Tessered Latin and Greek: A Lexical “Wrinkle in Time”

There is a great story in the Daily Beast about Greek (and a little Latin) in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This blog has a little cameo…

Sometimes when I talk to students about my childhood I get the sense that it seems almost as distant and different from theirs as some of the texts from Ancient Greece I encourage them to read. I listened to the radio play of Empire Strikes Back on the radio. I remember getting cable installed. I never sent an email until I went to college. I used to check out vinyl records from the library to listen to Cinderella and the JungleBook!

Ah, the library. I grew up in rural Maine and the local free libraries were, in a way, the center of my childhood. My father was deaf from birth; reading was what we all did as a family. And it was the one realm in which I never felt limited. My parents never told me what to read, when to read or, more importantly, what not to read. We just went to the library every week and they set me free.

At some point in elementary school, I took it upon myself to read the entire collection of Newbery award books. There was a list prominently displayed in the kids’ room at a few different libraries we frequented. I am pretty sure I read Lloyd Alexander’s The High King first and soon after Robert Obrien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I love both books and when I noticed the medal on the cover, connected it to the list and just started in on it.

I connected with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time almost immediately. That famous start: “IT was a dark and stormy night.” My father used these very words all the time before he would start telling us some ridiculous tale. The world in this book was also one like mine: it was dark (as often the case in rural Maine) and, with our long winters, it was also stormy.

It also deploys that initial scale that works so well–it starts small and simple: Margaret in her room or at the kitchen table, complaining of school, lovingly tolerating her precocious brother. But it was also a world that promised that the stark simplicity it presented was a mere facade over something much more complex–that behind the austere and disappointing world, there were other worlds. In short, the promise of a tale like L’Engle’s was the very promise of the libraries I so loved–that there are ways out of this world into countless others.

I have never reread this book as an adult, but every time I think of it: it is dark, I am in third grade, but there is a light dawning on the horizon. So, when the journalist Mimi Kramer (@nhmeems) contacted me over twitter to ask about the Greek and Latin in A Wrinkle in Time, my first reaction was shock. There is Greek and Latin in L’Engle’s novel? There is, and, as she tells in her fine story on it, it is messed up. And how it has stayed messed up itself is a story worth reading and telling. It is, a bit depressingly, a very adult and mundane mystery, but, for me at least, it provides a passage through time.

The author J.S. Bangs–to my knowledge–was the first to post online about the problems with the Greek. As you can read there or in Kramer’s article, whoever transcribed the quotation from Euripides (most likely from a quotation book cribbed poorly from Stobaeus) confused lamdas for etas and nus for upsilons, giving us the aesthetically displeasing fairly impossible: “Αεηπου οὐδὲν, πὰντα δ’ εηπἰζειυ χρωετ for the text printed as Euripides fr. 761 in Stobaeus: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών. The book’s translation, moreover, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything” obscures what I see in the Greek which is a near koan, “nothing is unexpected, and one must expect everything.”

The story of trying to fix this has its own story. The Greek is off in the blog post (to be pedantic): the initial breathing and the vowel in the final participle need adjustment: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών, (not the displayed Ἅελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρηῶν). And even in a recent edition where the Greek has been mostly fixed, the rough breathing on that initial Alpha remains.

But that is a quibble. I am surprised (but not overly so) that I remember nothing of this; but a little shock that this bad Greek has lasted over 60 years! (And that is the story Mimi Kramer tells, much better than I could do so. And she keys us into another mystery. In the same scene, but a little earlier, the mysterious Mrs. Who speaks Latin!

“Finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis,” Mrs. Who
intoned. “Horace. To action little, less to words inclined.”

The translation she quotes, however, does not match up well with the Latin provided. To be fair, Horace is a bit of a punk: I think he is virtually untranslatable–but, for those readers who know Latin well, can we bring any light to this dark night?

Here are the full lines from Loeb’s translation by Rushton Fairclough

Horace Sermones 1.4

“The gods be praised for fashioning me of meagre wit and lowly spirit, of rare and scanty speech.”

di bene fecerunt, inopis me quodque pusilli
finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis.

More literally (but with a much inferior rhythm, I would suggest “The gods have done well: they made me of a small and minor spirit, one who speaks rarely and little”. The proffered translation in A Wrinkle In Time is “To action little, less to words inclined”, which seems to be a combination of only the second halves of the couplet (…inopis me quodque pusilli…raro et perpauca loquentis).

So, a working theory Kramer and I discussed for this is simply that someone who didn’t know Latin picked this Horace out of a quote book where there were two lines each of Latin and English and, because only the second line of English was selected, selected only the second line of Latin too. The translation first appears in a 19th century anthology of Richard Steele’s essays for The Spectator and The Tattler, as a reprint of Spectator No. 19 (March 22, 1711). In the typical fashion of 18th-century literary essayists, Steele and Addison prefixed a Latin epigraph to each of their essays without translation. The English version, then, was provided by the compiler of the anthology as a service to those readers without Latin. The English rendering must have made an impression on someone, because it reappears at the beginning of the 20th century in a dictionary of phrases and classical quotations. The full English translation is;

Thank Heaven that made me of a humble mind;
to action little, less to words inclined.

Guess what else is in that very dictionary? You guessed it, the Euripides fragment on page 129 with the correct Greek with the very translation offered in A Wrinkle in Time.

So, we have a half couplet plucked from Horace and a line poorly transcribed from Euripides. Can any lovers of language (and L’Engle) propose something more generous? Is she reading the Latin differently? Am I reading it wrongly?

As someone who loves literature, I take perverse pleasure in not allowing there to be mistakes. So, for instance, where our Horace above has famously declares that even Homer nods (that is, loses track of stuff), many interpreters instead have declared, no, impossible! And we engage in mental acrobatics to show how even mistakes are actually signs of hidden deeper meaning.

So, maybe the ‘wrong’ Greek is not wrong at all. Perhaps it is really an invitation to contemplation of absurd erudition. Or, even more importantly, perhaps it is a secret message–an anagram or something, which, if decoded, will open up for us passages to universes unknown.

(Ok. I was a kid again there, still hoping to skip dimensions….)

Image result for a wrinkle in time cover

This is the over of the book I read.

7 responses

  1. I loved this series of books, read them through our local library then bought them all. I still have them. I’m debating whether or not to reread them before I see the new movie but I’ve heard conflicting reports of how well the film fits into the book series. Opinions on this matter from anyone here?

  2. I’ve still never managed to read this, but I remember being scared of my brother’s copy of it that had the same cover as above (it may have been my sisters copy, come to think of it!). I do love that you set out to read all the medal winners…I’m pretty sure in 3rd grade my goal was still to read all the books on horror movies, the paranormal, cryptozoology, ghosts, ESP and also armor, tanks, and the RAF the library had. 😛 Though I did an independent study with the G+T program that was actually on deserts, so maybe it wasn’t all violence and pseudoscience! Glad that she contacted you after I pointed her in your direction!

  3. Pingback: Internet Proverb Sleuth: Parmenides and the Apparatus Criticus « SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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