Archive for the ‘Translations’ Category

Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

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Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.

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Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.

This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:

Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94,consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.

Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:

Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.

That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.

English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.

But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.

But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.

But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:

Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?

In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.

Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:

Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)

Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.

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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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Rok 1984 by George OrwellRok 1984, George Orwell (MUZA SA, Warszawa 2001)

It’s an odd experience to pick up a famous book in an unfamiliar language. I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four many times in English and also tried it in French, Spanish and Italian. Reading it in English is like picking up a perfectly ripe apple and biting into it. I don’t have to think, I just have to experience.

It isn’t like that in French, Spanish and Italian. The book isn’t a ripe apple any more: it’s an exotic fruit with a tough skin that has to be peeled and cooked. I have to think about what I’m doing and it takes much longer to eat much less.

In Polish, Nineteen Eighty-Four becomes a coconut with an exceptionally tough and hairy shell. And I don’t have any way of getting inside. All I can do is pick it up and shake it, hearing the swish of the milk inside and feeling its solidity. I know there’s good eating in there, but I can’t get at it.

Of course, to a literate Pole Rok 1984 is a ripe apple, ready to be experienced without conscious effort. Languages aren’t like ordinary phenomena. A knife is a knife. A bird is a bird. A cloud is a cloud. Billions of human beings for thousands of years have perceived those things in more or less the same way. But human beings haven’t named them or talked about them in more or less the same way. Language both defines humans and divides us. No-one can be familiar with all languages, so everyone can have the experience of picking up something familiar that is suddenly encased in something impenetrable.

Here’s the opening line of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English:

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

And here it is in some other languages:

• Era un día luminoso y frío de abril y los relojes daban las trece.
• C’était une journée d’avril froide et claire. Les horloges sonnaient treize heures.
• Era una luminosa e fredda giornata d’aprile, e gli orologi battevano tredici colpi.
• Był jasny, zimny dzień kwietniowy i zegary biły trzynastą.
• Был холодный ясный апрельский день, и часы пробили тринадцать.

English suddenly looks anomalous: “and” in all the other languages is represented by a simple vowel and “thirteen” starts with “tr-”. You see English differently when you look at other languages and you realize that English doesn’t have a fixed form. It changes when you look at from the perspective of another language.

So does every other language. To a speaker of Russian, Polish is partly familiar. To a speaker of English, Polish seems almost wholly unfamiliar, although English and Polish have a fairly recent common ancestor and have a lot of words in common, beneath the disguise of orthography and historic change.

One of those shared words is readily apparent in the opening chapter of Rok 1984 (which I assume means “Year 1984”):

Była tak namalowana, że oczy mężczyzny zdawały się śledzić każdy ruch przechodzącego. WIELKI BRAT PRATZY, głosił napis u dołu plakatu.

Most readers of the English version will remember that Winston sees a poster and a slogan at the beginning, so the meaning of WIELKI BRAT PRATZY isn’t hard to guess. Wielki Brat must mean “Big Brother” and pratzy must be “is watching” or some equivalent. Brat is closer to “brother” than French frère, from Latin frater.

But brat behaves like the Latin word. A little further into the book, you’ll see this:


Which must the part where Winston repeatedly writes “Down with Big Brother” in his new diary. Wielki Brat has become Wielkim Bratem. So Polish inflects like Latin. And the last line of the book (before the “Aneks”, or Appendix) is: Kochał Wielkiego Brata – He loved Big Brother.

Then there are phrases like Policja Myśli, Dwóch Minut Nienawiści and Ministerstwie Miłości, where Winston is asked what he thinks of Wielki Brat and replies “Nienawidzę go” – “I hate him.” “Nienawidzisz go,” O’Brien says. “You hate him.”

So you could gradually work out a lot of Polish vocabulary and grammar using simply your memories of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English. With an actual copy of the English version, you could compare and contrast line by line, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. In short, you could learn Polish from Rok 1984.

There’s a much simpler way to do that, of course, but I can imagine a story about a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in an unknown language falling into this universe from a parallel one. Then linguists would have to use the Rosetta stone technique.

But what if the book from a parallel universe were in a wholly unfamiliar script too and didn’t have any images? This Polish copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is instantly recognizable as such. It’s called Rok 1984, names the author as “George Orwell”, and one edition has the face of Stalin on it. In Russian, “George Orwell” becomes Джордж Оруэлл. It’s stepped away from English. What if it stepped a lot further? What if an unknown version of Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t use an alphabet but an ideography like Chinese or Japanese?

I still think it would be identifiable, given sufficient computing power. In fact, I wonder whether any sufficiently long text in any conceivable human language might be comprehensible to a sufficiently powerful computer, based simply on the relationship of the patterns within it. I don’t mean that the computer could identify it as related to a known text in a known language: I mean that any text at all might be comprehensible, because there are only a limited number of things one can say about the world, even if there are an infinite number of ways of saying those things.

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The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit FoxThe Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, Margalit Fox (Profile Books 2013)

I remember starting an Agatha Christie book and being delighted by the simplicity of her style. But I’d got bored long before the end. The Riddle of the Labyrinth was the opposite. I found it dull at the beginning, but was delighted by the end. I look forward to reading it again. Margalit Fox weaves a compelling story out of three complex people: the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the American classical scholar Alice Kober (1906-50) and the English architect Michael Ventris (1922-56); and the complex problem they all worked on: the decipherment of a forgotten script found on the island of Crete.

It’s a story of clay in two ways. There’s the literal clay on which the script was recorded:

It took fire to give us Linear B. In about 1400 B.C., the final conflagration at Knossos destroyed most of the palace [of Minos] and its contents, marking the end of the great civilization that had been rooted there for centuries. But the blaze had one completely beneficial effect: It preserved for future generations the clay tablets that recorded the palace’s final year. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 3, “Love Among the Ruins”, pg. 67)

There’s also the metaphorical clay of humanity and its frailties, physical and psychological. Sir Arthur Evans died at ninety, laden with honours, but Alice Kober died at forty-three, probably of cancer, and Michael Ventris at thirty-four, possibly by suicide. Evans and Ventris have long been famous in the Linear B story, but I’d never heard of Kober until I picked up this book. According to Fox, she was central to the decipherment and made the critical breakthrough: explaining the relationship between two known facts about the unknown script and unknown language of Linear B:

Kober had shown that the Minoans spoke an inflected language. Now came the real payoff from that demonstration: In a discovery that would have enormous implications for the decipherment, she now homed in on precisely what happens when an inflected language is written in a syllabic script. (Book 2, “The Detective”, ch. 6, “Splitting the Baby”, pg. 134 (emphasis in original))

The language of Linear B was infected because it added suffixes to stems, as English still does a little and Latin does a lot. Where English says “I love, you love, he loves”, Latin says “amo, amas, amat”. It’s easy to spot stems and inflexions like am-, -o, -as, and -at in an alphabetic script, which uses single signs for single sounds (generally speaking). But Linear B was syllabic, using single signs for single syllables. For example, ka, ke, ki, ko, ku were all written using entirely different signs, as was every other combination of consonant and vowel. Inflectional patterns are harder to spot in a syllabic script.

But syllabicity itself isn’t hard to spot: the number of signs used by a script is a good indication of whether it’s an alphabet, a syllabary or an ideography. You might say that the decipherment of Linear B rested on three C’s: counting, comparison and compulsion. Counting and comparing the signs established the relationships between them, but it took compulsive people to do that, because it was hard work. And “work” is the word:

Because she [Alice Kober] was under pressure to copy as many inscriptions as possible in her brief time in Oxford, she spent the weeks before her departure training for the task like an athlete preparing for the Olympics. Using the inscriptions in [the Finnish scholar Johannes] Sandwall’s new book as test material, she put herself through rigorous time trials at the dining table. “I’ve timed myself,” she wrote Myres in February 1947, “and think I can copy between 100-125 inscriptions in a single day.” (ch. 6, pg. 133)

“Myres” was the archaeologist John Linton Myres, a former assistant to Sir Arthur Evans who both helped and hindered Kober in her work. He gave her access to a lot of material, but he also made unreasonable demands on her time by asking her to help with his own writing on Minoan archaeology. Kober put up with a lot in her short time on earth, facing obstacles that would have daunted or deflected a less determined woman. But “The Detective”, as Fox calls her, forged on, straining both brain and body in her pursuit of the decipherment. It’s hard in 2014 to imagine having to copy inscriptions by hand, for example. And having to analyze them by hand. Kober used “cigarette-carton card files” and “index cards”:

What she had created, in pure analog form, was a database, with the punched cards marking the parameters on which the data could be sorted. But for all their rigor and precision, the file boxes also “reveal a gentler side to Alice Kober,” as Thomas Palaima and his colleague Susan Trombley have written. On one occasion, they note, Kober “took extra care in cutting a greeting card used as a tabbed divider, perfectly centering a fawn lying in a bed of flowers.” (Book Two, ch. 4, “American Champollion”, pg. 108)

Kober might have had a gentler side, but it’s no surprise that she also had a broad, masculine face and wore her hair short. Her task was a masculine one: systematizing and implicitly using mathematics. In fact, her hand-copying and “analog database” remind me of the enormous labours expended by nineteenth-century mathematicians on calculating the digits of pi or hunting for primes. What then took months and years can be performed in an instant by a computer. The same, I’d guess, is now true of Linear B. If it were discovered today and the necessary data were computerized – unknown signs, known neighbouring languages – its mask would probably be lifted very quickly.

Kober spent years on the task and died without completing it. Would she have beaten Michael Ventris if she’d lived? It’s easy to think so. But work on Linear B was, in effect, her hobby: she had a full-time job as a lecturer in classics at Brooklyn College. With more time, more help, fewer distractions, perhaps she would have solved Linear B in the 1940s.

As it was, the labyrinth was mastered by someone else: “The Architect” after whom the third and final section of this book is named. Unlike Evans or Kober, Michael Ventris wasn’t a professional classicist. And he went astray in a way the more cautious Kober didn’t, because he hypothesized for a long time that Etruscan was the language behind Linear B. It was a “position … to which he would hold fast until only weeks before his decipherment” (Book Three, ch. 10, “A Leap of Faith”, pg. 225).

If he’d been more cautious, might he have made faster progress? Probably, but he still beat all the professionals and deciphered Linear B, which turned out to be not Etruscan but a dialect of classical Greek. Ventris lifted the linguistic veil, but he found no literary treasure beneath:

There are no grand narratives lurking in Linear B – no epic poems, no romances, no tales of gods and their derring-do. Arthur Evans knew as much from the start, as did every serious investigator after him. They were all aware, as Alice Kober reminded her Hunter College audience that June evening in 1946, that “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 B.C.” And that, of course, is precisely what they did find: records of crops harvested, goods produced, animals tended, and gifts offered up to the gods. (“Epilogue: Mr. X and Mr. Y”, pg. 269)

But there’s a kind of poetry in the prosaic, especially when the prosaic is many centuries old. And it’s not just the gifts that are named: so are the gods. This means that if Kober had achieved her ambition, she would discovered an appropriate title waiting for her on the tablets. The names of familiar Greek gods and goddesses appear

with more curious ones, many of them pre-Greek, long-forgotten by Classical times. Among them are various female names – most likely those of local deities – beginning with the word potnia, “mistress”: Mistress of Wild Beasts, Mistress of Horses, Mistress of Grain, Mistress of Asia, Mistress of the Labyrinth. (Ibid., pg. 282-3)

Kober would have been “Mistress of the Labyrinth”, the one who solved Linear B. As it was, the Labyrinth had a master instead. So this book tells the story of three: the master, the mistress manquée and the man who supplied the materia of their obsession. That was Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered the tablets and began the work of deciphering them. His story contains one of the briefest but most memorable images in The Riddle of the Labyrinth. The story of Linear B isn’t all about concentrated effort and mental toil: there are moments of spontaneity too:

Over years of excavation, the palace emerged as a vast, increasingly complex organism. As each section was revealed, Evans gave it a name. Beside the Throne Room, these included the Queen’s Megaron, or great hall, with its elaborate bathroom and graceful mural of leaping dolphins; the Domestic Quarter, with artisans’ workshops in which traces of the goldsmith, the lapidary, and the ceramicist could still be still be discerned; and the Grand Staircase, down which, in 1910, a visiting Isadora Duncan danced an impromptu dance to the horror of Evans’s straitlaced Scottish assistant, Duncan Mackenzie. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 2, “Love among the Ruins”, pg. 77)

Dancing Duncan, dour Duncan and dogged decipherment. I like the contrast and it’s another reason to like this book. But will it ever be matched by one about the decipherment of Linear A, another lost language found on Crete and written in a related script? Perhaps not, because the language of Linear A seems to be an isolate, without living or ancient relatives. Barring some big scientific or linguistic breakthrough, Linear A may remain a labyrinth no-one ever masters. But perhaps Margalit Fox will be telling the story of its decipherers one day too. I hope so.

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Front cover of The Metamorphoses of Ovid translated by Mary M. InnesThe Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by Mary M. Innes (Penguin 1961)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the foundation-stones of European literature and it’s bad that I took so long to get around to reading it. What’s lost in this prose translation is the sinewiness and concision of Latin verse; what survives is the skill and intelligence by which Ovid wove dozens of disparate stories of transformation into a coherent whole. One story triggers or swallows another as gods and mortals turn into stars, stones, flowers, trees, animals, birds, fish and even more. The phantasmagoria is heightened by the beauty and strangeness of the classical names: Lilybaeum; Phaethon; Narcissus; Tmolus; Tlepolemus; Mygdonia.

Some of the scenes — Hercules’ fight with the centaurs, for example, or the house of the goddess Rumour — are uncomfortably vivid and realistic; others have all the beauty and strangeness of the names that flash through them like shafts of lightning. Latin is supposed to be enjoying a modern revival, but even if it weren’t Ovid’s final boast is safe in the hands of a translatrix as good as Mary Innes:

quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.
(Liber XV, lns 877-9)

Wherever Roman power extends over the lands has subdued; people will read my verse. If there be any truth in poets’ prophecies, I shall live to all eternity, immortalized by fame. (Book 15)

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