introduction, was thinking about the nature of translation. Being an English major and fanatic, I’ve read a lot of things–most of which however were written in English. I didn’t have to question whether or not I trusted the person who wrote it, after all it was that authors book. With this one, that’s not the case. Could I really criticize the nature, syntax, diction of the text when all of this could be six degrees away from what the original author penned?
So there I was sitting in my desk, staring at my first college professor. I had to come up with a question. So I asked about the translation–why this one? There has to be at least a dozen; nothing about this one in particular felt special. He responded with some spiel about accessibility of the text along with cost, but nothing really concrete. He did however mention on more than one occasion that you haven’t read Homer until you do in the original Greek.
Flash forward one semester to the second half of my Freshman year. I’m in another course on ancient literature but this time of my own volition (latin root: volo, look at me go!). I loved this course. It was the highlight of my week. I really was into all the books we read (Petronius, Apuleius, Longus) and I wanted to critically dive into them. But I was faced with the same problem that reared its head first semester. Could I trust the translation? If I was analyzing diction and word choice then it seemed that I couldn’t. It’s like someone took all my critical analysis skill away from me and left me on a deserted island. I was not happy. I tried to read published criticism on the works but all the Classicists would analyze discrepancies in the original Greek or Latin texts. I couldn’t keep up.
I love analyzing literature and having just had my eyes opened to a huge pool of literature that presented new questions and challenges to any I had previously experienced, I wasn’t going to be satisfied easily. I went to a talked hosted by my university given by Emily Wilson and I was geeking out. She was analytical like I was. However she had more than a few languages under her belt, among them both Latin and Ancient Greek. She gave me hope in my own ability to reach that level of fluency and criticality. So I decided, after being urged on a little, that I would undertake not just Greek or just Latin but both…at the same time.
So here I’m left with a pair of goal pants that I’m doubtful will ever fit. I think I’m in good hands though. There’s people I can reach out to for a life raft if I need one (or just a few casual words of encouragement, an acknowledgement of my struggle and effort). Since the end is in the beginning I think it only right that I use the poem that solidified my choice to take Ancient Greek as my goal. It’s Sappho fragment 90:
Οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ᾽ ὔσδῳ
ἄκρον ἐπ᾽ ἀκροτάτῳ λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπνεσ,
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἐδύναντ᾽ ἐπίκεσθαι
Right now I can verbalize all these words, which is more than be said of my ability when I first saw it. So that’s progress. As for Latin I’m kinda of two minds. To chose Petronius from the class on ancient romance novel or to go with Ovid (“the exegesis on the dangers of romantic love”). I was more in the former’s camp than the latter’s, but now things have swapped. When I can read Ovid, I’ll know I’ve made it. I’m thankful for being pushed to pursue Ancient language because for as challenging as it is, it’s taught be a lot about myself. For that, I am grateful.