Do You Speak Bear? and Other Musings on Languages

“Don’t worry! I just came to tell you I’m not like other grizzly bears.”

There cannot be, as far as I’m concerned, too many translated books. We would love to read our favorites in the original, but that would require an all-consuming love of languages, not to mention talent, in an age when universities  have targeted language departments for budget cuts.  Spanish is, oddly, the sacrosanct “practical” language: the college presidents may imagine students are conversing with illegal migrant workers, or ordering drinks in Spanish in Cancun (though spring break is canceled next year).

I wonder if the American lack of interest in languages is, to a large extent, because we travel so little. Certainly, this was true when I was growing up. Family travel was expensive: if we felt like a trip, we went to the funny, charming movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” (It’s still one of my favorites.)

When we did travel in those halcyon days of the 20th century, it was likely to be a camping trip in Montana (where we didn’t speak Bear) or camping in Canada (where we still didn’t speak Bear). In fact, I was happier at home studying dead languages (ancient Greek and Latin), which, like Bear, are seldom spoken by humans.

Few stumble into classics of their own accord. (They’d rather speak Bear.)  Literature in translation is the lure. Where would we have been without a Classics in Translation class? How many of us rushed to sign up for Greek or Latin afterwards? We owe it to Richmond Lattimore (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), David Grene (Sophocles’s Oedipus the King), Robert Graves (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Rolfe Humphries). Today we have other brilliant translators: Betty Rose Nagle (Ovid, Statius), Robert Fagles (Homer and Virgil), and Anne Carson (Euripides).

It turned out we loved the grammar and translation.  We especially loved our summer Ovid class, which tipped the scales in favor of Latin, though we studied both.  Once you’ve read Ovid, there’s no going back. “We’re the Ovidians!” (I wish I had the T-shirt.)

And it’s not just ancient classics, of course. There are so many classics we love in translation. I am a fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:  you should see my collection of different translations. (My favorite is the Maude, but I also recommend Rosemary Edmonds.) And then there’s Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (Norwegian), Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (Russian), Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (German), Balzac’s Cousin Pons (French), and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Japanese). Some of my favorite modern translators are Tina Nunnally, Lydia Davis, Ann Goldstein, Juliet Winter Carpenter, and Lisa C. Hayden.

I still don’t speak Bear, but I am grateful for the many languages that reflect the cultures and literatures of our world.

Dreaming in Latin: My Affair with Cicero & Chortling over Ovid

Every autumn I sit under multiple blankets, drinking cups of chai, surrounded by dictionaries, poring over my favorite literature in a foreign language. I swear the comfort of dictionaries—a word can change its meaning entirely when combined in different phrases, in different contexts—makes it possible to escape from the gloom of chilly fall days.  Recently, reading in another language distracted me from my fierce fights with 25-mile-per-hour winds on my bike, and a wish that our leaves would blow into somebody else’s yard.

 Thank God for the charm of languages!  Hipsters read French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, travel, and perhaps join the Peace Corps, while nerds read classical languages and often stay home.   Much as I love Latin, you will not get social points for spending the summer reading Statius.  And claiming you dream in Latin is, in my opinion, always going too far. That is not to say that I have not gone far: and yet, one does not want to be a don or a scholar (unless you’re Mary Beard).  A language is more than words: it shapes the culture and the structure of thought.  It is difficult to translate this reality to people who do not know a foreign language. And in the U.S., where we seldom bother to learn other languages, xenophobia grows.

I hide the fact at dinner parties that my  “affair” with  Cicero, a binge-reading of his speeches and letters, turned into a sympathetic imaginary dialogue with this brilliant, annoying, insecure orator.  In a flash,  I understood his character and the politics of the first century B.C. as I had never experienced through reading history.  I flashed on the elaborate networking, the insane politics, the chances Cicero took with prosecuting mobsters:  he wanted political fame so desperately that he wrote letters begging  friends to write the history of his suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy against Rome. 

I see Latin poetry through scrims of different readings and interpretation over the decades.  Is Ovid’s myth of Daphne and Apollo in Metamorphoses humorous or tragic? Is it about unrequited love or rape? Probably both. Cupid shoots the god Apollo with an arrow of love and shoots the nymph Daphne with an arrow of repulsion.  Daphne runs away, and the out-of-shape Apollo chases her,  begging her to run more slowly, promising he will run more slowly, too.  She is dedicated to the chaste goddess Diana, and begs her father, Peneus, the river god, to  save her.  He turns her into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.

As an undergraduate I scribbled the following irreverent remarks in the margins: 

  • Couldn’t Peneus have done better? Why a tree?
  • Is she a lesbian?  Is that the arrow of repulsion? 
  • Why does Prof think this erotic?  The wreath holds her rumpled hair “without law.”  She  is a mess and prob stinks from running.  Unshaven legs, I’m sure.  A modern feminist.  (N.B. We didn’t often shave our body hair back the.)

I could have garbled on like this forever, but I doubt it went into my paper on Ovid. 

Or perhaps it did.