This past quarter at Santa Clara University, I was given the extraordinary privilege of reading selections from Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek. The Odyssey is a poem of enduring power that speaks to the common human experience; thousands of years after its composition, it remains an essential part of the Western tradition. Though I have read it in English many times before, being able to move past the barrier of translation and read it in Greek has given me a stronger and deeper appreciation of this ancient story’s meaning and beauty.
It feels as though everything has come full circle. I remember reading the Odyssey in freshman year of high school: at the time, I did not have the slightest idea what made this story so important. Over the following years, my interest in studying fiction and literature increased, and in 2011, I entered Santa Clara University as an English major. However, my journey was just beginning: after reading the Iliad and Odyssey in translation for a core class, I remember speaking to my professor (Dr. Christian Blood, now a professor at Yonsei University in Korea) about becoming a Classics major. He encouraged me to study the ancient Greek language and told me that doing so would bring me that much closer to understanding the ancient texts.
I recall having to deal with an astonishing amount of memory work (vocabulary, the declension of nouns in four cases, the conjugation of verbs in three different moods, the various types of conditions, and so on and so forth: my friend Jonathan discusses some of these difficulties here) as I began my study of Greek. I kept the Homeric epics in the forefront of my mind: I remember thinking that it would all be worth it, as soon as I could read the Odyssey in Greek. Now, a year-and-a-half later, my interest in the literature and culture of the ancient world and my study of the Greek language have come together, culminating in what has been a very enjoyable experience.
Under the guidance of Professor Helen Moritz, our small class of four students read portions of book 1, book 5, and book 9. In ten weeks, we managed to read only about an eighth of the massive 24-part epic. It almost made me wish that our school used semesters (15 weeks) instead of quarters (only 10): we’d have been able to read quite a bit more, if we had had just a few more weeks. We began by reading 20 lines for each class day. Gradually, we increased to 30 lines, then 50, and then eventually 70 (a bit of a heavy load, in fact). A single page of Greek–what in English only takes a few minutes to read–generally required several hours to decipher.
Indeed, reading in another language–especially one as complex as Greek–is not easy: it is a slow, laborious process, almost like solving a puzzle. Not only did we need to spend a lot of time piecing together grammatical forms–puzzle pieces, if you will–into coherent sentences, but we also needed to look up almost every other word in a dictionary. To make matters worse–or more interesting, if you prefer–the dialect of Greek used in the Odyssey has a much greater variety of vocabulary and grammatical forms compared to the so-called “standard” Attic Greek taught in the elementary Greek sequence.
At first, Homeric Greek appeared odd and difficult to grasp, but in reality the dialect’s idiosyncrasies were not as strange as they seemed. The strange grammatical forms merely required some additional memorization, while the difficulty of putting together the sentences decreased overtime: all it really takes is time and a bit of practice to increase one’s skill in reading Greek, or indeed, any other language.
An additional challenge was learning how to read in meter: the Homeric epics use a type of meter called dactylic hexameter. Each line of verse has six feet, made up of either dactyls (a long syllable followed by two shorts) or spondees (in which the two short syllables are replaced with a long syllable). The emphasis falls upon the first long syllable of each foot. In prose, the accent marks on the Greek words tell us where to place the emphasis of our pronunciation, but we could not follow this rule for the Odyssey; instead, we had to learn how to read according to the rules of verse and meter. The primary difficulty was in determining which syllables are long or short: there are certain guidelines that proved useful, such as the idea that any syllable immediately followed by two consonant tends to be long.
But once we had learned the proper way to read epic verse in meter, everything started to fall into place. The ebb and flow of the poem’s dactylic hexameter became comfortable, almost relaxing in a strange sort of way. The poet’s use of repetition and formulaic phrasing guided us along, easing us into the journey of Odysseus.
Stay tuned! In my next post, I will give you some of my thoughts on what I managed to read during this short ten-week period.