Thursday, May 19, 2005

Want Some Latin with Your Greek?

I am now writing a story -- it's actually kind of half-essay, half-story -- and will have to decide how to transliterate words in ancient Greek. The basic decision comes down to employing the spellings most common in English, which derive from Latin, or transliterating more literally the Greek alphabet. Olympus vs. Olympos, in other words; Hephaestus vs. Hephaistos.

My first impulse is to go with the Greek -- I am trying to evoke the experience of living in the Greek Age of the Gods, which should not be filtered through Roman recensions. This means emphasizing some distinctions most English readers do not really know about, like the fact that the Latin ligature æ is a transliteration of the Greek letters "ai" and should be pronounced with a long a rather than a long e. (The Latin ligature that should be pronounced with the long e is œ, as in œconomia and fœtus.)

This doesn't bother me, and certainly most readers have encountered spellings like "Hephaistos" and "daimon." But "ph" is itself a Latin creation, for that sound is rendered in Greek as one letter, phi. If you transliterate that properly as "f," you get words like Hefaistos, Fobos, and fallus, which I don't think readers will accept.

21 Comments:

Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

*nods* Everyone who writes classical runs into this. I've been running with lightly Latinized transliterations, with accepting the most familiar names. But I haven't been systematic about it -- I used Cyrene instead of Kyrene, but did go with Kalonike. I do ai > ae and oi > oe, because the average reader has trouble with the formers, especially next to other vowels.

I suspect I'll have to use Jocasta instead of Iocasta, or even Iokaste.

---L.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

What's weird is that some things--Iocasta, Hefaistos--don't make me blink in the least, while others--Kyrene and fallus--do.

On the other hand, I'm the sort of reader who will blink once, then go "Oh, cool, I'm encountering something I haven't encountered before," and go with it. I know well that not every reader does this. I had some similar concerns writing Point of Honour; there were a few things I threw in just to have them there--a casual mention of birth control methods, for example (I was delighted and a little startled when you laughed at the mention of sea sponges and vinegar at a reading)--and other things I didn't want to include simply because overcoming reader resistance to the idea that these words or customs were current then would have taken too much time from the story.

Larry, for what it's worth, I think Iokaste is a lovely spelling, and conveys a difference and, um, antique-ness better than Jocasta.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

Possibly, it'll depend on what her character is like. Euripidean ditz, Sophoclean cypher, or Gravesean matriarch?

---L.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

{Meditating upon the concept of a Euripidean ditz.}

5:21 PM  
Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

Check out Phoenician Women, both her first scene with Polyniekes ("You never call, you never right, you never even invited me to your wedding. Just because your father cursed you is no reason to never let me see my only grandchildren!") and the grand climax of dithering.

---L.

5:47 PM  
Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

Er, "never write."

5:48 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I recall that John Gardner, in his book-length poem Jason and Medeia (which I can remember from when it came out -- that dates me!), transliterated the name of Iokasta's son as Oidipos, or something like that. (Going to Perseus and checking the Greek, I see that they have "Oidipous.") How is that pronounced?

4:07 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Oidipos, to my eye, is reasonable. Oidipous looks wrong. Go figure.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Yeah, "Oidipous" sounds like an adjective, probably describing some nasty deposit that makes you jiggle where you can't see.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Got it in one, Greg.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

Oidipous looks fine to those of us who grew up with British conventions: neighbour, labour, humour, etc.

Have you seen this site, Greg?
http://www.textkit.com/

I suspect it might be more use to me than some of you: I'll be digging around there over the next little while.

And finally, an ancient Greek walks into a tailor's shop. "Euripedes?" he's asked. "Yeah. Eumenides?"

D

4:24 PM  
Blogger language said...

Transliterating phi as f is a bad idea, because it didn't start to be pronounced as f until Hellenistic times (and the change wasn't complete until Byzantine times). In Classical Greek phi was pronounced as aspirated p (p+h, which is why the Romans used that spelling for it), just as theta was t+h and khi was k+h. Of course, we tend to use the fricative pronunciation because it's a lot easier for us, but that's not how the Greeks said it, so if you want an authentic spelling you'll stick with ph.

--language hat

5:28 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I am working my way through Introduction to Attic Greek, and see what LanguageHat means about phi and "f." Sorry I haven't been here recently.

Murph, thanks for the URL. (You're Derryl, right?) I am going to try to make a post or two here the next few days, and be better about keeping up with this blog hereafter. (I'll spare you a lengthy description of the last week, which basically involved the harmonic convergence of every spring musical, piano recital, steel drum band concert, school field trip and soccer playoff that my kids had. My parents were in town, too.)

4:24 AM  
Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

Yup, Murph=Derryl. An old habit from my first days on the web. That, plus there are plenty of folks who call me Murph instead of Derryl (plus a solid handful who call me D - I'm a multiple personality type of guy).

D

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