By Rory Gilchrist
A large part of the second semester Freshman language tutorial devotes itself to translating one of the principle Platonic dialogues, the Meno. After a lot of work getting to grips with the rudiments of Ancient Greek grammar, we plunge headfirst into this project. It’s a really enjoyable process, but gosh darnit if it doesn’t take a lot of time.
One of the first things that struck me in translating was just how different the book comes across in translation versus its original language. For one thing, Socrates is a lot more sarcastic in Greek than he seemed in the version I read for my seminar last semester. Another issue we keep running into is how to translate the word αρετή. Often translated as either “excellence” or “virtue”, it is the principal topic of discussion in the dialogue. Part of the difficulty stems from how both Meno and Socrates attempt to define and explain it. But in my tutorial, there’s about a 50-50 split, some people arguing vehemently for a translation of excellence, and others insisting it means virtue.
All in all, for however many quibbles we get over a subordinate clause here and there, I still think everyone in my tutorial would agree just how exciting and valuable the opportunity to translate is. So much of the original meaning neccesarily becomes compromised however you attempt to finagle it into English.
Perhaps most surprising of all, eight months ago no one in my Greek class had any knowledge of the language; we were all pouring over flashcards with these strange Greek letters on them. And now, we’re all able to have an intelligent discussion on a scholarly translation of a fundamental piece of the Western Canon of knowledge.
I always enjoy translating in our classes because it’s always
interesting to see how those translations reflect the personality of the
translators as well. You can tell who worries about being literal, some
who always have the big picture in mind, and some who would just pick
their favorite word. You can really learn a lot about a person in language class here.