books, quotes

it’s Greek to me

The following is from THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt. I adore it, because I’ve started and withdrew/withdrew/C-minused ancient Greek three times, and I know just enough to be amused by the constructions. Also, it reminds me of the project I have about putting Molière into English but preserving French word order. Anyways. Fun.

“…Francis was so impatient with his happy news that he did not even wait for Tracy and Judy to leave the room but told me immediately, in sloppily inflected Greek, while sweet dopey Tracy wondered aloud at our wanting to keep up our schoolwork at a time like this.

“Do not fear,” he said to me. “It is the mother. She is concerned with the dishonor of the son having to do with wine.”

I did not understand what he meant. The form of “dishonor” (atimia) that he used also meant “loss of civil rights.” “Atimia?” I repeated.


“But rights are for living men, not for the dead.”

“oimoi,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh, dear. No. No.”

He cast about, snapping his fingers, while Judy and Tracy looked on in interest. It is harder to carry on a conversation in a dead language than you might think. There has been much rumor,” he said at last. “The mother grieves. Not for her son,” he added hastily, when he saw I was about to speak, “for she is a wicked woman. Rather she grieves for the shame which has fallen on her house.”

“What shame is this?”

“(Greek),” he said impatiently. “(More Greek.) She seeks to show that his corpse does not hold wine” (and here he employed a very elegant and untranslatable metaphor: dregs in the empty wineskin of his body).

“And why, pray tell, does she care?”

“Because there is talk among the citizens. It is shameful for a young man to die while drunk.”