No one knows Greek anymore, at least not the Greek of Euripides, Sophocles and Aristotle. When I was in high school, I remember asking my drama teacher about how ancient Greek worked and how to pronounce it and make words. I came out of the conversation with nothing really cleared up. There remains this vague, semi-pretentious cloud around Greek and Greek culture. And it doesn’t help that it is impossible to translate Greek perfectly into modern English.
Woolf touches on this point, and the case could be made with translation between any two languages, but it only makes it more difficult to do with a language that no one actually speaks anymore. Translation is rife with misinterpretation and miscommunication. That is why “we bruise our minds upon some tremendous metaphor in the Agamemnon instead of stripping the branch of its flower instantly as we do in reading Lear.” (35) One great historical misinterpretation was when during the period when Neo-Classical was the preferred architecture of choice; buildings became flanked with all sorts of white columns and pediments in a testament to the Greek culture that inspired. Little did they know, the Greeks’ buildings were actually painted in a marvelous array of colors and the white color that endured on the Parthenon was only due to the durability over time of the marble versus paint.
Woolf again emphasizes the problem of getting the meaning correct when she says that even the most skillful of scholars cannot translate everything perfectly. She gives the example of the original Greek and a translation, stating simply that they are not equal. (36). Try as we may, the Greek language has many subtleties that do not have English equivalents. Yet, the Greeks have always held an appeal for us that we crave and cannot fully explain. Perhaps it is the same way we cannot fully translate, there is something that we need: the rawness of Euripides’ plays or the cleverness of Plato’s dialogues. The fact that so many of them are still relevant today is only a sign the civilization in which they lived in has endured so well, even if we cannot fully understand or imagine everything as it once was.