"Classic Orality Is..." Translatable?

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"… classic orality is untranslatable."

--From page 96 of Eric A. Havelock's chapter 9, "The Special Theory of Greek Orality," in his book The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present


In the above quote, Havelock is reviewing how his many examples of translated verses transliterated Greek show that the oral elements of the early written word cannot be properly translated to grasp the full meaning.  Although I agree to some extent with his argument, I also have to say that I can see areas where he has not considered some aspects of oral communication in written material today. 

One example of this inability that Havelock gives is as follows:

“Oedipus opens the play that bears his name with a public address in which he describes the city’s condition: ‘The town is heavy with a mingled burden of sounds and smells’ (Grene 1954)…The grammatical structure is atomistic, item is added to item using the connections supplied by the verb ‘to be’ and the preposition ‘with.’ The whole effect is static.  Meaning is accumulated piece by piece.  The original Greek says: ‘The city altogether bulges with incense-burnings.’ The imagery is dynamic: the city turns itself into a pregnant woman or a packed container” (95). 

Another example reads:

“‘Unpainable would I exist.’  In literate translation, this becomes ‘I would be very hard’; all the color has gone out of it” (96).

I personally enjoy the “original Greek” better than the smoothed-over translations above.  I think it is more poetic and it shows the oral qualities of this written work, something that I think is important to the preservation of the culture and to an understanding of the literature itself.  This makes me wonder why Havelock even brings these ideas up if he is not going to suggest a reason for this or a suggestion as to how to correct this phenomenon in translation of ancient texts.  It may be more difficult to read, but it would also allow the reader to fully experience the feel of the Greek oral structures. 

Not only do I think that “classic orality is” translatable to the written word in English, I also think it is translatable in the sense that many characteristics of the ancient oral tradition are still very popular today.  Of course, as Havelock suggests in his previous chapter, children even today are first learning the language orally, so it would make sense that their means of learning the language would be through a primarily oral medium, the children’s or picture book.  Although the genre of these books shows that they do not only rely on the oral/aural method of transmission, but also the visual, they still exhibit primarily oral qualities, such as didactic purposes, moral undertones, rhyme or repetitious rhythms, the presence of magical or fantastical elements and repetition of similar sorts of characters, word choice, or subjects.  Throughout his book, Havelock supports all of these as characteristics of oral storytelling, and even suggests at one point that well known images or images within the actual surroundings of the location of the oral telling were incorporated into ancient storytelling as well. 

Beyond children’s stories, however, orality is still very much present.  Dramas necessarily rely on some of these oral characteristics, as do novels with dialogue.  Magazine writing and other forms of news writing that I have read also seem to contain some of these characteristics, especially the didactic elements, although they do so in a more formal and fact-based way.  Even text books rely on repetition and the highlighting of important parts, although this is done textually rather than verbally. I think that the more I read about the development of communication from the oral to manuscript stages, the more I see that our communication structures today have allowed much from this primary oral structure to remain.   

I think that if we are ever able to recognize these effects in our culture, we will be more likely to accept the “Greek translation,” as Havelock puts it, of ancient texts.  And, by accepting this translation instead of the more linear and English-ized ones we can begin to solve some of Plato’s Socrates’ warnings about the written text.  Instead of people misunderstanding, forgetting, or misinterpreting the written word, and thus others’ ideas about both the past and the present, we can better understand and use the information that is available to us today.


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