Two Ancient Greek Gettysburg Addresses: I

By: | Post date: 2017-10-02 | Comments: 6 Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics, Literature

The classicists among you know—as the rest of you may well not—that Ancient Greek Composition is a thing. Advanced students of Ancient Greek have traditionally been set exercises of translating Modern English text into Ancient Greek. The idea is that by working out the means of expressing yourself idiomatically in Ancient Greek, students get a better understanding of how idiomatic Ancient Greek works. In particular, Composition is an effective means of teaching what is traditionally called Syntax in Classics—and what modern linguists might chalk up instead to the semantics of the various available inflections, of case and mood and tense.

The exercise of Composition is an exercise in cultural translation, and not just semantic translation. In that, it is no different from any other act of translation. It is a more tenuous act of cultural translation, perhaps—in that the target culture is dead, and reconstructed and learned piecemeal from exposure to texts, rather than lived in and taken for granted by the translators.

In that wise, of course, it has not a little in common with the activity of translation into Klingon.

Of course I went there.

The extent of cultural translation is going to vary, even if the target culture is as shadowy as a learner’s understanding of Ancient Greece, or a scriptwriter’s construal of Qo’noS. The translator can choose to immerse themselves in the target culture, and embrace all its preconceptions—its prejudices say, its polytheism, its moral code. Or it can put some distance from the target culture: it can render the text into Ancient Greek or Klingon as spoken by contemporary members of the Anglosphere. Or anywhere in between. I made one set of choices for rendering Hamlet into Klingon, adopting the mythos that Hamlet was originally written in Klingon. I made a quite different set of choices for rendering the Gospel according to Mark into Klingon: that was for my own scholarly interest, and I made a point of culturally transmogrifying as little of Mark’s Greek as possible. (I took particular delight in having people lie down to eat, just like the original says.)

And of course it’s not only a treacherous pathway, but a noisy one as well. There are multiple receptions of the target culture you can end up aligning to. Any attempt at using Ancient Greek in a modern context, for example, ends up rubbing up against Modern Greek, and Modern Greek often ends up a donor language to such enterprises (though of course more via the friendlier garb of Puristic Greek). I’ve written elsewhere of my surprise at finding a modern Ancient Greek text use <Bagdad> for Baghdad, instead of the <Bagdatē> of Modern Greek. And of the fact that my surprise was anachronistic: <Bagdad> is a lot closer to how the Byzantines who first encountered Baghdad rendered it. Likewise, any rendering of modern text into Klingon contends with variations in Klingon mythos: is Klingonaase with its Komerex and Khesterex to be referred to? Is there a single story now about which Klingons had smooth foreheads when? Do Klingons even have goatees any more?

Greek Composition is about cultural translation, because part of the paedagogical point of it is to immerse students into Ancient Greek culture. People make a point of writing their translations as if they were  Thucydides, because they’re trying to work out Thucydides. And the translation guides push them down that path: the translation might be of an account of the English Civil War, but students are instructed to refer to Corcyra or Tissaphernes instead of Cromwell or Naseby. And as suffused as the source texts to be translated might be in Christianity, the oaths students are instructed to produce are not Christian: they aren’t trying to work out the style of Michael Psellus or John Cantacuzene. It’s all Zeus this and By The Gods that.

But the texts being translated aren’t texts  by Thucydides or Xenophon; and whatever the translator does, you can still tell as much. Which makes the artefacts cross-culturally fascinating.

I was convinced there would be venerable 19th century instances rendering the Gettysburg Address into Ancient Greek; that kind of thing was popular back then, after all. I found that Edward Everett toyed with rendering his own, two hour long Gettysburg Oration into Ancient Greek—the one that got all the limelight on the day. But I haven’t found any old instances of rendering Lincoln’s text into Ancient Greek.

I have found two contemporary instances, though. And reading them as artefacts is interesting. Reading them as a speaker of Modern Greek, with the noise that introduces, even more so.

The first instance dates from 2010, by user Damoetas on the Textkit forum. Textkit includes a space for composition exercises in Latin and Ancient Greek, and Damoetas’ effort is one such. Damoetas actually explains a lot of his choices of wording in the thread to user Markos; his stated aim was:

To be honest, I was mainly just trying to make the assignment entertaining for myself, because these kinds of composition exercises usually involve a lot of tedious poring over dictionaries. So to do that, I decided to make the rhetoric as overblown as possible, using every possible trope or figure I could think of, in the style of Gorgias – have you read the Encomium of Helen? If not, check it out, and you’ll see what I was aiming for. His speech ends by saying, ἐβουλήθην γράψαι τὸν λόγον Ἑλένης μὲν ἐγκώμιον, ἐμὸν δὲ παίγνον, which I echo in my last line as a sort of “interpretive key.”

Note Markos’ first comment to Damoetas, by the way (in Ancient Greek). No, Damoetas did not make a mistake in having his Lincoln say “with the Gods helping” instead of “with God helping” for “under God”. It’s a cultural translation; one in which Lincoln is wearing a chlamys and echoing Gorgias. Whether you’re comfortable with Lincoln echoing Gorgias, and alluding to the birth of Athena, is a litmus test.

One I think I fail.

Here’s my back-translation.

On the one hand, this state, O American Men, conceived in a new earth, and born in freedom, and proposed in a proposal—that everyone has been begotten as worthy of equal law, in equal honour—sprang from the head of our fathers, as it reached the prime of youth and flowered. This is already the eighty seventh year since these things happened. But now a most great war and a most hateful deluge of a blood-drenched insurrection has been poured out upon us; out of which it shall be made apparent and not hidden whether that state, or indeed any other which has come to be in that way, will be able to persist for long. But in this field we have assembled—they to fight, and we to remember. They, dying through all of the field so that the state may live for all time; and we, consecrating a portion of the field so that the dead may rest forever. It is not only not unseemly, but very seemly that we should do this.

But it would be more just if I would say that we cannot consecrate, nor purify, nor sanctify this field. For what brave men have sanctified through struggling, we would hardly make more glorious by praising it, or on the contrary make less glorious by censuring it. And truly the world will neither understand much nor remember long our words; but it will never forget their deeds. So what should we do, O American Men? I say, we the living should complete the work which those who fought here, though they struggled bravely, have left incomplete to us; all should concentrate their mind eagerly on the proposition which lies before us; so that we may strive to live worthy and to die worthy of those honoured friends; that we may deem their death to be neither in vain nor useless, but serviceable and useful for the state; so that this new state, the gods helping, be newly born in a new liberty; so that democracy may remain from the people, for the people, towards the people; so that neither this state may perish from the earth, nor my game.

O American Men: ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀμερικήσιοι
Of course, this is an equivalent of “O Athenian Men”, which peppers all public orations recorded from Athens. As cultural translation, it is the obvious choice: if Lincoln was wearing a chlamys in the Athens agora, that’s what he’d say; he’d be addressing the other men who were the decision-makers of the Athenian democracy. If you’re addressing contemporary Americans despite the fact that you’re using Ancient Greek, the reference to men is jarring, since it’s no longer just men that enjoy the suffrage. Of course, Ancient Greek does not offer a model for appealing to female voters. That makes a Modern Greek speaker look sideways at what their recent history offers: Karamanlis’ Ελληνίδες, Έλληνες “Greek women, Greek men”, or Papandreou’s much-parodied Λαέ της Ελλάδας, λαέ της Αθήνας “People of Greece, people of Athens”.
O American Men: <ō andres Amerikēsioi>
A red rag to any Modern Greek speaker, of course, for whom Americans are <Amerikanoi>. It’s a plausible Ancient Greek form for “American”, of course, and composition is not obligated to use the Modern Greek forms—especially when they are borrowed from Latin. Still… why wouldn’t you?
sprang from the head of our fathers
Damoetas is of course alluding to Athena, as he explains:

It’s a conscious allusion to the Athena story. When I wrote my opening sentence, I felt like it was building toward something, so it needed some kind of dramatic and arresting conclusion; I hoped the Athena allusion would be suitably out of place, even grotesque! From searching on Perseus, I found that the verb normally used for Athena’s “leaping forth” was ἀνέθορεν, but this didn’t have a nice metrical shape to end a line (four short syllables), so I switched to the heavier ἐξεπήδησε. (It occurs humorously in Lysias 3.)

Grotesque it is, and the comparison of the Founding Fathers to Zeus himself is jarring even on its own cultural terms, making them into gods above the very concept of wisdom. The sentence needs to go somewhere. I’m not convinced that’s where it needed to end up.

as it reached the prime of youth and flowered
That gilds the lily, I’d say; and it’s distracting by introducing puberty (ἡβῶσα) into the ethnogenesis of America. America is meant to be a new nation; I’m not sure it needed to be a teenage nation.
eighty seventh year
Translations of the Gettysburg Address either come with a similar archaism to four score and seven—I’ve seen a Latin version come up with the lustrum—or give up with a prosaic number 87. Allusions can’t always match at the phrase level; and if you can’t come up with an archaic 87 here, well, better luck further down.
a most great war and a most hateful deluge of a blood-drenched insurrection has been poured out upon us
Again, that’s a lot of words to put against “now we are engaged in a great civil war”. But the metaphor works for me.
it shall be made apparent and not hidden
The verb “make apparent” (δηλόω) has come to mean just “declare”; but the antithesis is deliberate, and is what Greek stylists did: “I was trying to create an antithesis that was as balanced as possible, even if that meant adding something to one part that was not in the original.” Damoetas says that about the next antithesis: “they to fight, and we to remember”, and that antithesis is glorious and idiomatic, more so than this one.
dying through all of (ἐν παντὶ) the field so that the state may live for all (διὰ παντὸς) time
By now we’ve travelled very far from Lincoln’s words, but despite some occasional missteps there are some very nice figures of speech here.
consecrating: <temenizontes>
There’s an unfortunate piece of noise from Modern Greek: the Ancient Greek word for consecrated land, temenos, has ended up as the modern term for a mosque. That aside, there seems to be some music missing in the second phrase, even if it repeats the διὰ παντὸς of the foregoing. Somehow the μόριον τοῦ πεδίου “portion of the field” does not contrast right with “all of the field.” (Damoetas explicitly points out he intended them to contrast; and he did not intend what Markos read in here, that Lincoln should also be alluding to the bits of the battlefield where Southerners died.)
But it would be more just if I would say that
The injection of the first person, here and in “I say, we the living should”, is presumably unremarkable in an Attic oration, but it is jarring in the Gettysburg Address, and in Lincoln’s oratory in general, which draws its loftiness from being impersonal.
we would hardly make more glorious
Once more, beautifully poised sentence, and only one thing spoils it for me: I’d move that μόγις ἂν “would hardly” out of the way: it’s meant to build on the antithesis by contrasting with ἧττον δ᾽ αὖ “but less, by contrast” (again, avowedly so), but they don’t quite match.
strive to live worthy and to die worthy of those honoured friends
The noise from Modern Greek this time helps: φιλοτιμῶμεθα survives as the verb for filotimo, the Modern Greek notion of amour propre, of honour as social obligation. To φιλοτιμιέμαι in Modern Greek is to have the decency to do something righteous. And the verb, literally “to have love of honour”, echoes the “honoured friends” of the battlefield. And again, Damoetas points out that was deliberate.
neither in vain nor useless, but serviceable and useful for the state
Here I think the antitheses have gone back to being too heavy-handed. The contrast of an adverb and adjective pair (μάτην οὐδ᾽ ἀνωφέλιμον ἀλλὰ προὔργου καὶ χρήσιμον) should be neat, but it strikes me as too convoluted by half.
this new state, the gods helping, be newly born in a new liberty
For “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”, this is more jangly, and it’s not quite accurate for rendering “under God”. But jangling has its place.
towards the people (εἰς τὸν δῆμον)
Greek prepositions are infamously flexible in their meaning, and there is a suitable sense of εἰς: LSJ IV, “towards, in regard to”. I’d have gone with πρό “in favour of”, myself.
nor my game (τὸ ἐμὸν παίγνιον)
It’s an explicit allusion to Gorgias, as Damoetas has already said: “I wished to write a speech which would be an encomium of Helen and a diversion to myself.” The translator was well pleased to put this little allusive reference in there. I still wish he hadn’t.


  • […] posted a commentary on the first of two translations that I found online of the Gettysburg Address into Ancient Greek, emulating the style of Gorgias. […]

  • […] recently reported on a translation of the Gettysburg Address into Ancient Greek, that I found on the Textkit forum. […]

  • John says:

    As one who did Ancient Greek composition in college, I found this very interesting. Thank you for posting this. It brings back memories from long ago.

  • David Marjanović says:

    the comparison of the Founding Fathers to Zeus himself is jarring even on its own cultural terms, making them into gods above the very concept of wisdom

    It’s so natural as to be unremarkable in American terms, though.

    • I’m not so sure. The Americans who revere the Founding Fathers are also often enough pious monotheists, who would be surprised to see Jefferson equated with, say, the Holy Spirit.

      • Matt T. says:

        On the other hand, the Lincoln Memorial is totally a Doric temple (and has a big inscription starting “IN THIS TEMPLE…”), and Lincoln looks suspiciously like (relatively contemporary conceptions of) the statue of Zeus at Olympia. Logically I suppose this makes the Founding Fathers were more like the Titans.

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