My Secret Classical Vice; the Whitbread Award Winner Explains Why He Spends His Leisure Time Translating the Ancient Odes of Horace

Article excerpt

Byline: MARK HADDON

THE whole thing began with a sense of inferiority. Most of my friends could speak two, three, sometimes four languages. French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Bengali. I could buy a baguette and ask directions to the swimming lake at Lougratte and that was about it. Of course, they had cheated by growing up in Calcutta or by having Hungarian fathers, whereas I had grown up five miles from the village of East Haddon and was doubtless the product of so many generations of inbreeding that I was lucky to be able to tie my own shoelaces, let alone speak a foreign language.

I chose Latin and Greek partly because they were dead languages. You never have to make a fool of yourself buying a pot of olive relish or asking directions to the baths at Verulamium. Nobody knows precisely how you should pronounce "Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris Italiam fato profugus". (Personally, I think it sounds best if you banish all thoughts of dessicated prep-school masters and imagine that you are leaning on your Vespa with a cigarette in one hand and an espresso in the other.) People may disagree with how you translate this or that word and the argument can trundle on happily for ever - all the real experts are dead.

I chose Latin and Greek partly because my workrooms had always been decorated with the neat, black spines of Penguin Classics. I had read Sophocles, Hesiod, Plautus. But I had never really read them.

If you're a plot junkie it doesn't greatly matter - but it's the language I love.

Coleridge described poetry as the best words in the best order. That's what I'm looking for. There are great translations of great literature (recent favourites of mine are War Music and All Day Permanent Red, Christopher Logue's reworking of sections of Homer's Iliad). A translation, though, is always different words in a different order.

So, in 1995, I applied to take an A-level in ancient Greek. I read the syllabus, bought the texts, and drew up a plan for the year.

I now know the secret of learning.

You have to want to do it. Looking back, it was suddenly obvious that I could have done all my schoolwork using half the energy I had expended avoiding it and dealing with the consequences of having avoided it.

I had studied Greek at school but remembered nothing (not even the alphabet). At long last, 20 years later, I wanted to learn. I pored over my Athenaze ("He is a good boy and guards the flocks well, but he does not always speak the truth"), my Liddell and Scott, my Euripides and my Homer. I sat the exam surrounded by teenage girls at Lady Eleanor Holles School, where my sister-in-law teaches classics, and got my A grade (if you are a professional writer you should be able to do essay technique at the very least). …