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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

MUELLNER: Seeing beyond subtitles: the value of Ancient Greek

Published: March 25, 2005
Section: Opinions

Editors note: First in a two part series on Ancient Greek at Brandeis.

When you go to see a foreign film from a country whose language you dont know China, say, or Iran or France you read the subtitles and watch the picture at the same time. You know that youre at the mercy of the person or persons responsible for generating those subtitles and their relative competence in the two languages involved, and all of us have experienced moments when the people are talking on screen and there are no subtitles to be seen, or when the English of the subtitles is barely comprehensible translationese, or when the native speakers in the theater are laughing at something that you, a reader of subtitles only, have no clue about but generally speaking the subtitles seem to work reasonably well, plus you always have a few other things to help you out: the images of the actors and their faces, the physical context in which they are moving, the gestures of hand or eye that accompany their speech, and the words in the foreign language itself: even if you dont know a word of that language, you have cues to respond to: the tone (angry or sad), the volume (shrieking or whispering), the rhythm (halting or elegant) of the speech, the music that accompanies the action, and so on.

Now imagine that you go to a theater to see a movie of an Ancient Greek play Sophocles Oedipus Rex, or Euripides Medea, or Aristophanes Frogs and when the lights go down, a totally blank screen comes up, with subtitles at the bottom of it but no sound, and there are no actors to be seen, no scenery to look at, no words or music to be heard: what you get are just the subtitles. In many ways, thats what youre getting and no more when you read a translated book of Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plato. The analogy to film is not inappropriate for texts other than drama and poetry, because the ancient experience of all such texts was actually through performance.

Thucydidess History is largely told by way of speeches, such as the famous Funeral Oration of Perikles, and even Plato chose the dialogue form for its performative value. But in another way, the analogy to a films subtitles is inexact: what youre really getting when you read a translation is more like a transcript of a dubbed soundtrack to a missing spectacle rather than subtitles to one, something that gives students the illusion that Ancient Greeks actually wrote in English. Talk about the Myth of the Cave! We are three steps removed from reality.

We can do better than that: a student at this university can get a Classical Philologist like me thats what my degree is in, Classical Philology to try to explain what may be going on in the play or the dialogue or the speech in general and at any given moment, to add the missing images and sounds and music and colors. Classical Philology is the name of the first graduate degree in the history of universities: it was invented by a young Classics scholar named Friedrich August Wolf, who named the field and created his own program of study in it one day at Gttingen in 1776.

But the roots of Classical Philology go back to the sixth century before the common era, when Greeks themselves first started developing and arguing about ways to understand the performed poetry that was the basis of their education;

in the Hellenistic period, when the Library at Alexandria was founded, scholars from around the Mediterranean gathered there to correct texts, study them, comment on them, and explain them and this scholarly tradition continued on through medieval times, into the Renaissance in Europe, which was inspired by the art and literature of Greece and Rome, and thence into modern times.

The goal of Classical Philology is to study the culture of ancient Greece and Rome by way of the surviving material culture and above all by way of the surviving texts a philologos means a person to whom words (in this case Ancient Greek words) are dear in the original language, to bring to life all the things that are missing from the soundless, imageless transcript of the dubbed version I was speaking of: the intellectual and historical and cultural context, the culturally determined aspects of the social and semantic context, the tone and color of the speech all these interdisciplinary facets of an ancient text are the Classics professors domain.

Many of you reading this already know everything that my analogy implies and the tradition that it comes from, but I know that there are some of you to whom my subject is unfamiliar and who therefore do not. But my hope is to communicate one essential idea to everyone in this university, in the form of a question: is it proper for an institution of higher learning that in so many ways validates and honors the significance of the cultural achievements of Classical antiquity to deny its students the intellectual opportunity to actually experience the great texts from Ancient Greece in the language in which they were performed and composed? Shouldnt a university be a place where students can learn to participate themselves in the reconstruction of the experience of the performance of these texts, at least to see the works in their own language and to learn themselves how to lend tone and the color to the words of works that have survived for thousands of years?

I said just above that this university validates and honors the cultural achievements of Classical antiquity. Think of how many courses are taught in this university, not only by the Classics department but also by all the other departments, in which Classical texts are fundamental to the discipline, and which are universally considered to be basic to an education in Western culture. After all, many academic disciplines were actually invented by Greeks: philosophy, history, mathematics, biology, physics, politics, psychology, and more, to include also important subdisciplines like ethics or poetics or the basic art forms that we take for granted: tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, epic, but also architectural conventions and sculptural forms and types of painting.

Some of you would like to have numbers to help you think about these things: at the end of this semester, there will have been 46 enrollments at Brandeis in Ancient Greek language and literature courses this academic year. Only thirteen of those are enrollments by the same students over the past two semesters. There are currently seventeen Classics concentrators of various sorts in this university, so the majority of the students studying Greek at this university are not Classics concentrators (at least not yet): many of them are students from other fields English and American Literature, Music, Physics, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, History, Chemistry, Theater Arts, you name it who want to experience ancient Greek texts in their original language.

What I am saying is that a university should afford all students the continuing opportunity to do so, that it should not condemn them to the transcript of the dubbed version of the Greek cinema but let them have access to the works of Homer and Euripides and Plato in their own language. Isnt it the obligation of an institution of higher learning to teach subjects at such a level? Wouldnt you want your children to go to a university where they could take such subjects if they wished to?

There are some people at Brandeis who are tempted to think that the study of the Classics is an old subject that can be sacrificed for something new and more popular with students. I ask those of you thinking this way to reflect for a moment on the extent of your knowledge of the language and culture of Ancient Greece. Many of you, like many of our beginning students, may have inherited primitivist views of Greek thought that trivialize the ancient world and falsely evolutionize intellectual history. The Hermes of Praxiteles is as beautiful as it ever was;

so also great ideas greatly expressed, like Thucydides about imperialism, Socrates on the pernicious effect of men who know what they know but do not know what they do not know, Sappho on what each of us thinks is most beautiful, or Sophocles on the moral courage and well-deserved pride of heroes, are not old either for the young people who had never witnessed them or the adults who had never understood them so clearly to say nothing of the philologist who conveys them to students and whose life consists in revisiting the enduring masterpieces of thought and art that contain them.

And I would also remind you: the future does have a past and always will, and its no more wise or healthy for us as an institution to detach ourselves and our students from it than it is for us as individuals to detach ourselves from our own past. In the university above all: the Ancient Greeks, after all, are the people who invented the logos, rational thought, the study of the world freed from religion and superstition. Its also not even factual that Classics and the study of Ancient Greek is an old subject that is disappearing or dying.

There has been a net gain in positions in Classics in the US over the past decade: large state universities are starting up and bolstering Classics departments, specifically because it gives them status as liberal arts institutions. And universities like Princeton, Yale, and Stanford have been expanding their offerings in Greek to create what are called Greek Studies programs that teach not just the language and literature and culture of Ancient Greece but those of Medieval and Modern Greece as well. Some have said that the teaching of Ancient Greek is not cost-effective, but the ratio of enrollments to professors in the Classical Studies department at Brandeis is comparable to that of many other departments in the university, and the number of enrollments in Greek, as the Faculty Review Committee (FRC) report pointed out, is trending upward at this institution.

Nor is it just a matter of some overblown symbolic item, the teaching of Ancient Greek. To say it once more, learning Ancient Greek language and literature is a primordial educational experience in the origins of Western thought and culture and a way of getting the most direct interaction with intellectual and artistic achievements that have stood the test of time, that are thousands of years old and still work, because they speak to the human condition in powerful and effective ways that transcend both time and space.

This notion of higher education, that its goal is to give students direct access to the best that has been known and thought, as Matthew Arnold said, is what the FRC report evokes for me: a wise, cooperative spirit of intellectual honesty, reflection, and rational discourse, a Brandeis that is a host to higher learning and that honors the great traditions of scholarship and research, not one in which we are invited to compete in a life and death struggle with one another for scarce resources, and in which major compromises must be made in the content and level of the education that we provide, compromises that really betray the ideals of a humane education in the liberal arts. There are many others at Brandeis who share this view, and they are, in fact, the answer to my second question.