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As a publisher, I have become passionate about getting the classics into full use, not only among a general readership, but at the High School and University levels of education as well. At the High School level, particularly, lies an opportunity not likely to be repeated in the lives of most young adults, as once they enter the college or university level of study, direction and demand by the teacher lessens to a marked degree. The mind and inquisitiveness of the teenage years is, in many ways, at its peak of energy in balking the status quo and asking why or why not, demanding answers, not only of their parents and educators, but of history as well, and forging bold new ideas for brighter, more sustainable answers to the same, timeless questions. When we lose this precious window of opportunity, I fear it cannot easily be retrieved.
In order for a work to be read, however, it must appeal to the reader. What good is a book which sits on the shelf except as a paper weight? This begs the question of what makes a work which will be read by the modern reader. For readability, we look for work which is true to the original but devoid of unnecessary archaic words in translation. After all, translations done 500 years ago were modern by those standards. There is no reason to pretend that Old English is still in use today when it is not. A work is not "more true to the original" because it is difficult or because it was translated in a language no longer in use. A work in translation should be both true to the original and readable by current standards. As the English language does change and develop over time, one can hardly expect that current English will be current 500 years from now. It will be Neo-Middle English or something of the sort and not at all the definitive example of a "correct" or 'true" work in translation.
Beyond the problem of outmoded vocabulary resulting in literacy issues, it becomes necessary to discover and address other reasons the teaching of classics has been on such a steep decline in recent years. In our interaction with high school educators, it has become clear that the question is one of relevance. If a student does not see a book as relevant to his life, then he or she is not likely to have an interest in reading it. So the question really becomes, "Why Classics?" or "Why Not Classics?" And this question is one we must continually make relevant, not only to the student but more importantly, one which we must help the educator understand for him or herself, so that he or she can make the text or story relevant to the student. The general notion that, he who does not read, knows only his own generation would tend to apply here, and what a severe loss of vision and beauty that bespeaks. But was there more to know about this?
In a recent exchange with Asheville High School's Humanities Chair, a private high school in Asheville NC, we discussed the issue of ‘Why Classics.’ In his words, Classics answer, among other things, the question of what it means to be human. And while society has changed, the answer to this question hasn't really changed much in 3,000 years. To wrestle with this question, one has to have studied the history of the human race, not in a fact filled historical timeline sort of way, but in a meaningful humanistic way. The philosophic subjects brought home to the student in the classics are vital to an understanding of life and humanity and therefore of our future. Why re-invent the wheel by ignoring what has gone before, what has been hashed out by the poets, writers and warriors of the past? If one wants to really understand Democracy, let's look to Plato and the republic as well as to the evolution of democracy in the modern sphere. Knowing where we've been, and how we came to where we are, is a vital component in creating leaders and thinkers for the new world and a better future.
Another High School English teacher, Mary Delie of Southwest High School in Green Bay, WI, who is herself a strong believer that classic literature is of value in the English curriculum due to their ability to help students discover “ the universality of the human condition.”
‘Why Classics’, remains, then, the fundamental question to understand when it comes to teaching the classics and causing them to not become lost in our modern world of teaching. Certainly, teachers are faced with a multitude of challenges to this and choices as to which texts to have their students read in the limited time they have to parcel. Modern fiction titles have their value, but to ignore completely the lives and times of generations past, in truth, our own ancestors, I think we impoverish ourselves and our students.
There is much to deliver, then, beyond a more digestible translation. It is my belief that the best help we can be to educators in this endeavor, and which educators can be to other educators, is something which is inherent in the philosophy of teaching at its most basic level - the imparting of what one has learned to others. Educators can become so focuses on transferring knowledge to their students that they neglect this transference to ideas to their peers. There is much an educator can do to help other teachers and educators grapple with the questions of how to make classics relevant to students through the use of on-line forums or discussion boards where educators can share their ideas and successes one with another. In addition to providing texts the modern reader will understand, this is what we constantly find as the most requested, most needed help we can offer our educators. To that end, we will be setting up an online forum to facilitate this transfer of knowledge on a peer to peer level.
Man has lived long. Much has been learned. It is necessary to convey this knowledge as that is the point of education. But knowledge is not a dry thing, it is a living thing, born of the tears and joys and fortitude of real living beings who have and continue to people the earth. There is sometimes tragedy in living, but the greatest tragedy of all would be the tossing aside of the journeys already taken, the trials already won, and these can only be lost because we cease to tell the story.
When I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey some years ago, painstakingly and with several on-line dictionaries and encyclopedias to hand, I wasn't aware of the existence of Ian Johnston's translation, the translations we now publish. The books I read were, needless to say, a difficult first read, but the beauty and passion in the stories were nevertheless compelling. I realized that the trouble with reading these books was that most of the translations were done in an English no longer in common use, and yet, I was certain that many people, like myself, wanted to read them and yet were intimidated by an outmoded vocabulary/terminology. I decided then and there that a newer, more modern poetic translation had to be found and made available to the general public so that anyone who has ever thought of reading these books would have an opportunity to take in the spell-binding beauty of Homer's words.
I had engaged in some reading of classic materials over the years and had the intention to one day read the Great Books from the list of reading material at St. John's College in Annapolis and NM. One day, when I saw the list in a newspaper or journal, I cut it out and posted it on my refrigerator door as a reminder that I was going to get to them one day. Certainly, life has a way of creating other priorities and that was part of the reason for my delay in starting through the list, however, I have to admit that most of the delay was a result of my own back-off on attempting such a feat. Without particular backing in the classics, it seemed a daunting task.
Life, however, created an opportunity for me several years ago to begin this odyssey, as it were, and so, armed with four or five on-line dictionaries and encyclopedias, I began reading the Iliad. It took me quite some time to get through this first text, but page by page was spellbound, not only by this epic tale of loyalty, heroism and the sense of holding to something greater than oneself, but as well the simple beauty of some of the passages. I found the impassioned plea by Andromache, wife of Hector, to forego the battle for the sake of his son and her love for him, to be every bit as beautiful as any Shakespeare I had ever read. At the conclusion of this book, I lost no time in picking up the Odyssey and reading it cover to cover. Reading became easier as each page turned, and by the time I was mid-way through the Odyssey I was fairly breezing through it. As I closed the book on the last page of the Odyssey, I knew at once why and how these amazing stories had survived through the centuries and wished that everyone would have an opportunity to read them. I first thought, I shall have to learn ancient Greek and make a more modern translation but then decided that before going that route I should look and see if anyone had yet already done that. And so, a search began and our publications of Ian Johnston's translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are the result of that search. It is my hope that these translations provide everyone who has ever wanted to read these books with the opportunity to do so.