Of all the adventures I ever thought I would have in my high school years, one of the last was to set upon the task of learning ancient Greek. Now I can look back on that road and see where it has taken me and where it might lead from here. Ancient Greek is not only a language to be studied in old books but like one of Homer’s ships that takes you far and wide on the wine-dark sea — an adventure. Now a little more than a year and a half out from shore I see that the sails are barely unfurling of a journey which may take me to many places in years to come. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy writes in his famous poem “Ithaka,”
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)
The metaphor of a road has an honored place in poetry and literature, as a metaphor for life, for human endeavor itself. Robert Frost spoke about regretting the road not taken. In his novel The Road Cormac McCarthy described a road that leads directly through the end of the world. In On The Road, Jack Kerouac wrote, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” And those are only a few examples. If Greek is also a road, a voyage, then it is one of an equally interesting kind — one that one must go forward in learning while backwards into the past. Greek is behind us. Greek is the road of memory.
I discovered Greek by accident when my ninth grade Latin teacher made an offhand remark how difficult the language is by comparison to Latin (a comment one often hears). I had just started Latin with no experience in Classics at all. When I heard about Greek programs offered by the Paideia Institute, I felt the die was cast. Now closing on two years I have translated Plato’s Apology along with bits of the Bible in Greek and have begun reading Herodotus and Lucian. I’m also the first person in the history of my school to pursue an independent study in Greek, focusing on translating parts of the Iliad.
But…why study Greek at all? What is to be gained? And if so, how to do it?
As in any adventure, the path of study is to some degree self-directed and reaching the final destination uncertain. One might stop, surrender, or never come close to the shores of Ithaka at all. But even a little way along the road one encounters surprises and rewards that make the voyage worthwhile.
One reward is improved literacy. It is often said that Latin deepens etymology and vocabulary building but Greek may also stimulate literacy, in a surprising and different way — stylistically. For the most part Greek has a relatively “free” word order, unlike English which is highly dependent on word order. In Greek, word order is highly dependent not only on emphasis, but taste and perspective, a syntactical phenomenon called hyperbaton (ὑπέρβατον, which literally means “stepping over”). This linguistic characteristic (which took a great deal of getting used to) has slowly given me a new appreciation for sentence structures I might not have considered before. And this flexibility is slowly becoming second nature, the act of translation feeding back into my developing versatility as a creative writer.
After two years I can look back with enough confidence to give constructive advice to anyone considering the adventure of Greek. As in learning of any kind there is an element of the personal. There are many people who decide to learn Greek on their own, but I was not one of them. From the very first I felt the need for a tutor. Paideia was perfect for that purpose as they were able to find someone suitable for my age. My path led steadily (two or three Skype sessions a week) through both Athenaze textbooks with Liddell’s Greek Lexicon at my side. Halfway through the second textbook I began translating Plato’s Apology. It was there, at what I think of as the halfway point, that I discovered a new source of enjoyment.
Translation is a strange art, but it is even stranger when you are translating something that is ancient and for all intents and purposes, dead. Etymologically, the word “translation” comes from the Latin for “bearing across,” an experience that becomes more acute when one is “bearing across” centuries of time to something that is no more and is static, “fixed” and beyond development. The expression “bearing across” conveys the aspect of a road, that one must travel along to a destination and then return from bearing some burden. What I gradually found myself enjoying as I worked through Plato were the specific, individual acts of translation, of opening up momentary glimpses into the long-gone past sentence by sentence, of finding my way back along the road to them. The literary critic Walter Benjamin came near to capturing my experience when he wrote that, “The task of the translator is to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” To me, at this stage, this act of release or liberation is the most enjoyable part of Greek, a blending of both the creative, the psychological, and the applied.
If all this sounds abstract, there is another element that became all too real for me as I walked the paths along the Ionian shores on the Living Greek in Greece trip this summer — the road is real. You could get to Ithaka if you wanted to. I did get to Delphi, Olympia, and Corinth and gazed upon the remnants of the past. Parts of these ancient sites may be gone, but they’re still there in the Ithaka of my mind. Keep Ithaka alive, and keep it always before you…until you get there. In the end, the voyage is the thing.
Thanks to Jason Pedicone for bringing Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” to my attention.
Noah Apter was a student in both the Living Latin in Rome and Living Greek in Greece High School programs in summer 2019. He attends the Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison, New Jersey, and, as you can see, he takes a particular interest in Ancient Greek.