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REVIEW: How Dead Languages Work, by Coulter H. George
How Dead Languages Work, Coulter H. George (Oxford University Press, 2020).
“[T]he most that a translation can hope to do is to stimulate an interest.”
– S. Eugene Scalia, 19371
Anyone who has studied a foreign language for more than about five minutes is familiar with the way languages feel different. Even in cases where a direct literal translation is possible (and they’re fewer than you’d think), modern English presents phrases and concepts quite differently than, say, French — let alone ancient Greek or Sanskrit. But as anyone who’s studied a foreign language also knows, you have to do it for a lot more than five minutes before you actually have a feel for the language. Beginning Latin students talk about the ablative of time when or the ablative of comparison or the ablative of breakfast foods; advanced Latinists simply recognize that this feels a bit ablativey. But who has time to learn more than a few languages well enough to get a feel for them all?
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Coulter H. George, that’s who!
How Dead Languages Work has chapters on Greek, Latin, Old English (and the Germanic languages more generally), Sanskrit, Old Irish (and the Celtic languages), and Biblical Hebrew. I enjoyed the first two chapters, on languages I know, as much as the rest; I had an inchoate impression of what made Greek feel Greek or Latin Latin, but it’s always a pleasure to have someone who’s thought deeply about a shared experience explain its nuances to you. Particularly fun for me were the etymological tidbits — Greek -sis (stasis, thesis, etc.) and Latin -tio (statio, ratio, etc.) are from the PIE *-ti-, as is Germanic -th (length, width, etc.)! The weird b that shows up in the Latin future and imperfect is the remnant of an auxiliary verb related to the Germanic be (the PIE *bhū-)! — but the real star of the show is George’s treatment of translation.
For each language, he offers a deep dive into a few passages that particularly exemplify the literature’s most notable features with exceptionally detailed explanations of how Homer (or the Beowulf poet or whoever) produce effects that are simply impossible to get across in English. In many cases he presents dueling translations and discusses the various tradeoffs that translators have made: the translations inevitably compromise the original text, each in different ways.2
In the above passage from Thucydides, for example, translations range from “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them” to “the customary meanings of words were changed as men claimed the right to use them as they would to suit their actions,” and George then spends ten pages showing how none of these translations (nor any he can construct) adequately convey quite what Thucydides is doing in the text.
By and large, the book reads like a guided tour through a much-loved hometown (or series of hometowns). Do you get to see everything? Of course not! You’ll never really know a place without living there. But here you can visit many of the highlights, with their histories and idiosyncrasies explained, and you get a glimpse at the great expanse you could explore if only you had a few years to devote to the wandering. I found it a delightful return to the quiddities3 of the languages I had visited before and a friendly introduction to ones I’ve only encountered in translation.
Yes, he’s the father of that Scalia. For more on his New Critical theory of translation and his impact on his son’s jurisprudence, see George Kannar, “The Constitutional Catechism of Antonin Scalia.”
This was especially interesting in the discussion of Hebrew, which I know not at all, and in Biblical translation. I’m now in the market for a good book on the production of the KJV. Hit me up with your recommendations.
My autocorrect changed this to “quidditch.” #decline