My Geekish Old Greek & a New Greek Dictionary

This crumbling Greek dictionary needed a replacement!

Ancient Greek is a bit like a crossword puzzle, perhaps more like a double acrostic. It is economical: in general, it takes four Greek words to translate eight English words. If you are a fan of Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Aristophanes, and Euripides, you adore the poetry and are also intrigued because the Greeks are not like us. We read from the perspective of Americans in the twenty-first century, so our interpretations do not always match those of the Greeks.

Classics geeks have the advantage of reading the real thing in the real language. At some point, every Greek student reads Euripides’s Medea (in Greek). And not only were we hypnotized by Euripides, we thought we might like Medea as a person. At one point she affirms, ” I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.” Very dramatic. We feminists loved it! She delivers brilliant speeches, but along the way we forgot she was a wicked witch: she cut up her brother into tiny pieces and scattered them on the ocean to slow down her father in his pursuit of Jason; and she killed her own children. And more.

These days, I prefer Greek comedy, but I must say the experience of unraveling the jokes is weird as well as surreal and funny. You don’t sit down and read Greek. Oh, no. You pore over dictionaries and commentaries and work to find the right words. I was tickled pink, as my mother would say, when a note in a commentary explained that “Tartessian eel”(now there’s a baffling phrase!) is “a delicacy for Athenian tables” (from Tartessos, Spain). Then the commentator refers us to Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Fishes. These notes are so much fun – and I especially enjoyed the reference to Thompson.

Greek dictionaries are a source of entertainment this summer. My inspiration for reading comedy is the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon, a much-needed supplement or alternative to Liddell and Scott, the scholarly Greek dictionary written in the nineteenth century which is still used by scholars – and the rest of us. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon is a beautiful two-volume boxed set, and the books have blissfully biggish print and modern definitions. Mind you, Liddell and Scott is useful, but the print is tiny and the definitions of the words often quaint. I am thrilled to have both “brand-name” dictionaries now!

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon has a brisk, business-like approach to to updating definitions. For instance, my old Liddell and Scott defines the word kobalos as an “errant knave” or “impudent rogue.” Love it! But the Cambridge is concise: the definition is “scoundrel.” And isn’t that better English?

The Cambridge print is the right size for near-sighted readers.

Like Netflix, Greek comedy abounds with vulgar jokes. The Liddell and Scott obfuscates the meaning with circumlocutions – and then they make no sense. The Greeks love toilet humor, but don’t look to Liddell and Scott for enlightenment. The word engkezo was new to me. First I consulted Liddell and Scott, who use the phrase”to be in a horrid fright at.” The Cambridge comes right out and says: “shit oneself.” Now I know.

There is also a joke with the word kusthos. My abridged Liddell and Scott does not include this word, so shocking is it. And the complete Liddell and Scott dictionary defines it with the Latin pudenda muliebria. Thank you, Liddell and Scott, for your wisdom! Fortunately, the Cambridge straightforwardly defines it as “female genitals” or “cunt.” Personally, I prefer the word vulva… but now I understand the smutty joke.

And so the Cambridge Greek Lexicon facilitates my journey through Greek. If, like me, you wear bifocals, I recommend the Cambridge with its larger print – yes, size matters! – but hang on to your Liddell and Scott, too.

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.