In college, I used to go to these cheese and wine parties that were supposed to be Latin practice sessions, at least until we were all drunk. The group of friends who hosted them would go around saying ‘Salve’ to everybody and handing out Solo cups full of boxed Chardonnay, and then cluster up to make stilted small talk about their Latin homework or the television series Rome, which they were all following eagerly. I got to know them because I took historical linguistics with one of them and Middle Egyptian with another. They had Latin names, which stuck long after the class where they had been assigned: the linguistics guy was Telemachus, the girl from my Egyptian class was Octavia. Bacchus and Skippioulixes were from rich Detroit families who had sent them both to the same prep school, leaving them with strange, formal manners and a shared scatological sense of humor. Of all of them, I remember Agrippina best; she only made it one semester into the Latin sequence before she decamped to take French instead, but we all kept calling her by her Latin name, and that is how I still think of her, even now.
There are three such parties that stick in my memory. The first chronologically is also the least clear, because I was eighteen and still learning to drink. I remember the first half hour or so. The three boys lived in the top half of a stuccoed, two-story duplex, in what was essentially a converted attic. No one else had shown up yet, so it was just the six of us sitting in the living room, under the low eaves, in the still and unmoving September air. The whole state was going through a second summer. My mother, in her latest email, had sent a picture of the dogs lying belly-up in the dirt with their tongues out, undone by the heat. I was homesick already. The Latin boys had pulled the kitchen table into the living room and laid it out with fancy snacks: three kinds of cheese, celery sticks and radishes with an orange dip, the gourmet-store brand of potato chips, and a plastic mixing bowl full of edamame, which I had never seen before and thought was some leathery, furred variety of snap pea.
“Salve,” Bacchus said, handing me a cup of wine. “Vinum tuum est.” He was blond and very ruddy. I had never met him before, but he grinned invitingly at me, as if we were already old friends.
“Gratia,” I said. “Amo domicilium.”
“Hey,” Bacchus said, and crinkled up his face. “You’re not in our class.”
“I’m studying on my own,” I said. “Didn’t have room in my schedule.”
“Natalie’s taking Egyptian with me,” Octavia said. Bacchus looked impressed; it made me feel both cocky and terrified, a combination of feelings I had rarely had together.
“And I’m taking Greek too,” I added, suddenly emboldened and wanting to brag.
Bacchus looked me very seriously in the eye. He frowned for a moment. “Latin, Egyptian, and Greek,” he said. “Like Cleopatra.”
“Salve, Cleopatra,” Telemachus said, and bumped his Solo cup against mine. Then everybody else did too, and that was how I got my Latin name. They called me that all night, as more people showed up and we all got drunker and drunker, and then it stuck. I remember sitting on the arm of a couch next to Agrippina, who was wedged into the corner, and leaning half over her while I explained the Egyptian dual noun to the top of her head. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. Her thick curly hair smelled like strawberry shampoo, and her face was always a little sad, even when she smiled, with a trembling at the corners of her mouth and eyes that seemed to predict oncoming tears. When she got up to pee, I followed her to the bathroom without really meaning to, just as if she had me on a string.
“Excuse me,” Agrippina said, and shut the door behind her.
“Oh,” I said. “Cool.” I was too drunk to be really embarrassed. I wandered over into the kitchen to wait for her. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the floor around the trash can was sticky under my shoes. In the fridge, there was just Vitamin Water, bottom-shelf vodka, and a dried out, half-unwrapped Jimmy John’s sandwich. Agrippina was gone a long time, and by the time she came back, we had all moved on to shots; the rest of the night is a blur.
For a while afterward, I felt shamefaced and awkward around Agrippina, who turned out to be very smart and not sad at all, just afflicted with occasional migraine headaches. That was what gave her the look of overwhelmed emotionality that had so intrigued me. I learned to spot them coming on by the watery look in her eyes, and the way she reached up under her hair and pinched a certain nerve at the base of her skull, sometimes grunting softly as she did so, and biting her lip. I still found it appealing, though I knew it meant she was in pain, or perhaps because of that: it was as if I could see right into her head, where she struggled and raged against some interior enemy, invisible to the outside world.
These days, my Latin and Greek are pretty rusty. When I’m called on to use them, which isn’t often, I lean heavily on my reference texts and the input of my colleagues in Ptolemaic studies. My own expertise is in court literature of the New Kingdom, much of which has not yet been translated, or only translated into German, and then, badly. With my current project, The Lamentations of Ptahmose, I am blazing a trail by necessity; no other scholar has taken on this challenge in any language. The text is extant in only one copy, badly decayed and full of missing words and lacunae, so that whole stanzas of the story are indecipherable or easily misunderstood. I saw the single surviving manuscript once, in the papyrology collection of the Brooklyn Museum. They kept it sandwiched in glass to show the writing on both sides of the scroll. That close, you can see feathering at the tips of the brushstrokes, and the places where the scribe dipped his pen too long and left a splotch of ink. The final passages are pieced together, some of the fragments so small they contain only a single character—‘I,’ or ‘sh—,’ or ‘[bird].’ You can see right through the empty spaces, a beige wall in one direction, another scroll on display in the other. I stayed for a long time, taking it in.
The text is unexpectedly political, though its protests are often couched in metaphor. In the early stanzas, the scribe expresses his unhappiness at the chaos infesting the country, his concern for the sanctity of the royal office, and a number of subtle, implicit criticisms of the sitting pharaoh. He speaks with an affected, hyperbolic sense of scale—or at least it seems so to the modern reader—“your humble servant cannot sleep,” he says, “any more than the fisherman finds rest when the tides are out of sync,” as if his own body and the rhythms of the political state are inextricably bound up. I have always felt that one’s whole heart and being must bear on translation as on the composition of a new work. You have to feel as the scribe felt so that your words become a mirror of his. And so, the longer I work on The Lamentations, the more I feel my own world out of whack, mis-ruled, disharmonious.
On the day I saw Agrippina again, I was making a fourth pass through the Fisherman section, in which the narrator compares justice to a fish, the pharaoh to a noble fisherman, and Egypt itself to the Nile, feeding always into the afterlife—demonstrating, of course, that a king’s good intentions are worth nothing if his actions are not in harmony with the larger rhythms of life and statehood. I had found it one of the most difficult passages in the book, since the full revelation of its meaning—a powerful bit of dramatic irony—hinges on the realization that the metaphorical pharaoh is traveling up- rather than down-stream.
Over the years, I had tried a few different solutions to the Fisherman problem. In my last round of edits, I had begun to render the names of the wharfs between which the fisherman travels simply as South Wharf and North Wharf, trusting the reader to remember that the Nile empties north into the Mediterranean Sea. I was happy with this for the most part. But a translation is a living animal, and there is always room for improvement.
“Just as the fisherman rose to take the sails in hand,” I read, “there came a mighty wind”—and here I corrected ‘came’ to ‘was,’ and ‘mighty’ to ‘great,’ finding my previous reading too Biblical in tone. I skipped ahead. “The South Wharf was ten times as far as the length of a fishing-boat”—I saw at once the opportunity to say simply ‘ten ship-lengths’ and save considerable trouble and confusion. It was that kind of thing all morning, like whittling a block of wood into a shape. By the time I stood up for a break at one-thirty I was finished with the Fisherman and had moved on to the following passage. My ass was numb on one side and my neck twinged.
“It’s alive,” my officemate said.
“Oh,” I said. “Hi, Ashley.”
“Did you eat yet?” she asked. She was laughing at me, I could tell.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I was still clearing the fog from my head. I know what the other graduate students in my department think of me. Talented, perhaps, but impractical; a Don Quixote tilting at windmills; slow to publish, too awkward to impress at conferences, constitutionally unsuited for fieldwork and without the people skills needed to teach effectively. And yet, I believe I’m where I need to be, or at least, I can’t imagine abandoning The Lamentations.
“Lunch?” Ashley said. She was already standing up, twisting her hair back and clipping it. I closed my laptop. Through the office window, the roof of the building next door was dusted with dry snow, shifting around in the wind.
“Sure,” I said. We put on our coats and hats and walked to the strip of restaurants on the edge of the quad. The wind was bitter. It was real February-in-the-Midwest kind of weather. Ashley and I wedged ourselves through the front door of a sandwich place and into the counter line, chatting idly about the chili, whether a cup was big enough or should we get bowls. Over by the window there was a table of conference attendees with big orange badges around their necks, packing up their laptop bags and shrugging on their coats. I saw her hair before I knew it was her. She was unfolding a knit scarf, turning to laugh with a fiftyish woman in a purple sweater.
“Who’s that?” Ashley said.
“Hang on,” I said. I got out of the line and walked toward her, drawn forward by the tips of my fingers. I touched her elbow lightly. The woman in the purple sweater raised her eyebrows at me, and Agrippina turned, surprised, and looked me in the face. She had an expression I had never seen before.
“Salve, Agrippina,” I said.
“Jesus, Natalie,” she said. “Hey.”
I wasn’t sure what to say next. She had a little silver ring in her nose, which was new.
“What are you doing here?” she asked me.
“I’m a grad student,” I said. “There,” and I pointed across the quad to the Languages building where my department’s offices were.
Her face softened. “Good,” she said.
“Yeah, well,” I said. “Uh, the program is a better fit.”
“That’s great,” she said. There were freckles, new ones, across her collarbones and the top of her chest.
“Did you see,” she said, “that Bacchus got—”
“Yeah,” I said, “married to that Norwegian girl?”
“And moved there,” she said. “I’m sure he fits right in.” She smiled. Her front two teeth on the bottom had grown a little crooked, overlapping each other. I picked up her hand and held it between both of mine. It was soft and tacky with sweat; I felt its drag across my palm scream straight to my brain.
“Is she talking to you?” Agrippina asked.
“What?” I said. Behind me, Ashley was at the counter, waving me over.
“I think you have to go,” Agrippina said.
“No,” I said. She took her hand back and fussed with her badge, untwisting the cord and flipping it around.
“I’ll see you,” she said. “I’m in Philly now, but I’m moving to Columbus in the summer, probably. If your number’s the same, I’ll let you know.”
“It is,” I said.
“Cool,” she said. “Go, order.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. Ashley was stalling the guy at the counter until I could get over there. I ordered a bowl of chili and a half-sandwich; I was suddenly hungry.
“Hey,” Agrippina said, calling back to me on her way out