Posts Tagged ‘history



I have a friend who is always interested in learning, but is by coincidence largely uninformed in the areas which most interest me. We often have conversations in which either I will mention something interesting I have learned or she will mention something cool she heard about computers, physics, linguistics, or history, and the rest of the conversation will be an attempt by myself to explain the background and sincere attempts on her part to understand, often punctuated by questions that make me want to bang my head in frustation at how outlandish they sound to me. (This, incidentally, is why she is probably the best person to talk about these things with; she forces me to look at things from a different perspective.) It often seems like I am starting over from scratch, but I’m sure that she feels the same way when explaining budgeting, education, and other of her interests to me. One question that comes up far more often from her to me than vice versa, however, is “Why?”

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Biblical Humor and Housman

Yesterday, in New Testament Greek, we were translating aloud from Mark 4 (the parables of the sower, the light under a bushel, the growing seed, the mustard seed) when my friend Chris got to do verse 32: καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ, ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους, ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν.* Seeing οὐρανός, and in the New Testament no less, he tried to translate it as “heaven:” thus, τὰ πετεινὰ οὐρανοῦ as the birds from heaven. Which, of course, made no sense. I pointed out that birds of the sky is actually a pretty common stock phrase in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic (and he smacked himself in the forehead when he realized that he should have gotten the parallel with Biblical Hebrew), but before that our professor made us all burst out laughing when she kind of got stuck on that translation of οὐρανός as heaven by saying, “You know, birds from heaven as opposed to earth. Like, not penguins.” I think our class will be known as the Penguins of Heaven from now on… It might have gotten worse, but when Nick tried to add ostriches to the mix, I pointed out that the Greek for that would be στρουθοί (cf. Septuagint Job 30.29) or στρουθοί αἱ μεγάλαι (cf. Ξενοφόντος Ἀναβάσις 1.5.2).

*A quick and dirty (and therefore still in translatese) translation: And whenever it [a tiny mustard seed] should be planted, it goes up and becomes greatest of all herbs and great shoots come to be, so that the birds of the sky are able to roost under its shadow.

Earlier this week, in Greek Lyric Poetry, my professor (the same one, actually) brought in a humorous little satire written by Alfred Edward Housman. If you don’t know who A. E. Housman was, he was a turn of the (20th) century philologist, clacissist, and poet, reknowned for being extremely polemic, and generally right, as well as the very classically-influenced style of his poetry (as I often do, while I wouldn’t recommend it as a source for a scholarly work, I’ll make the Wiki link available for a brief introduction). Anyway, being familiar with countless classical works, Housman was also just as frustrated as we modern students with the literary devices of the ancients, such as synecdoche, understatement, hendiadys (oh ye gods, hendiadys!), repetition, and all the other things that contribute to things translated directly from Greek or Latin (or Hebrew, for which see the King James Bible, which while not the most scholarly version of the Bible ever does match the literary style of the original more accurately than any other English version) sounding just plain weird. To express his frustration, or possibly for a laugh, he wrote a “fragment of a Greek tragedy,” of the murder of Eriphyle by her son Alcmaeon, which follows the cut to avoid cluttering the page too much with something someone else wrote:

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