Do You Know How Patronizing ‘The First Time a Woman Translates Homer Is a Big Deal’ Sounds?

On a podcast, I heard a translator talk about translating from a ‘post-colonialist/de-colonised’ stance. He said:

To readers who question whether that sort of thing is important… well, it actually is. As folks probably remember, it’s a big deal when Homer is translated for the first time by a woman translator into English… it’s a big deal, because depending on the political approach, and the stance as an interpreter which the translator brings to the text, lots of things which seem to be unquestionable or assumed to be true – are changed.

You’re a woman who has read Homer in Ancient Greek. Surely this makes you feel included?

Wrong. It alienates me.

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How Far Has My Ancient Greek Come, and Where Is It Going?

In September 2019, for the first time in a decade, I plunged into Ancient Greek. (I can hardly believe I spent a whole decade away.) Though I never spelled out my goal, it’s obvious in hindsight; not being able to pick up a book and simply read in Ancient Greek irritated me. I wanted to read Ancient Greek with the same ease as I can read modern Chinese.

A year and a few months later, I still can’t read Ancient Greek as well as I read Chinese. By now I know my Ancient Greek will never rise to that level (despite studying Ancient Greek years before I started learning Chinese). The reasons are twofold.

First, I can’t create an equally rich environment for Ancient Greek as I have for Chinese. By ‘learning environment’ I don’t mean moving to a place where Ancient Greek is spoken as an everyday language (though that can count). I mean having many ways to experience the language: chatting with people, listening to radio programs in Ancient Greek, watching movies, that kind of thing. Even the variety of reading material available in Ancient Greek is infinitesimal compared to what’s available in Chinese. Continue reading

About those claims that only the richest ancient Athenians paid taxes…

A benefit of studying Ancient Greek again and diving into the literature is that when someone comes out with an “ancient Greeks did X/were Y/said Z” type of claim, I can judge whether that claim is bullshit.

One of those claims I occasionally see is “in ancient Athens, only the richest of the rich paid taxes.” Though it’s not bullshit, it requires a lot of qualifications.

I recently stumbled on this article. Since it’s written by a Classics professor, it does a good job of being factually accurate, but boy is the presentation of those facts skewed. It tries to cast the rich people of ancient Athens as having a strong public spirit and willing to share their wealth democratically with progressive taxation, unlike rich people in the United States today who try to avoid/evade taxation. I think this view is…distorted. Continue reading

When the Giver Gains More, While the Recipient Loses by Accepting, Who Is the Altruistic One?

When, in the acting of giving, the giver gains, while the recipient loses, is the giver the altruistic one?

I recently read Alcestis by Euripides (and yes, this post will have some spoilers). The premise is that Admetus is fated to die in the near future, but due to help from the god Apollo, he can live a long life if a close family member dies his place. His father refuses to die so that he can live, his mother also refuses to die for him, Admetus doesn’t want his own young children to die in his place, so that leaves just one close family member: his wife, Alcestis. She loves him so much that she agrees to die instead of him.

In the play, everyone (except Admetus’ father) says that Alcestis is the most amazing woman ever and that Admetus was truly fortunate to have such an awesome wife, and that because she is willing to sacrifice her life for him, she will be famous forever. And it’s not just this play, it was general Greek opinion that this made Alcestis a great woman (check out this mention in Plato’s “Symposium”).

The Ancient Greeks had this idea that dying (relatively) young on the behalf of someone or something else, and thus attaining everlasting fame, was the best kind of life to have. Take the example of Achilles, who, when given a choice between having a long and boring life which would be forgotten, and a short life which would bring him fame and glory, he chose the latter. The leaders of Ancient Greece initiated a lot of wars, and in order to go to war, they needed to persuade young men to risk their lives. Generally, young men are reluctant to die, so to keep up all of this warfare, the leaders needed to pound the idea that on the behalf of one’s clan or (later) city-state in battle was much better than living to old age. A famous example of this is Pericles’ funeral oration speaking about soldiers who died in the early part of the Peloponnesian War.

Even though Alcestis was not a warrior who died in battle, it’s clear that the concept of martyrdom for fame and glory bleeds over to her.

But is dying for love and/or glory is so great, and his beloved wife is going to the underworld, then why would Admetus want to remain alive? That is the crux of the story. Continue reading