Living in the Open: On Not Knowing Greek by Virginia Woolf

After reading Tolstoi’s Love Letters published by The Hogarth Press which collection Virginia Woolf is credited as co-translator although she didn’t know Russian, I reached for Woolf’s essays in which she discusses different cultures and the art of translation.  In “On Not Knowing Greek,” she argues that the Greeks conducted their lives outside, in the open air, and communicated with one another more succinctly and dramatically.  For the English, she argues, who are prone to living indoors, having discussions in the drawing room and writing massive novels filled with thousands of words, Greek literature and culture is something that can never be fully understood.

A people who judged as much as the Athenians did by ear, sitting out-of-doors at the play or listening to argument in the market-place, were far less apt than we are to break off sentences and appreciate them apart from the context.  For them there were no Beauties of Hardy, Beauties of Meredith, Sayings from George Eliot.  The writer had to think more of the whole and less of the detail.  Naturally, living in the open, it was not the lip or the eye that struck them, but the carriage of the body and the proportions of its parts.  Thus, when we quote and extract we do the Greeks more damage than we do the English.  There is a bareness and abruptness in their literature which grates upon a taste accustomed to the intricacy and finish of printed books.  We have to stretch our minds, to grasp a whole devoid of the prettiness of details or the emphasis of eloquence.  Accustomed to look directly and largely rather than minutely and aslant, it was safe for them to step into the thick of emotions which blind and bewilder an age like our own.

She begins the essay by asking why we should bother to learn Greek since the gap between our culture and theirs is so wide.  Her final sentence in the essay answers it perfectly and reminds me how grateful I am to know and study this beautiful language:

With the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about them, they are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate.  There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate.  Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.


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15 responses to “Living in the Open: On Not Knowing Greek by Virginia Woolf

  1. Although the gap between my culture and the greece is far but thanks to Greece Stoic philosopher Epictetus Discourses it helped me a lot in dealing with some setbacks i faced in my life.

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  2. In his memoirs, Leonard Woolf talks a bit about “Kot” the Russian translator who worked with Virginia Woolf on those translations. I’ll have to doublecheck if LW says anything about their method of working together.

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    • I would be very interested to hear about how they worked together.


      • Ha, I just typed this up to copy here in case you were interested. Leonard Woolf writes “In 1919 he came to us with a copy of the Reminiscences [of Leo Nicolayevitch Tolstoi], just published in Moscow, which Gorky had sent to him, giving him the English translation rights. Kot suggested that he and I should translate it and the Hogarth Press publish it. We agreed to do this and thus began a collaboration between Kot and Virginia and me in translating Russian books. Our actual procedure in translating was that Kot did the first draft in handwriting, with generous space between the lines, and we then turned his extremely queer version into English. In order to make this easier and more accurate, we started to learn Russian and at one moment I had learned enough to be able to stumble through a newspaper or even Aksakov.” “One learned to the full Kot’s iron integrity and intensity only by collaborating with him in a Russian translation. After I had turned his English into my English, we went through it sentence by sentence. Kot had a sensitive understanding of and feeling for language and literature, and also a strong subtle mind. He would pass no sentence until he was completely convinced that it gave the exact shade of meaning and feeling of the original, and we would sometimes be a quarter of an hour arguing over a single word.” From Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918.


      • This is just wonderful. Thank you so much!

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  3. P.S. I’m enjoying following your path from Tolstoi letters to Virginia Woolf’s essays.

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  4. What a coincidence: I’m just reading her essays in The Common Reader vol. 1, which includes this one. Her argument is interesting: in Greek literature it’s ‘the stable, the permanent, the original human being’ that’s to be found. ‘These [characters] are the originals, Chaucer’s [in Canterbury Tales] the varieties of the human species.’ That’s her idea of a perception by a ‘common reader’!

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  5. I think we definitely could do with turning to the Greeks again at the moment…


  6. I wonder what the hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps the majority at that time – who worked out of doors every day would have thought of Woolf’s characterisation of the English? It’s striking how such a perceptive writer can unconsciously dismiss most of those she shared a country with!

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  7. Pingback: Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1 - obscure lives - Tredynas Days

  8. Beautifully written. I definitely need to read more of her work.

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