25 January 2007

From cold storage: The Stillsuit of Elendil

Lightly edited, a post from my old blog. I find it convenient to refer to when I want to explain Old High Translationese.

While on the subject of genre authors with a taste for archaic prose...

I have been known, from time to time, to say rude things about Tolkien's writing and his writing style. China Mieville has done the same with a lot more panache than I can manage and David Brin has a lenghty article: J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress. So none of my grouching is new or interesting.

But while thinking on the puzzle of Frank Herbert's sometimes archaizing style, my thoughts naturally turned to Tolkien's tortured prose. And I had a revelation.

Tolkien, or Professor Tolkien as Peter Jackson calls him constantly on the special features tracks on the LOTR DVDs, was a philologist. He studied dead languages. You can, from time to time, still find his academic work cited in articles on historical linguistics. In both Latin and Greek, which were certainly central to Tolkien's education, sentences can tolerate word orders that English would never put up with. Homer, for example, regularly puts adjectives some distance from the noun they go with. It's stylish, and because of the grammar of these languages, perfectly clear (or nearly so).

When you first study Greek and Latin, your teacher might expect you to produce fairly literal translations. I've been an instructor for several ancient Greek mailing list groups, and I also plead with the students to stay close to the Greek as possible when we start. I need to make sure they're understanding the grammar correctly, and aren't just fudging it. Once their command of Greek is more solid, then I'll generally tolerate quite free translations. But that initial habit of the literal translation leaves its mark. I produced this clunking monstrosity just this week for the Odyssey translation group (Od.2.81-83):

All the people felt pity.
And there all the others sat in silence, nor did anyone dare
to answer Telemachus with strong words.

This very literal translation is nearly a gloss - hardly English at all. And yet I continue to produce English like this because if all of us in the group were to work too freely no one else could use our translations to check their own work.

My revelation: Tolkien's natural language is Old High Translationese*!

* Old High Translationese corr. Classicist Translationese ms.

14 January 2007

Scented at the Symposium

I have never been a fan of oils and unguents and I really can't stand to have them on me for very long. Even the thought of it is a little annoying, which means that from time to time — more often than you might think — reading Greek poetry causes me a mild mental distress. Evidently, dousing yourself in scented oil was a standard part of symposium culture. Alcaeus mentions it at least twice:

κὰδ δὲ χευάτω μύρον ἆδυ κὰτ τὼ
στήθεος ἄμμι. (Z 39)

and pour sweet unguent down
our chests.


        χέε μοι μύρον
καὶ κὰτ τὼ πολίω στήθεος. (B 18)

pour unguent also
on my grey chest.

Even pious Xenophanes indulged:

νῦν γὰρ δὴ ζάπεδον καθαρὸν καὶ χεῖρες ἁπάντων
    καὶ κύλικες· πλεκτοὺς δ’ ἀμφιτιθεῖ στεφάνους,
ἄλλος δ’ εὐῶδες μύρον ἐν φιάλῃ παρατείνει· (B 1 West)

For now the floor is clean, and the hands of all
and the cups (are clean); one person puts on a woven garland,
and another hands out sweet-smelling unguent in a bowl.

Now Xenonphanes and Alcaeus were both from the Levantine side of the Greek world, where the use of scented oils had been going on a good long time. The Egyptians were heavy users of oils from the Levant, too. Of course they wore it as perfume but it could also be used as an offering. While reading the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt recently I learned that the tomb of Semerkhet (~2950 BC) had so much scented oil poured down the entry ramp that the oil soaked into the stone to a depth of about three feet. Nearly 5000 years later the aroma is still detectable.

Another thing I learned while reading the Oxford book is that climatologists describe Egypt's current climate as hyperarid, and suddenly I figured out why people in the region might be coating themselves in oil, apart from the luxurious aroma: to stop itching. In dry climates (southern California) and in winter (heating systems) my overreactive skin dries out and makes life a little difficult for me. Dermatologists recommend bath oil, an idea I'm still trying to come to terms with. How much of that early oil use in these dry Mediterranean climates was therapeutic, how much a luxury?

04 January 2007

A Midwinter Ramble

While walking home today I saw a caterpillar crawling onto the sidewalk. It's in for a very nasty surprise when Wisconsin's Winter recovers its wits — which it surely will manage at least once before spring arrives.

After nearly two years of bureaucratic obstacles, surprise retirements and general disorder, I am finally registered to take a class in the Classics department at UW this spring. Actually, I'm registered as a "special student" which means mostly that I pay full tuition and my grade will be recorded. In every other way I'm a second-class citizen. For example, I only get to sign up for class a few days before it starts.

I take it as a sign that the Little Gods of Bureaucracy have been propitated that I got a giant, and very stylish, packet of mail today from University Housing. The cover letter starts, "Congratulations on your recent acceptance into Graduate Student program at UW-Madison!" Ok, so some Little God wasn't sufficiently appeased.

02 January 2007

Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite

Homeric Hymn Six has gotten the usual Aoidoi.org treatment: to Aphrodite.