A Classical Education

In the 1950s, I sat by the River Jordan, the creek meandering through the Indiana University campus, and translated. I was a DP, a displaced person, as those of us who could not go home after World War II were called, and so I might have been expected to translate between German, Russian, English, Japanese, and Latvian, my native language. But I had fallen in love with Latin because of its predictability and sonorous rhythms.I already knew enough Latin to name muscles and bones in medical school, but I had learned through bitter experience that women were not welcome there. I had chosen Classics as my undergraduate minor anyway, for the sheer joy of it, and I adored most of the literary passages we studied. In high school, I had had to read about Caesar’s soldiers constructing bridges, but now I could love as passionately as Catullus and mourn leaving my homeland along with Virgil’s Aeneas. When memories of Russian soldiers raping women and girls near Berlin flashed into my mind, I imagined them turning themselves into trees and birds, as women did when overpowered by gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I could translate as well as any graduate student in Professor Swanson’s seminar passages about Aeneas’ sacred duty to continue his paternal line, although that project did not interest me. But would Aeneas survive exile after his beloved Troy had been reduced to ashes? Would he go home again to his war devastated country, as I hoped I would to mine? I translated with the same breathless curiosity with which I had followed Scarlet O’Hara’s return to Tara, when I taught myself English at age twelve by translating Gone with the Wind.

Latin and a smattering of Greek were still considered to be essential for educated gentlemen, so Mr. Swanson’s seminar table was crowded. He began in the usual way. He examined his pipe, dug around in the bowl with a cleaner, packed in tobacco, tapped, sucked, lighted, and sucked again. He sighed, rapped the pipe against a wastebasket, and started the process for the second time.

~Agate Nesaule