Book review: A strange odyssey

Last weekend I was alerted to this book, A Strange Odyssey: Confessions of a Classicist, by Carlos Martínez Aguirre, translated to English by Elaine Riedel and Francisco Javier González Estepa; (Thanks to David Miller for pointing it out to me.)

This book resonated so much that I read it in a day.

The author takes us through an autobiographical trip focused on their experience of learning Latin (and Greek). Beginning with their school education, and first introduction to Latin, all through a supremely grammar-translation methodology.

[…] given the methods for teaching Latin at the time, not even the brightest or most hard-working students were able to learn Latin. We learnt other things such as declinations, conjugations, syntax, and morphology, but nothing related to what one usually considers part of learning a language.

This continued throughout high school, and into university. How many of us know that too well? endless grammar, morphology, translating painstaking with a dictionary, and then learning set texts well enough to ‘translate’ them without a dictionary. That, for so many of us, describes perfectly our university classics experience. This does, seem, a path to eventually being a reader of classical languages, but it’s the work of 20 years, not 4:

I remember once when I was starting to get a sense of where things were headed that I asked one of the Greek teachers with whom I had a good relationship; “When will I be able to read Greek fluently?” To which she condescendingly replied, as if to a child who does not know he has asked an impertinent question, “Uff! You will reach that after teaching for many years!”

The author relates that after university they went to Greece, where they worked teaching Spanish, and learning modern Greek at the same time. The combination of those (teaching Spanish in Spanish, of course; and learning a Greek that is a living language) acted as an epiphany, especially when they took their active learning of modern Greek, and applied it to ancient Greek. Here they describe buying a “bilingual” edition of Plato (ancient Greek with facing modern Greek):

[…] for the first time in my life, this appeared to me to be an actual text rather than a series of codes which I could only decipher with the help of a dictionary. The truth is that I still was not able to read Plato directly in the original but my level of comprehension of the text at first glance had improved in a spectacular manner and this in a year when I had studied absolutely no Classical Greek!

Going on, further scales fall from his eyes when being taught a history of language teaching, and he begins to wonder:

What is more, if instead of spending eight years of my life going around in circles with the spy games that grammar and translation consisted of, my teachers had focussed on speaking to me in simple Latin and Greek from the first day and had made me speak in these same languages, just as I did with the students of my Spanish classes, I would probably not only be able to express myself without difficulty and hesitation in the language of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but also be able to read with ease all types of texts, with a similar difficulty as someone who reads literature that is not their mother tongue.

The author returns to Spain and eventually takes up teaching. They go on to speak of their discovery of Ørberg, of the Vivarium Novum, and of latin-speaking circles in Madrid. All these feel so familiar to me, as echoes of my own experiences.

I commend this book to you all, as both an entertaining read, but as affirming in the life of another so much of what I continually say about Latin, Greek, and language learning. The book is available here:  or you can follow this link directly to Amazon and buy it on kindle very cheaply.

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