Recently over lunch I wondered aloud to my wife whether there were some way to make the ancient classics in their original language of interest to the common reader. My wife, who enjoys romance and historical fiction and reads only in English, replied that most of her book club friends require literature depicting characters they care about. In short, they desire an honest portrayal of human personality.
I have occasionally given a poetry reading to such book clubs, typically composed of women, and have always been impressed by the intelligence and wisdom of their members. These good women, who make up the common readers of our communities, will read and discuss both Jane Austen and Dan Brown, but will not be fooled into thinking that The DaVinci Code merits the same praise as Pride and Prejudice.
Henry David Thoreau had written in Walden that the adventurous reader will always study the classics, however ancient they may be or however foreign their language. “They are the only oracles which are not decayed,” he notes, and adds that “we might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.” There is good reason the classics simply will not die, because they offer the most compelling portrayal of those impulses that define us as human.
The barrier to ancient classics may not lie solely in the language, but if we are truly honest, may also lie in a natural resistance to anything the least bit foreign. Or more bluntly, the barrier may lie in a kind of slothfulness, the tendency to evade deep examination.
Shakespeare wrote and spoke in good, honest English, but so many contemporary readers will avoid him because his grammar may be a tad unusual, his vocabulary too rich or his thought at times too dense. And yet no human emotion may be more gripping as that related in the play King John when Constance, the mother of Prince Arthur, grieves the loss of her son after the king had taken him captive.
In Act III, scene iv, as she embraces a death wish, her grief and the language expressing it are exquisite:
Death, death; O, amiable, lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! Sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones,
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,
And ring these fingers with thy household worms,
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,
And be a carrion monster like thyself.
Come, grin on me; and I will think thou smil’st
And buss thee as thy wife! Misery’s love,
O, come to me. (ll. 25-35)
There is, perhaps, no expressed despair in any language that is more powerful or more horrifying. This is not just death personified, but made a lover by an absolutely distraught woman, so that the grave’s slow decay is made to look like an act of lingering intimacy. The pathos is overwhelming and as skillful an expression of human irony as language can offer. Later in the same scene Constance personifies grief into the form of her lost son:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do. (ll. 93-100)
When I think of my wife’s own taste in literature and those of her book club friends, their deep interest in human relationships and all the corresponding emotions of those relationships, I am convinced they would naturally be inclined to the classics, including those of a foreign tongue, if only there were someone that might help them past the obstacle of language, in short, someone who would translate, but lose nothing in translation. It calls to mind the experience of the apostle Philip with an Ethiopian who was returning in his chariot from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as related in chapter 8 of the book of Acts:
29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot
30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?
31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me?
Someday, perhaps, we might all receive a seer stone that would serve as a universal translator and help us understand the literature of another language, just as Joseph Smith was assisted by the Urim and Thummin when translating the Book of Mormon, but until that day we must necessarily settle for the guidance of another person to lead us through the classical texts of another language. And unfortunately it always seems as though something is lost in translation.
An Experiment with Chaucer
The Middle English of our own mother tongue might provide a good starting point to explore great literature in language that is somewhat ancient, but not altogether foreign. Geoffrey Chaucer began writing his great classic, The Canterbury Tales, in 1387 and when he died in 1400 the work was left unfinished. By this time the early Anglo-Saxon roots of our English language were already well washed with a Latin influence imported from the French after William the Conqueror had invaded England.
Our modern English in all probability derives in great part from Chaucer’s influence, as explained in the following quote:
Above all, Chaucer fully grasped the “gret diversite in English,” and deliberately (and probably for the first time) used dialect in literature, making the students in the Reeve’s tale speak with a northern one. As was customary at the time, he
At first glance the original text of the Tales might intimidate a reader unfamiliar with Middle English, and yet much of our current language would be immediately recognizable. Moreover, the Tales provide such a compelling expression of the richness and diversity of human personality that it would be a shame for any avid book reader to avoid the original text simply because of a few archaic words and usages. A single passage from the text will suffice to prove the point.
The Canterbury Tales, of course, is a compendium of stories that Chaucer says he heard from a company of travelers that he joined on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. In the General Prologue of the Tales Chaucer provided a succinct description of all those in his party. Among those introduced was a Monk whose personality Chaucer depicted through a technique, perhaps utilized for the first time in English, of narrating the man’s thought pattern.