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ἅπαξ λεγόμενον



Sarah Ruden’s introduction to her new translation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass mentions the hapax legomenon, the thing said only once. Oh, would that I could claim as much for telling the Agincourt story, which, if anything can be said of it, is repetitive.

Translators of literature are the most admirable of writers: their indelible imprint is in the translated text, yet they themselves do not stand between author and audience. “Catalyst” is the wrong word, because the chemical reaction it sets in motion leaves the catalyst intact; it changes but is unchanged. Surely, for translators this can not be true — though as a monolinguist how would I know.

Ruden’s introduction reminds us that language has its quirks — idiom, figures of speech, dozens of them — and of the difficulty maintaining that quirkiness through translation. My first conscious encounter with the translator’s art was Andrew Bromfield’s masterful conversion of the novels of Georgian author Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili (a.k.a., Boris Akunin), where Bromfield somehow manages to retain the vernacular of a Japanese accent heard by a fictional Russian ear, then written by a Georgian author and rendered into English. Might I prefer a meeting with Bromfield over one with Akunin? Probably.

The hapax legomenon, the thing said only once, is infrequent in my experience. A case decades ago became the wound that never healed until, that is, words like acid reflux issued from my mouth — a thing said only once — that ended our “möbius friendship,” the kind that have just one side. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, for that was a moment of difference between theatre and drama; the act and the actual have rarely been more clear.

Teaching (that thing I do for money) is hardly hapax-atory. Each academic season for fifty years in the metaphoric saddle of acadême, however, I know that each class is unique; each class meeting will be like none other because both they and I are not who we were on Tuesday last. Did the Greeks have a phrase for the thing said often but never quite the same?

In the final tally, I will have said few things only once: “Will you marry me?” and “I do.” “You can put this job some place dark and moist!” or “I quit.”  And, of course, those few words that will be said as my eyes close for the last time. What do you suppose they’ll be?

“It was a long time coming. But I’m glad that it’s finally here.” I’ll be beyond saying that again.

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