Nasty object-oriented Greek: Hesiod and Homer

Oscar Wilde could have gotten worse to translate. Consider this from Hesiod on how to make a plough:

“Also cut many bent timbers, and bring home a plough-tree when you have found it, and look out on the mountain or in the field for one of holm-oak; this is far the strongest for oxen to plough with when one of Athena’s handmen has fixed in the share-beam and fastened it to the pole with dowels. Prepare two ploughs, and remember to do it at home; make one all of a piece, construct the other with joints. This is the way to do it, for if you break one of them, the other will be ready to go for your oxen. Poles of laurel or elm are most worm-free, and a share-beam of oak and a plough-tree of holm-oak.”

πόλλ᾽ ἐπικαμπύλα κᾶλα: φέρειν δὲ γύην, ὅτ᾽ ἂν εὕρῃς,
ἐς οἶκον, κατ᾽ ὄρος διζήμενος ἢ κατ᾽ ἄρουραν,
πρίνινον: ὃς γὰρ βουσὶν ἀροῦν ὀχυρώτατός ἐστιν,
εὖτ᾽ ἂν Ἀθηναίης δμῷος ἐν ἐλύματι πήξας
γόμφοισιν πελάσας προσαρήρεται ἱστοβοῆι.
δοιὰ δὲ θέσθαι ἄροτρα, πονησάμενος κατὰ οἶκον,
αὐτόγυον καὶ πηκτόν, ἐπεὶ πολὺ λώιον οὕτω:
εἴ χ᾽ ἕτερον ἄξαις, ἕτερόν κ᾽ ἐπὶ βουσὶ βάλοιο.
δάφνης δ᾽ ἢ πτελέης ἀκιώτατοι ἱστοβοῆες,
δρυὸς ἔλυμα, γύης πρίνου
Hesiod, Works and Days, 427-36

The problems are not just with vocabulary, although that is difficult enough, but using the vocabulary. The Greek medical writers have an even more contorted lexicon, but the human body is not a total mystery, unlike the parts of a plough. Getting up close and personal…well, consider this one page from a wonderful modern commentary:

West on Hesiod plough Erga 427

From the recently untimely deceased Martin West’s commentary (Oxford, 1978) on the work. He was without a doubt the greatest Hellenist of several generations, and it was my great good fortune to have him as tutor for Greek Literature when doing Oxford “Greats”.

How about Odysseus and his raft (Odyssey 5.243-57)?:

“He cut twenty trees, and trimmed them with the axe; then he expertly planed them all and made them straight. Meanwhile Calypso, the beautiful goddess, brought him augers; and he bored all the pieces and fitted them together, and with mortises and tenons he fit them  together. Wide as a man well-skilled in carpentry marks out the curve of the hull of a freight-ship, wide in the beam, even so wide did Odysseus make his raft. And he set up the deck-beams, bolting them to the close-set ribs, and toiled on; he finished the raft with long gunwales. Then he set a mast and a yard-arm; next came a steering oar made him a steering-oar. Then he fenced in the whole from stem to stern with willow withes to keep out stray waves, strewing brush.”

αὐτὰρ ὁ τάμνετο δοῦρα: θοῶς δέ οἱ ἤνυτο ἔργον.
εἴκοσι δ᾽ ἔκβαλε πάντα, πελέκκησεν δ᾽ ἄρα χαλκῷ,
ξέσσε δ᾽ ἐπισταμένως καὶ ἐπὶ στάθμην ἴθυνεν.
τόφρα δ᾽ ἔνεικε τέρετρα Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων:
τέτρηνεν δ᾽ ἄρα πάντα καὶ ἥρμοσεν ἀλλήλοισιν,
γόμφοισιν δ᾽ ἄρα τήν γε καὶ ἁρμονίῃσιν ἄρασσεν.
ὅσσον τίς τ᾽ ἔδαφος νηὸς τορνώσεται ἀνὴρ
0φορτίδος εὐρείης, ἐὺ εἰδὼς τεκτοσυνάων,
τόσσον ἔπ᾽ εὐρεῖαν σχεδίην ποιήσατ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς.
ἴκρια δὲ στήσας, ἀραρὼν θαμέσι σταμίνεσσι,
ποίει: ἀτὰρ μακρῇσιν ἐπηγκενίδεσσι τελεύτα.
ἐν δ᾽ ἱστὸν ποίει καὶ ἐπίκριον ἄρμενον αὐτῷ:
πρὸς δ᾽ ἄρα πηδάλιον ποιήσατο, ὄφρ᾽ ἰθύνοι.
φράξε δέ μιν ῥίπεσσι διαμπερὲς οἰσυΐνῃσι
κύματος εἶλαρ ἔμεν: πολλὴν δ᾽ ἐπεχεύατο ὕλην

Homer Odyssey 5.243-257

Not exactly easy, but less hard; most will find it easier to visualize the fine points of a raft than a plough. When a Yale undergrad I had to deal with both passages, and more, in one semester. This was the notorious Greek 70, History of Greek Literature, where a week’s assignment could be three books of Homer, or two plays. Hesiod took me two very unpleasant evenings, and this was before the aforementioned commentary appeared. And speaking of sight translation, which started this all….

In the spring version of Greek, which covered the Fifth Century, I made the mistake of cutting the first Thucydides class. Geoffrey Kirk, who taught at Yale in the spring, asked me to sight translate…gasp…the first paragraph of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides. Let’s just say my conclusion was rather different from that of The Talented Mr. Wilde.


One thought on “Nasty object-oriented Greek: Hesiod and Homer

  1. That sight translation reminiscence reminds me of a similar experience in my first term at Oxford when I unfortunately completely misunderstood what was meant by a Homer Reading Party… Cringing even now 25 years later.

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