BMCR 2005.08.07

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Translated into Ancient Greek by Andrew Wilson

, Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. 332 pages ; 18 cm. ISBN 0747574472. $21.95.

1 Responses

The book under review is surely one of the most important pieces of Ancient Greek prose written in many centuries. It will be a delight to all Classicists, a boon to all teachers of Greek, and a possession for all time.

It is, of course, Andrew Wilson’s translation, into Ancient Greek, of J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book. It is also, in this reader’s opinion, a complete success. On nearly every page there is some felicity of composition to be admired, some construction that shows off the Greek language’s power and versatility, some turn of phrase that arouses admiration for the translator. In its entirety, it is an extraordinary work — a prose comp. exercise on an unprecedented scale. But unlike most prose comp exercises, it is also a wonderfully good read.

It will also be of great value to teachers of mid-level Greek who are casting about for texts with which to encourage and entertain their students. After the Xenophontic parasangs have lost their charm and the Euripidean trimeters are limping, students can refresh themselves with a bout of “ikarosphairik” (Wilson’s spot-on neologism for quidditch), or enjoy the bantering of Fred and George. I don’t suppose courses will be designed around it, but this book will certainly be a valuable auxiliary.

As for the worth of Rowling’s opus, considered on its own merits, I have little to add to the reception it has met thus far. Her characters, themes, and incidents are all borrowed from a well-established tradition; she has created a successful pastiche which has caught the public mood, and has herself been turned into a cultural phenomenon and media event out of all proportion to her genius — in other words, there is no slander that can be leveled at her, which does not equally apply to Virgil. You who would defend the Mantuan, beware of denigrating the skills of a successful popularizer.

Those who prefer Homer can find Rowling’s antecedents in Lewis, LeGuin, and Nesbitt (who first taught the world how to use children’s easy acceptance of the abnormal as a device for making magic matter-of-fact).1 They will note that the theme of the disguised prince — the child of apparently humble origins who is finally recognized as a true and leading member of a higher race — traces a long ancestry through Luke Skywalker, Kipling’s Kim and the young Wat of Arthurian legend. Folklore specialists will be able to cite the Aarne-Thompson number for it, but as an ancient philosopher I find its pattern in that romantic figure in Plato’s Republic (415c), the child of bronze parents who turns out to have a golden soul. The golden child is rescued from a household of brutish producers and enrolled in a special curriculum that will develop his rare and precious powers and abilities so that he will know vastly more than the common herd, confront the true natures of good and evil that are beyond the vulgar comprehension, and in time come to be a savior of the city and its happiness. Socrates sketches the story briefly and in the third person, but a dramatic first-person narrative would contain many of the same emotional elements that animate the story of Harry’s rescue from the house where he does not belong and his elevation to his true home at Hogwarts. From such distant antecedents Rowling has drawn the elements of her story — derivative, if you dislike it, tried and true, if you do, Virgilian in either case.

But Rowling is more like Homer than Virgil in one important aspect. All of her books, setting aside the inadequately-edited fifth book, have the quality that Arnold noted in his essay on translating Homer: they are rapid, plain, and direct in expression. Unlike the Latin verse of the “wielder of the moldiest measure ever stated by the lips of man”, Rowling’s prose is never stilted, never cluttered up with purple patches; it never gets in the way of the story she sets out to tell. When she is writing at her best — as in the first book, and now again in the slimmed-down sixth — she is a monster of celerity.

Does Wilson preserve this feature of Rowling’s English? I think he does, in the main. His Greek is generally clear, not highly flavored, and not excessively periodic. He has said that he adopted Lucian as his model for Greek prose, but what this seems to mean in practice is an intelligent and high-minded fourth-century syntactical armature, combined with a libertine and unfussy embrace of vocabulary from every era and idiom. The lexical promiscuity was largely forced on him by the vast number of things he needs to talk about — parking meters, golf, trains, and Golden Snitches among others. He sometimes uses circumlocutions, but more often uses post-Classical Greek, or transliterates, or simply invents (e.g. “not even dressed in Muggle clothes” becomes ” ἀλλὰ καὶ φοροῦντες ἱμάτια πάνυ ἀμύγαλα“).

I will not provide further details of Wilson’s ingenious translations of the characters’ names, and his inventive coinages of ancient terms for modern appurtenances, because the reader can more easily learn about them by consulting Wilson’s own discussions, posted on the web. There Wilson has also begun to provide some commentary on his translation, as well as some Greek-to-English vocabulary aids. (It is to be hoped that these aids to teaching will be completed in the fullness of time).

I have found only a few errors, most of them inconsequential,2 and a few points at which I might venture diffident disagreement with the Greek.

Ollivander the wand-maker, on first seeing Harry’s scar, says “I’m sorry to say I sold the wand that did it”. Wilson renders this as ” τοῦτ’ ἀρ’ ἐστὶ τὸ τραῦμα τὸ πρὸς ῤάβδου ἐπιβληθὲν ἥνπερ αὐτὸς ἄκων ἀπεδόμην ποτέ.” That last Greek clause claims that, at the time of sale, Olivander found himself reluctant to sell the wand to the young Tom Riddle ( ἄκων has to be contemporaneous with ἀπεδόμην). But nothing in the English tells us about his feelings back then; rather, he is describing his own current reluctance to talk about the role that he inadvertently played.

At the end of their shopping trip in Diagon Alley, Hagrid tells Harry “Got time fer a bite to eat before yer train leaves.” This Wilson renders as ” καιρός ἐστιν ἡμῖν ἐμβροματίσαι τι πρὶν εἰς τρένο ἀναβῆναι σέ.” This use of “kairos” is not strictly incorrect, but the English would have been better rendered with, e.g. skholê. Kairos is punctual and mandatory, indicating the instant when you must act. There will be no other time, or at least no better time, and the kairos is passing while we speak. Skhol is durative and permissive; it indicates a more or less broad expanse of time, anywhere within which one may act, or not act, with equal ease. Had Hagrid said “Now’s the time when we should eat”, kairos would have been just right; for “got time”, with its implication of options and possibilities, kairos does not strike me as dead on. Not incorrect, mind you; but if a student wanted to get the flavor of “kairos”, this is not the passage to which I would point them.

That I have only two quibbles, and quibbles of such a small order, will tell you that Wilson is nearly always dead on. He has a wonderful ear for idiom, both in English and in Greek, and reading through his book will teach any student of prose composition an immense amount about the fine points of Attic composition. That he was able to produce such quantities of such beautiful, readable, enjoyable, ancient Greek prose is truly astounding.

There are many passages that brought a smile to me in reading; I list a few.

“It was really lucky that Harry now had Hermione as a friend,” from the “Quidditch” chapter, becomes ” καὶ ἕρμαιον δὴ ἦν τῷ Ἁρείῳ τὸ Ἑρμιόνην νῦν ἔχειν φίλην” (p. 147) — lovely and idiomatic use of “hermaion”, lovely pun on Hermione’s name, lovely “d”.

Here is Professor Quirrel’s first entrance in the Leaky Cauldron, sham stammer and all: “P-P-Potter,” stammered Professor Quirrel, grasping Harry’s hand, “c-can’t t-tell you how p-pleased I am to see you.”

And here is Wilson’s rendition:

ὁ δὲ Κίουρος Ὦ Ποποποτέρ, ἔφη. τούτου γὰρ ἂν ἤκουσας πάνυ βαττολογοῦντος ταὐτὰ στοιχεῖα δὶς ἢ τρὶς φθεγγομένου ὅποτε λόγου τινὸς ἄρχοιτο. λαμβάνων δ’ οὖν τῆς Ἁρείου χειρός Ὦ Ποποποτέρ, ἔφη, οὐ οὐ δεδίδαχά σε ὅσον γε γέγηθα δεδορκώς, ὡς ἤδη ἔδει δηλαδὴ δεδυνῆσθαι.

Amazing. This is perhaps Wilson’s showiest piece of polyglot pyrotechnics; he usually keeps himself more discreetly in the background. But there are many similar delights to be discovered throughout the book.

It is also worth keeping in mind that this volume is a double triumph for the Classical profession: Wilson and Rowling are both products of the English insistence on the importance of Classical teaching. Rowling herself studied Latin and uses it liberally in formulating the wizards’ spells; it is charming to hear the heavy Latin syllables once again invested with weight and power and pleasing to think that a generation of children may hear something magical in them. We may take some small amount of pride in Rowling, and we certainly owe her a debt of gratitude.

I very much hope that Wilson will produce further translations into Ancient Greek, whether of successive Potter volumes, or of other contemporary works. There should be a market for such works, especially when the original is capable of enticing students and when the translation is so brilliantly achieved.

[[For an addendum to this review by Tad Brennan, please see BMCR 2005.08.29.]]


1. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the other “Narnia” stories. Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, and the other Earthsea stories. E. Nesbit, Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, and several other fantasy tales. My daughter Alexandra tells me that she found extensive parallels to the Potter stories in Jane Yolen’s 1991 book “Wizard’s Hall”, though the date makes direct influence less likely.

2. On page 11, he gives to Dumbledore the line “Shhh! You’ll wake the Muggles!” which my English edition gives to McGonagall. On page 67, the length of Voldemort’s wand is thirteen and a half inches in the English, which gives ” ἐννεακαίδεκα δακτύλων” in Greek. On p. 69, Voldemort’s wand is again said to be thirteen and a half inches, but now this becomes ” ὀκτωκαίδεκα καὶ ἡμίσους δακτύλων” — a mere conversion error, I suppose. On p. 229 when the White Queen steps forward and strikes Ron, the printers have allowed a curious double-sigma to creep into the line in place of a definite article. In fact on the whole the proof-reading was exceptionally good; this piece of popular fiction had, so far as I can see, fewer mistakes in the Greek than some editions of classical texts one sees reviewed in this journal.