Untranslated Greek may be embedded within the Modernist text as a nugget that refracts or resists meaning; or, it may work free of its surroundings, highlighting the presence of an author and demanding hermeneutic enterprise from the reader.
The Greek alphabet and the cultural prestige of the language and its literature simultaneously promise and withhold access. The attempt at translation and the counter-claim of “untranslatability” become literary topoi, elements
in the Modernist apprehension of the autonomy and elusiveness of language.
The paper takes as its starting-point instances of untranslated Greek in Eliot, Pound and Woolf before turning to the rather different case of Joyce.
I suggest that Joyce’s distinctive use of Greek may unsettle our accounts of classical and modern foreign languages within Modernism. My discussion is in three sections.
1. The evolution of Joyce’s Greek.
was never formally educated in Ancient Greek and first learned the language as spoken and written by Greeks of the diaspora. He then became interested in the liturgical Greek of the Orthodox Church before starting on a more systematic study of
the ancient language. This encounter, in reverse order, with the whole diachronic development of Greek finds its parallel in the linguistic recapitulations of Ulysses.
2. Sound without sense.
The acute diglossia
of early twentieth-century Greek chimes both with Joyce’s experience of the English language in Ireland and with the polarisation of his untranslated Greek into learned non-sense (gnomon, parallax, metempsychosis) and
childishly playful onomatopoeia and obscenity (various Modern Greek words for bodily parts and functions).
3. Greek words as free-floating elements.
Joyce almost always transliterates Greek into the Roman alphabet, rendering
it as sounds and lexemes and thereby foregrounding its materiality (rather than its “classical” associations). Because many Modern Greek words are calques on other languages (e.g. siderodromos < G. Eisenbahn, Fr.
chemin-de-fer) Joyce’s Greek naturally dismantles and re-assembles itself. His “Helleniky” has a special resonance among the 87 “polyfizzyboisterous” languages of Finnegans Wake where the sea (Hellas,
alas, tha lass, thalassa) is the ultimate source and destination.
Paper read at the conference Modernism and Non-Translation, Durham, July 2013.