On the impact of digital translation libraries on the study of Classics.
I was yawning when I entered my Greek 105 class on an October morning during my sophomore year at Princeton. “I was up until three going through the lexicon,” I explained to my friend as I sat down. “You still do your translations with the lexicon?” he asked, in disbelief. “Has no one told you about Perseus?”
Readers of The New Criterion, you may remember fondly the hours you once spent mastering conjugations and declensions for courses in Latin or Ancient Greek. You may still be able to rattle off “amo amas amat” or declaim the first line of the Iliad in your sleep. You also may be part of a dying breed.
The study of Classics is alive and well—fear not. Schools from Hong Kong to the South Bronx are teaching Latin to third-graders. College lecture halls are packed with freshmen in “Intro to Mythology.” And the internet has expanded access to the Classics beyond the classroom: anyone with a computer can teach herself Latin and attempt to decipher the words of Vergil or Cicero.
Indeed, the internet has breathed new life into our discipline in more ways than one. Every text, from De Bello Gallico to the most obscure of late antique epigraphs, is available online, and resources like the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae allow us to sift through these texts with lightning speed. When, last spring, I was writing a paper on νοῦς in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, the TLG quickly isolated for me every instance of the word—in the Posterior Analytics, in Aristotle’s corpus, and in the entire body of Greek literature. In other words, research that formerly might have occupied a scholar for years may now be completed in a matter of seconds.
Then there is Perseus—the Perseus Digital Library Project. Perseus offers, at no cost, texts and standard English translations of every major Classical work. The texts are neatly organized with line numbers, notes, and references, and—most importantly—every word of every text is hyperlinked to the Greek or Latin “Word Study Tool,” which conveniently parses the word and offers its lexicon entry. This tool saves hours of grammatical guesswork and dictionary hunts. But just as calculators have both increased our efficiency and impaired our basic math skills, so Perseus threatens students’ basic knowledge and comprehension of Classical languages and texts.
Consider the first line of the Iliad: μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος, “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus.” In order to understand this sentence, a student of Ancient Greek must know, for starters, that μῆνιν (“wrath”) is in the accusative case and is therefore the direct object of the verb ἄειδε (“sing of”)—an imperative. And to recognize the case of μῆνιν and the mood of ἄειδε, the student must recall the noun and verb charts she has learned in her introductory Greek course.
Perseus, however, offers a shortcut. Click on the word μῆνιν, and the Greek Word Study Tool opens in a new tab. “μῆνιν: noun sg fem acc.” That is to say, μῆνιν is a singular, feminine noun in the accusative case. A further click reveals the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon entry for μῆνις: “wrath.” Similarly, Perseus will parse and translate ἄειδε: “verb 2nd sg pres imperat act epic ionic” meaning “sing of, chant.” There is, then, no need for a student using Perseus to remember her grammar. Indeed, there is no need, really, for her to know Greek at all—Perseus supplies all the necessary information, and the student simply has to use that information to piece together the sentence.
It may be a wonderful resource for those who have never studied Greek or Latin and those whose grammar is rusty: they have a new opportunity to read Classical texts in the original languages. But for students—particularly beginner-level students—of Classics, the effects of Perseus can be devastating. When we do our nightly translations with the assistance of Perseus and its Greek and Latin Word Study Tools, little thinking is required. We fail to reinforce our knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, and, without reinforcement, we begin to lose the knowledge entirely.
I have studied Latin since sixth grade and have completed countless translations without any aid except a lexicon. After eleven years of positive reinforcement, the language—its words, its grammatical structures—is in my blood. Since I did not use tools like Perseus, I had, in the early years, to think hard while doing my homework . . . but, as a result, I nowadays scarcely have to think at all: I can sit down, open a Latin text, and read.
But I confess I cannot sit down and read Greek in the same way. Nor, I daresay, can most of my former classmates in the Princeton Classics Department. We discovered Perseus too soon in our studies and missed out on at least three years of positive reinforcement. I can conjugate irregular Greek verbs only under a surprising amount of duress. My knowledge of Greek vocabulary is—for someone pursuing Classics in graduate school—embarrassingly scant. I struggle to recognize verbs with non-standard principal parts because I never had to remember the principal parts in order to locate a verb in the lexicon. I can, of course, write a sharp essay on any given Greek text, but I remain woefully dependent on Perseus in order to determine what the text is actually saying.
What’s the problem, you ask? Princeton’s 2017 Classics graduates received the University’s top accolades, prestigious fellowships, and acceptances to the world’s leading graduate programs. So long as they have been successful in their studies, does it really matter that they depend on Perseus?
It does matter—for our souls, if for nothing else. There is little joy to be found in absentmindedly clicking ancient words; there is a great deal of joy to be found in actually reading ancient texts. How disheartening it is to pick up a Greek tragedy or Platonic dialogue and not be able to read it unless I have WiFi. How ugly to break up Homer’s hexameter into a million little clicks.
We students of Classics are not unaware that, with so many technological advances, something has been lost. My classmates and I have frequently lamented our dependence on Perseus. And yet, using Perseus is a habit we cannot break. There are only so many hours in the day: if it is a question of reinforcing our Greek grammar or getting three more hours of sleep, overworked college students will inevitably choose sleep. And can you really blame us?
The die is cast, the Rubicon crossed. We cannot now return to the days before the internet. Perhaps Classics professors should ban Perseus, just as modern language professors ban Google Translate. Perhaps they should force students to complete more in-class sight translations in order to wean them from online tools. But ultimately, if we want to find the joy in reading ancient texts, the onus is on us, the students. I’m ready to do my part. By Jove, from now on, I’ll fight the yawns and pick up the lexicon.
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