What I Learned About Myself While Learning To Translate Ancient Greek

Posted November 10, 1998 by Joshua Kerievsky

This is a true story about learning an ancient language, but it is really a story about what I came to learn about myself while struggling to learn. If you have ever entertained narrow, self-critical ideas about yourself, especially in relation to learning some subject, than this is a story for you.

During my years in grade school, I often faulted myself for not learning certain subjects very well. I just thought I didn't work hard enough and that I wasn't very good at certain things.

For instance, I struggled to learn French in Middle School and later in High School. I was not very good at it. While some students got straight A's, I regularly received Cs and once, even a D. I decided that I simply wasn't good with languages, and that I really wasn't good at memorizing.

But then I went to college, where I was required to study Ancient Greek for two years. I determined to not repeat my history with French, by learning Greek really really well. It was a great idea, but it didn't work.

I studied Greek hard my Freshman year. Yet it was like running into a wall. No matter how hard I tried, I could not translate effectively. This was very frustrating because I so enjoyed reading the English translations of the Ancient Greeks. Yet it was an enormous struggle to read them in Greek. The manual I studied from had been written by some professors at my college. It was supposed to be very well integrated into the curriculum. And yet, as I know in hindsight, it was not a good manual at all!

But I didn't know that back then.

I was a freshman and I was determined to succeed. I remember studying all of the time. On the break between 1st and 2nd semester, I studied so hard - I studied every day of the break. But when I returned for the 2nd semester, I wasn't better as a translator. It was so frustrating.

I remember how the rest of that semester went. I'd get together with other students to do "group" translations. It was kind of like cheating - we'd break apart a sentence into different words and each person in the room would be responsible for looking up their word in the lexicon. It was hard, time-consuming and completely unrewarding, since we never really learned or remembered the words we were looking up.

Nevertheless, close to the end of the semester I had become quite infatuated with the poetry and philosophy of the ancient Greeks. I had come to learn how a translation could lead one astray from the original author's intent, so I had a great desire to read from the original texts. I was particularly fond of Homer. I wrote essays on Homer's works and to be sure I had a correct interpretation of Homer, I wanted to be able to easily translate his works. But that was a distant dream: I was simply not good at translating, which meant that even 5 lines of Homer could take hours to translate, with quite poor results.

So toward the end of my freshmen year I happened to spot a brochure pinned up on a wall near a school water fountain. It said:

The Latin/Greek Institute of The City University of New York, founded in 1973, is a collaborative effort of the City University Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. The Institute offers intensive, total-immersion programs in ancient languages during the summer that enable serious, highly motivated high school, undergraduate, and graduate students to cover the material normally included in several semesters of conventional work in a single summer. All programs are team-taught by experienced instructors. In addition to being intensive, the programs are unique in that they provide 24-hour availability of faculty to assist students by phone in the preparation of assignments, hourly rotation of staff to provide for exposure to a variety of approaches, and a low student-faculty ratio.


The basic programs of the Latin/Greek Institute enable students with no previous training in either language to cover the material normally included in four to six semesters of college-level Latin or Greek in ten weeks of instruction and, upon completing the program, to enroll in senior undergraduate reading courses.

The work of the Institute is extremely demanding, with the equivalent of one week's material in a normal college setting covered each day. Classes begin at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, with only a short break for lunch. Quizzes are given daily. There are substantial nightly assignments, and there are weekly examinations. The programs provide daily drills and a review for students who want extra help. Each student has a faculty advisor to work with on any difficulties the student is having. No one should enroll who has any other commitment for the summer, e.g. term papers, job, family problems, etc.

Many students of previous Institutes have found the work the most demanding of their academic careers but also the most rewarding.

Twelve undergraduate credits can be earned in either language through Brooklyn College.

When I finished reading, I knew what I had to do. As I walked away, all I could think about were those words: "most demanding of their academic careers", "24-hour availability of faculty", and "no one should enroll who has any other commitment for the summer, e.g. term papers, job, family problems, etc." I was sold.

The Institute began in early June. On the first day of class, every student from the Latin and Greek programs met in an auditorium. The instructors, sitting before us on stage, explained what the Institute was about and what lay ahead. They were quite honest: They said that half the people in the auditorium wouldn't finish the program. During the question and answer period, a women asked if she'd be able to get homework assignments "ahead of time" so that she could stay ahead. This women was politely told that she would never "get ahead." The message was that we'd have enough on our hands just to keep up.

Classes went into full swing on day two. The founder of the Institute, Dr. Floyd J. Moreland, strode into our class, introduced himself and launched into a lesson on the ancient Greek verb system. Floyd was an energetic, short, stout, bearded man, who resembled a concert conductor. Ten minutes into his lecture, he recited all six principal parts of the verb Luo, meaning to loosen or unbind:

"Luo, Lusso, Elusa, Leluka, Lelumai, Eluthain."

He asked us to repeat it with him. We stumbled through it. I sat, amazed, awed and stunned. Two semesters of Greek, and any "edge" I though I had because of them, simply evaporated. Here, just two days into the course, we weren't just being asked to learn the simple present and past tenses of a verb; no, we were being asked to learn every single tense, every conceivable way of saying the Greek verb "to loosen or unbind" -- "I was loosening", "we loosened", "she had loosened", "they were loosening", "he will loosen", "you might loosen", etc.

Many left the program after the first week. I met with one of my instructors who told me to start making index cards and carrying them around with me. I told him that index cards didn't work for me, that I'd tried using them in High School to learn French and that they didn't help. He told me to start making the index cards.

So I made the cards. And I carried them around with me everywhere. Quizzes happened daily and the days were sixteen plus hours of lectures and translations, reciting Greek, reading it, listening to it, and writing it. A few weeks into the program, the teachers began calling us "hoplights", which is the Greek word for soldiers who fight at the front of the battle lines.

As the weeks passed, more students dropped out. I struggled to keep up. My social life was non-existent. One morning, while waiting for the train to the city, I bumped into a girl I hadn't seen in years. We boarded the train for the thirty minute ride to the city. As we sat down, we began to talk about mutual friends. But after about five minutes, I told her that I couldn't continue to talk: I had a test to study for, just as I did every morning.

When classes ended at 4:00 PM, many of us would retire to a cafe to spend the late afternoon and early evening translating. Afterwards, I would ride home on the train, eat a quick dinner, and commence my evening homework. This usually consisted of another two to three hours of work, studying the latest lesson, creating new index cards, completing exercises.

Mornings went like this: shower, shave, dress, walk (or run) to the bus, study vocabulary and verbs waiting for the bus, on the bus, waiting for the train, on the train, walking to school, riding the elevator, walking to class.

I vividly remember the Fourth of July. I had been invited to go sailing on my parent's sailboat to see the fireworks. Yet as usual, I had a big Greek test to study for. So accompanying me on the boat were my index cards. They followed me everywhere.

Over time, I noticed that it was getting easier to memorize the verbs. After hearing the six principal parts of the verb Luo, it was unbelievable to consider that I would have to memorize them all. But as I continued to study more verbs, and as they continued to become permanent residents in my head, I began to notice patterns. These patterns were quite easy to identify, especially because we were constantly saying the verbs out loud.

I noticed, for instance, that the endings for the six principle parts of the verb "to learn" sounded just like the endings of the six principle parts of "to loosen." And there were many more such patterns, which made it easier to learn more and more new verbs. In hindsite, I know that the traditional approach to learning the verb would never have revealed these patterns, since traditionally, only one tense is taught at a time, with usually many weeks separating the study of each new tense.

In addition to the patterns, the Greek manual itself made learning easier. "An Intensive Course In Ancient Greek" was written by the Latin/Greek Institute's brilliant instructors. And it was a brilliant book. Every lesson was crafted to not only introduce new material (grammar, vocabulary, verbs), but to offer a continuous and thorough review. My amazement at just how good this book was, vs. how bad the manual I'd been using as college was, made me realize just how important a good book can be. It was simply remarkable to consider how big a difference there could be between a good and bad book. And to this day, I am always searching for the clearest and most intelligent treatment of a subject.

Finally, the Institute had a fabulous educational process for teaching a language - a process I have not seen or heard of since and which I know is a hidden treasure. Our instructors all had wildly different personalities and teaching styles, which we would get to experience all day long as they shuffled between translation, lecture and test sessions.

It was odd to realize, as time went by, that my memory was actually improving. I could just look at sentences and remember them without looking at my book! This led me to understand that my memory was quite capable of being good, if I actually used it.

But prior to College, I had become so discouraged about my memory and thinking that my memory wasn't good, led me to criticize the very act of memorization. I knew that real knowledge wasn't memorized, but learned, and so that made me feel better about not being good at memorization. But this was really a crutch. I know today that not only am I perfectly capable of memorization, but that there is a place for memorization in one's education.

The Greek Institute forever changed my view of myself. It was simply remarkable to me to discover that I could really do what I had become so convinced I could not do. The Greek instructors simply had all the faith in the world that I could do the program if I simply listened to them and followed their techniques. Back in my High School French classes, I never had such support.

So, after the ten hardest weeks of my life, when we had finally finished our course of study, we all partied hard. One party lasted well into the morning. And the Institute topped it all off by throwing a ceremony for the graduates of the Latin/Greek programs at Windows On The World, a very upscale dinning venue at the top of the World Trade Centers.

When I returned to college for my Sophomore year, I was quite a bit more confident about my Greek, to say the least. I found that I knew more than my Greek professor, and I would frequently correct her in class. This was quite odd, given how bad I had been at Greek the previous year. So I enjoyed my new ability, however, I also did not want others to spend a year as I had, struggling so hard and hitting so many walls.

So I did two things: I started tutoring freshman who were having difficulty leaning Greek and I began to talk with the Dean about replacing the old Greek manual with the one I had used. I explained to the Dean how much I had struggled the previous year, and how I was now way ahead of my fellow sophomores and some of my professors primarily because I learned Greek through a much more intelligent process. I made a very strong case for getting rid of, or rewriting the school's manual, which a few of the school's professors had written many years back. The Dean listened carefully to me. I was very persistent in making him fully understand my transformation. I explained just how the transformation happened and why the current manual was a stumbling-block to learning Greek. I practically demanded that something be done. And to my delight and amazement, something was done. It took another year, but by the time I was a senior, the freshman were studying from a completely new Greek manual!

The new manual was composed by a professor who was an excellent linguist and quite easily the most knowledgeable Greek scholar on campus. It was a complete rewrite that followed the approach used by the brilliant authors of "An Intensive Course In Ancient Greek." When I saw the new manual, I was thrilled and so happy that the school had listened to me and had actually come through with a solution.

I consider this event to be a turning point in my life. I had finally come to understand my true potential and I began to reject thoughts that I couldn't "do something" or that I "wasn't good at doing something." Instead, I would ask myself how hard I was trying, and if I were really trying hard to learn something, with minimal success, I would then seek to find the shortcomings of the teacher, the textbook or the learning processes itself.

For years, I described my Greek experience to friends. As I found myself repeating this story over and over, I decided to write it down. My hope is that this story will help others get beyond certain limiting ideas about themselves, many of which germinate in grade school. No inferior book or teacher should ever leave a student doubting their abilities. There is almost always a better way.