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.