Monday, June 4, 2012

Translation of Ancient Texts: When the Sky is not Blue

Any freshman literature student, whether a classicist or not, is acquainted with Homeric epithets: the “wine-dark sea” and the “rosy-fingered dawn”. They are both poetic figures and mnemonic devices frequent in epic poetry that is composed and delivered orally. Although this poetry is partly improvisational, these formulas allowed the poet to compose complex verses sort of on the fly, which makes his work more similar to the process of assembling a Meccano than solving a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle in his mind. 

The problem is some of these epithets are so recurrent, you never think about their meaning. “Wine-dark sea”? Yes, poetic. Yes, evocative. The Mediterranean at night, perhaps? But, come on, in what sense is the sea “wine colored”? But a century and a half ago, William Gladstone (yes, that William Gladstone) discovered that Homer’s use of colors is very, very strange. Oxen are also described as wine-colored (?). Wool is violet. So is iron (!). Honey and faces that are pale with fear are… green. It seems as if Homer was had some sort of weird chromatic perception problem. Gladstone, like many nineteenth-century intellectuals, was a Greek geek, and he decided to catalog all mentions of colors in the two Homeric epics. In addition to all of these anomalies, he also uncovered one incredible absence: not a single mention of the color blue.

Ten years later, a German-Jewish philologist called Lazarus Geiger discovered that the color blue was also absent from the entire ancient canon: ancient Greek texts, Icelandic sagas, ancient Chinese literature, Vedic hymns and even the Bible. Amazingly, not a single ancient culture describes the sky as blue. Experiments have proven that hunter-gatherers can’t distinguish blue from green until they are taught the word. Before that, it’s all green to them (although they—like the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Icelanders—are genetically the same as everyone else). Geiger discovered that there was even a sequence in which cultures acquire words for colors: first, all cultures have black and white, then red, then yellow, green and finally blue. Which creates a gaggle of fascinating conundrums. Did the Greeks see blue? Do children see blue?

For the development of this mystery, listen to this Radiolab podcast (the third section, “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” deals with Homer, but I recommend listening to the entire hour-long episode). I’m always recommending This American Life. Radiolab has always come in second in my affections because it is more science-oriented and slightly more baroque in its production (the use of silences, the weird kubrikesque music that marks transitions, etc.). But this edition of the podcast is mind blowing and indispensable if you are a literary translator.

Miguel Llorens 
is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, and H.B.O. International. 
To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.

1 comment:

Lisa Carter said...

Thanks for the link, Miguel. I definitely want to check this out!