Immagine Grammatica

How to translate Ancient Greek.

The main reason to learn Ancient Greek, is to be able to translate Ancient Greek texts into English.

Before we start, keep in mind what’s the objective here: you want to translate a text into modern English. The resulting translation should sound like it was written in English in the first place: it has to be fluent and enjoyable, not in some “bad-old-looking-odd-sounding” version of modern English.

For this reason it is extremely important learn how to translate an original Ancient Greek text or book in an efficient and effective way. There is an almost scientific method for that: you just have to follow these steps.

Step #0: What you need to know.

Before talking about the translation process itself, we should point out the notions that are necessary to translate properly:

  • Knowledge of prepositions and conjunctions, especially you should be extremely comfortable with the most common prepositions, their meaning and the cases that may follow them (ie. περì, πρός, εἰς, ἐάν, ὅτι, παρὰ, ὑπὸ, etc.).
  • Knowledge of pronouns and their meaning. Just like prepositions and conjunctions, pronouns are found in great quantities, so knowing what they mean will allow you not to waste time looking them up on the dictionary.
  • Knowledge of all cases' base functions: nominative is a subject, accusative is an object or a destination, the genitive indicates possession or origin, the dative is the indirect object or indicates a way, manner or cause.
  • Knowledge of common syntactic structures: you should be able to easily recognise structures with infinitives and participles such as the absolute genitive.
  • Knowledge of words' roots: it's much easier to learn roots rather than single words since from one root usually derive several nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs. Of course it's not always easy to identify the root from a word: for that you should have a basic knowledge of recurring phonetic phenomena.
  • Knowledge of suffixes and prefixes: Ancient Greek builds lots of words from a root and one or more prefixes and suffixes; so knowing what they mean will allow you to understand at least a basic meaning of many words.
    Let's give an example, the word δυστυχής. It's build from three elements: the negative prefix δυσ- (which is the equivalent of the English “dis-”, “a-” or “un-” from “disloyal”, “amoral” and “unfaithful”), the τυχ- root of τύχη (“luck/destiny”) and the -ης ending of adjectives. It's exactly “un-luck-y” and that's what δυσ-τυχ-ής actually means!

Of course, you may find all these pieces of information inside Ancient Greek Reference in the App Store!

Step #1: reading the Greek text.

  • First of all, don't jump immediately on the dictionary! No dictionary at the beginning!
  • If there's any, read the title of the text to contextualize it and try to remember anything you know on the subject (it's usually a legend, some historical event, philosophy, etc...). If you haven't got any title see if inside the text there are some names of historical or mythical figures and places that you know about. This passage will save you from doing huge mistakes while you're translating.
  • Finally, you can now read the text a couple of times to identify major sentences and concepts

Step #2: preliminary draft translation.

  • Try to separate each sentence and clause and highlight syntactical structures so that you can translate each part as a single “entity” (you might make some mistakes: never assume you've got it all right!).
  • Then translate what you know and understand without using the dictionary and write a first draft using the most generic meaning possible for every word and without worrying if it sounds awful English-wise.

Step #3: dictionary draft translation.

Your first draft is probably written in horrible English and has an overall vague meaning but should have a correct syntactical and grammatical structure.

It's time to fix these issues by using the dictionary this time.

  • You should now write a second draft: look up the words you don't know or you're uncertain about and choose more specific and appropriate meanings for each term while keeping an eye on the context of the text.
  • When you're done, put down the dictionary and read your second draft; look for incongruences and correct them.

Step #4: final version.

Your second draft should be written in a sort-of-ok English but it may still be a little too simple or too archaic-sounding: maybe your sentences are extremely long or you've used strange expressions and words that you will never find in an English book published a couple of years ago... time to write the final version!

So, just rewrite your second draft as if you were writing an essay and not a translation: using a modern, fluent and proper language.

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