Decay in Pedantic Snobbery

Cyril Connolly, Illusions of Likeness:

“TRANSLATING from one language to another is the finest of all intellectual exercises; compared to it, all other puzzles, from the bridge problem to the crossword, seem footling and vulgar. To take a piece of Greek and put it into English without spilling a drop, what pleasurable dexterity! And there is no doubt that the many hands who have been called upon, from Pope to the present day, for the translations now published as the English version of The Oxford Book of Greek Verse represent a sum of enjoyment seldom found in one volume. But if the enjoyment of the translators is obvious, how much of that enjoyment do they pass on to the reader?

I think a great deal. The last ten years have witnessed a welcome decay in pedantic snobbery about dead languages. A knowledge of Greek is no longer the hallmark of a powerful intellectual caste, who visit with Housmanly scorn any solecism from the climbers outside it. The dons who jeer at men of letters for getting their accents wrong command no more sympathy than doctors who make fun of psychiatrists or osteopaths; the vast vindictive rages which scholars used to vent on those who knew rather less than themselves seem no longer so admirable, like the contempt which those people who at some time learned how to pronounce Buccleuch and Harewood have for those who are still learning. The don-in-the-manger is no longer formidable. There was a time when most people were ashamed to say that The Oxford Book of Greek Verse required atranslation. That time is over. We shall not refer to it again except to say that if people as teachable as ourselves couldn’t be taught enough Greek in ten years to construe any piece unseen, as we can with French, or with any other modern language, then that system by which we were taught should be scrapped, and those stern nincompoops by whom we were instructed should come before us, like the burghers of Calais, in sackcloth and ashes with halters round their necks.”

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