Classics’ Relationship With Translation.

Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of Classics at Brown University, has a fascinating discussion of classicists and translation at Eidolon; it’s so full of good things I’m going to have a hard time extracting representative samples, so if you like the bits I quote, go read the whole thing:

Yet our pedagogical reliance on translation habituates us to thinking about language learning in strange ways. In a brief overview of the history of translation, Juliane House observes that “At the end of the eighteenth century the teaching of Latin had turned into a highly formalized ritual, the idea being to instil discipline into students’ minds.” Two and a half centuries later, not much seems to have changed. I remember sitting in high school Latin class with a copy of Mandelbaum’s Aeneid under my desk, feeling like a kid in the outfield praying the ball never flies her way. For me, the “ritual” of in-class translation became linked early on with fear of humiliation.

This kind of pedagogy also hinders the development of real comprehension, since, among other things, it encourages students to translate Greek and Latin into their native languages even when they read on their own. We know that’s not how you learn a language; it’s also a hard habit to break. […]

In 2015, I met a journalist named Konstantinos Poulis in Greece. Poulis is also a talented fiction writer who had published a well-received collection of short stories called Thermostat the previous year. When I read the first story, “The Leonardo DiCaprio of Exarcheia,” I was so compelled by the narrative that I wanted more people to be able to read it too. Over the next couple of years, Poulis and I spoke often about finding an English-language translator for his work. When that proved difficult, I decided to try for myself.

As much as I had loved reading “Leonardo,” translating it was another story. This was the first time I had ever attempted a literary translation, a translation stripped of quotation marks. Before, when I had “translated” Greek and Latin passages as part of my scholarly work, I had mostly been concerned with showing readers how — and even simply that — I understood the texts. But with Poulis and Thermostat, something more was at stake. I wanted to do justice to my friend’s writing and help him to build his reputation in the Anglophone literary world. Euripides and Plato had never needed anything like that from me. […]

Soon after “The Leonardo DiCaprio of Exarcheia” appeared in English, I met Rob Tempio, an executive editor at Princeton University Press, and he suggested to me that something from Thucydides could work well for the Press’s “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” series. I was heartened to hear him agree that he, too, was puzzled by the exalted position that Thucydides’ Athenians enjoy in American political discourse. The prospect of retranslating and reintroducing Pericles’ funeral oration and the Melian Dialogue — and of gently subverting the “ancient wisdom for modern readers” concept —did seem like a productive and creative way of encouraging people to revisit their assumptions about the text.

She gets accepted to a workshop at Princeton in literary translation and wound up “on an unforgiving daily schedule of translating Thucydides after breakfast and Poulis after lunch”:

One new set of concepts particularly caught my attention: the distinction between “foreignization,” defined by House as a “procedure in translation where the translated text is translated in such a way as to maximally resemble its original,” and “domestication,” “where a text is adapted to the norms of a target culture.” Food is a category that offers good illustrations. One of the stories that I had circulated, “Untimely Love” (“Ἔρως ἀνεπίκαιρος”), is about a perpetually-foiled romance between characters named Nikos and Maria. Toward the beginning, Nikos comes home from a disappointing day at work and heats up leftover fasolakia, a Greek green bean dish. Later, the manager of a taverna complains about groups of teenagers who take up prime tables for hours but only ever order “a herring.” The members of the workshop urged me to think in both cases about whether I was aiming for a foreignizing translation, perhaps even with “footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers” (as Nabokov famously desired), or a domesticating one that would allow the reader to imagine that Nikos and Maria’s romance had unfolded just around the corner. I’m pretty sure that few American kids these days would spend an evening out picking over a herring.

Back home after the workshop, the pre-circulated drafts of our translations were sent back to us with extensive markup from the directors. Their comments were sharp and constructive. […] All of this helped me to see just how conditioned I had been by Classics to fear the imagined criticism that haunts so many of us: “her Greek really isn’t that good.” In this case, my eagerness to prove that I “understood” the language had only served to expose my shortcomings as a translator.

Now, though, I was armed with a new vocabulary that allowed me to think more confidently and explicitly about what I was trying to do. I decided that my target for “Untimely Love” would be near the midpoint between foreignization and domestication. Fasolakia became “lentils” (a food common enough in the U.S., but one that still seems a little “Greek”), and the herring “an appetizer.” After careful thought, I decided to remove the “foreignness” of the herring but to leave it up to the reader to imagine what exactly the kids had ordered (to my mind, mozzarella sticks). But I also chose to stick to calling the taverna a taverna, and not to “domesticate” so far as to abandon the specific atmosphere which that word evokes in favor of the more neutral “restaurant.”

She goes on to explain how that experience changed her approach to Thucydides:

Given that my purpose with Thucydides was to make the speeches more accessible, I resolved that with him I would apply a consciously domesticating approach. I loosened up unreadably tight sentences and made other adjustments. Cleon’s disdainful characterization of his fellow citizens as “theatai seated before sophists” (3.38) became “disciples gathered at the feet of gurus.” In Greek, a θεατής is more than just an “audience member,” but I was trying to avoid footnotes of any height. “Guru” seemed to be a way to capture Athenian suspicion of the sophists —their methods, promises, and often foreign origin — in American idiom. It’s something I could see Cleon saying in Congress today.

The whole thing is excellent, and I hope lots of classicists read and learn from it. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. Can’t wait to hear what Thucydides had to say about Athenian chickenhawks.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    In the remote past when I sat exams that involved translating Latin into English this used to bother me. An even half-way-natural rendering of a typical bit of literary Latin prose demands radical recasting of structure (much more so than translating from modern SAE), and I used to worry that if I translated properly the examiners might think I’d only got the general gist of the passage and was winging it. I used to deliberately leadenise/foreignise my versions to avoid this. (Seems to have worked, anyway.)

  3. Yes, I had that problem in grad school. Proving one understands the grammar of the original is apparently incompatible with rendering it in any sort of living way.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I was heartened to hear him agree that he, too, was puzzled by the exalted position that Thucydides’ Athenians enjoy in American political discourse.

    Indeed. Puts me in mind of a point I read years ago: the strong impression that Thucydides creates of reliability is largely based on the literary features of his work itself. We are rarely in a position to check any of his non-trivial assertions against independent sources of evidence; when we are in such a position, T turns out to be worryingly often wrong.

    Personally, I suspect that this misuse of Thucydides is largely due to people trying to get one-up on those whose misuse Sun Tzu, who is now perhaps thought a bit déclassé by fanboys of what they imagine to be Realpolitik. And a handy way of distracting the punters from the weakness of your actual arguments, of course.

    In a better world, American foreign policy would be dominated by fans of Herodotus and Suetonius.

  5. Tacitus would suit better for American foreign policy.

    “They make a desert and call it peace”

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Reminds me of a story (whose source I can unfortunately no longer remember) about a cabinet colleague kept waiting by Harold Macmillan. When Supermac eventually arrived, he said “Sorry to be late, old boy. Engrossed in Livy.”

    This was of course, transparently false. Nobody was ever engrossed in Livy.

  7. Actually, Johanna Hanink has a website at

    Her book HOW TO THINK ABOUT WAR: AN ANCIENT GUIDE TO FOREIGN POLICY was published by Princeton in 2019 and presents “the most influential and compelling” of Thucydides’ speeches “in an elegant new translation, accompanied by an enlightening introduction, informative headnotes, and the original Greek on facing pages”. She has published a number of other books.

    One page is devoted exclusively to pictures of her dog.

  8. It’s worth going to her site to see her adorable doggo, Nova.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Presumably that well-known American epithet doggone is derived from the ablative of this word.

  10. And dagnabbit is both ablauted and suffixed.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah! the irregular future form. Of course.

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    @david Eddy
    Supermac was quoting or paraphrasing Pliny the Younger
    Letter 20 to tacitus, source
    [4] Irrupit cubiculum meum mater; surgebam invicem, si quiesceret excitaturus. Resedimus in area domus, quae mare a tectis modico spatio dividebat. [5] Dubito, constantiam vocare an imprudentiam debeam (agebam enim duodevicensimum annum): posco librum Titi Livi, et quasi per otium lego atque etiam ut coeperam excerpo. Ecce amicus avunculi qui nuper ad eum ex Hispania venerat, ut me et matrem sedentes, me vero etiam legentem videt, illius patientiam securitatem meam corripit. Nihilo segnius ego intentus in librum.

  13. Trond Engen says

    Doggonit is some sort of past subjunctive,

  14. David Eddyshaw says


    Conceivable, I guess: though whether the cabinet colleague would appreciate being likened to an eruption of Vesuvius, I am unsure. I think it might depend on the colleague in question.

    It does bear out my point that (even in antiquity) nobody has ever been really engrossed in Livy.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Not sure if arguing about *which* specific dead Greco-Roman pagan dude should be uncritically adulated (not that one, this one) is the solution. Once upon a time (I can date it to the summer of 2003, when my now-legally-adult firstborn was two years old and still an only child) I had been reading about how various historically-important figures in 18th-century American history had been influenced by Plutarch, so I decided to sit down and actually read Plutarch — which of course is set up with a bunch of “parallel” comparisons between Famous Dead Pagan A and Famous Dead Pagan B. And my takeaway in general was “whoa, neither of these dudes is a particularly admirable role model and they both seem to be the products of brutal and barbaric societies.” Which was particularly striking because these weren’t warts-and-all narratives — they were stylized and *meant* to be didactic and edifying, reflecting Plutarch’s own rather brutal and barbaric sensibility about what sort of lives were admirable and worth emulating.

    Of course, now that that quondam two-year-old is in college and says she’s maybe going to major in Classics or something Classics-adjacent, I’m still feeling pretty good about the results-to-date of my parenting style and not trying to talk her out of it.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t advocate uncritical adulation of any of them. I just dislike Livy, the greatest classical exponent of Uplifting History (and don’t ask me about Seneca.)

    Herodotus is appealing because he’s so interested in everything, and doesn’t try to squash it all into a Theory of Everything. And he is perfectly happy with the idea that just as foreigners seem odd to us, we seem just as odd to them, and for just as good reasons. Everybody’s foreign policy could do with that.

  17. Yes, Herodotus is one of my favorite Dead Ancients.

  18. David Marjanović says

    This kind of pedagogy also hinders the development of real comprehension, since, among other things, it encourages students to translate Greek and Latin into their native languages even when they read on their own. We know that’s not how you learn a language; it’s also a hard habit to break. […]

    Whether for circular reasons or just because most prose and all poetry is simply too difficult, approximately no students ever just read on their own. I can almost do that with the letter quoted above (my vocabulary is a bit too small), but even Caesar’s sentences are often too long and complex for that.

    so interested in everything

    Well, very interested in sacrifice rituals, and not at all in languages, right?

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Non omnia possumus omnes.

    Actually, Herodotus was interested in Language, albeit in his customary scattershot way: bekkos.

  20. bekkos

    Phrygian is the Ursprache, according to the report by H on an experiment in which Egyptian children were deprived of speech, then starved in order to induce them to speak.

    # Herodot berichtet,[2] dass Pharao Psammetich I. die Ursprache des Menschen herausfinden wollte. Aus diesem Anlass ließ er von einem Schäfer zwei Kinder aufziehen, mit denen niemand sprechen durfte. Nach etwa zwei Jahren streckten die Kinder bittend die Hände aus und sagten „bekos“. Dies hieß in der Sprache der Phryger „Brot“. Somit wurde angenommen, Phrygisch sei die älteste Sprache.#

    I think this rather provides modest support for claims about Universal Grammar.

  21. The Penguin translation of Livy I-V by Aubrey de Sélincourt is now printed without the translator’s original introduction, so I cannot quote it properly, but I do remember that he, at least, found Livy engrossing, saying of his style “How good it is, and how Latin!” and that Livy was a conscious stylist, something to the effect of “Greek authors had style; Latin authors had a style, each his own.”

  22. The anecdote also shows that even ancient governments were already disposed to meddle in every subject under the sun, and decide what’s what.

  23. “the strong impression that Thucydides creates of reliability is largely based on the literary features of his work itself. We are rarely in a position to check any of his non-trivial assertions against independent sources of evidence; when we are in such a position, T turns out to be worryingly often wrong.”

    Tacitus even more so. George Will’s favorite source of sententious quotations.

  24. Yes, Herodotus is one of my favorite Dead Ancients.

    Mine too. I think I had always assumed stuff like that would be tediously dry, but it’s anything. He’s so wonderfully bitchy and gossipy, and I mean that as a compliment

  25. David Marjanović: well, Hdt. loves to collect foreign words and is curious about things like the origin of language, but his theory of translation seems to be “this word means that word'” (Thomas Harrison, “Herodotus’ Conception of Foreign Languages”) and he thinks Old Persian proper nouns all end in sigma [a Greek case ending- ed.] Most Greeks and Romans did not bother with collecting unpronouncable words from some trousered and beardless barbarians, but a philologist he wasn’t.

  26. Stu Clayton says

    # De Sélincourt had a brother, Guy, and sister, Dorothy. Guy was Bursar at Clayesmore School in Aubrey’s time there, and, like him, was a keen sailor and historian. He was also an artist, and illustrated several of Aubrey’s books. Dorothy married A. A. Milne in 1913.

    In 1919, de Sélincourt married the poet Irene Rutherford McLeod. They had two daughters: Lesley (who married her first cousin, Christopher Robin Milne) and Anne. #

  27. Stu Clayton says

    That means Livy has an Eeyore number of 3.

  28. I just discovered today that the name Aubrey is now more commonly given to girls than boys.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Audrey Hepburn plus a little lysdexia.

  30. John Cowan says

    Presumably that well-known American epithet doggone is derived from the ablative of this word.

    Doggone it is in fact Scots, per the OED, though generally spelled more conventionally there. Only through the Scotland-to-Ulster-to-Appalachia pathway did it break out into American. I don’t know if modern Scots still set their rhetorical dogs on objectionable things or persons.

  31. This seems like a good thread in which to add this appreciation of Herodotus by Peter Green:

    It is Herodotus’s personality that irritates a certain type of intellect: his sunny cosmopolitanism, his open-mindedness over questions of religion, his obvious enjoyment of women (and the large role allotted to them in the Histories), his addiction to anecdotes, his discursive digressions on anything from tribal couvade to the walls of Babylon, his refusal to take up any kind of ideological stance save in the pursuit of freedom (eleutheria), his preference for inductive as opposed to deductive reasoning—that is, amassing bits of evidence to see what, if any, pattern may emerge from them, rather than coming up with a theory first and trying to make the facts fit it.

    Hear, hear!


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