Friday, April 26, 2013

Written On The Skin

One of the peculiar things about teaching Greek and knowing several other ancient languages is that people often come to me seeking help with tattoos.

A few years ago a student named Brian came to me and asked "How do you say 'Suck Less' in Greek?"  Apparently this was a phrase that his running coach said to his team to inspire them to run better.

As crude as the phrase is, I was intrigued by the problem of translation.  "In order to translate the phrase I'd have to know what you mean by it," I replied. I spent a little while explaining how it would be possible to say, for instance, that an infant should nurse less; or that one should inhale less strongly.  Or, if you pursue the more colloquial usage of the verb "suck," you might decide that it refers to poor behavior or - ahem - to a kind of erotic pleasure-giving in which the giver is thought to be demeaned by the giving.

Eventually I made the case that if you want to say it in Classical Greek, it would make sense to say it in a way that attended to the use of words in that language, and pointed him to Plutarch's Sayings of Spartan Women as a source of pithy sayings about living and acting strenuously.  Ever since I took my first Greek class with Eve Adler at Middlebury College years ago, I've liked the phrase η ταν η επι τας, (at the link above, see #16 under "Other Spartan Women"; click on the Greek flag to see the full Greek text) which is often translated "Come back with your shield or upon it," meaning "Act virtuously in battle; either die with your weapons or win with your weapons, but do not throw them away in order to win your life at the expense of your virtue."  I like the Greek phrase for its Laconian pithiness.

Of course, that one didn't quite make sense for a runner, so I showed him another from the same collection, κατα βημα της αρετης μεμνησο, or "With every step, remember [your] virtue."  ("Virtue" is not a perfect translation; you could translate it as "excellence" also.)

Three years have passed since that conversation with Brian, but a few months ago he tracked me down and showed me his tattoo, which I rather like:

In a new twist, last year another student asked me to help him find the Greek verb "give thanks" as it appears in I Thessalonians 5.18.  He didn't tell me what he planned to do with it, but when I saw him later that year at a wedding he showed me this, which he has tattooed on his wrist:

The word you see is ευχαριστειτε, related to our word "Eucharist" and the modern Greek ευχαριστω, meaning "I thank you."

I say this is a "new twist" because at least one passage in the Hebrew scriptures (Leviticus 19.28) appears to prohibit tattooing one's skin. Getting a tattoo, and in particular getting a tattoo of scripture, offers a bit of insight into one's hermeneutics.  If the Gospels prohibited tattoos, I doubt many Christians would get them, but since the prohibition comes in the Hebrew scriptures, and since it seems to be tied to particular practices of worship or enslavement that no longer seem relevant, many young Christians are untroubled by it.

Recently one of my advisees showed me one of several tattoos she has recently acquired.  This one is a longer Biblical text, from the prophet Micah, chapter 6, verse 8.  I thought it interesting that she chose to get the Septuagint Greek rather than the Hebrew.  She knows and translates Biblical (Koine) Greek and so I suppose she felt closer to that language.  The text below means " do justice and to love mercy and to be ready/zealous to walk humbly with the Lord your God."

I like that verse quite a lot.  If you don't know it, it begins by saying that this is what God asks of people.  It's the sort of description that makes religion sound less like a burden and more like a description of a life well-lived.

I'm always reluctant to give advice about tattoos, because they're so permanent and so personal.  And when I do give advice, I always want to write footnotes about regional dialects and historical and textual variants, or about the difficulties of translation.  Quotes out of their native context so often seem lonely to me - such is my academic habit, of always seeing texts as living and moving and having their being* in nests and webs of other texts.  Perhaps that's why I've never been inked myself, and I doubt I ever will get a "tat."  I'm just not confident I've found words or an image that I'd want written on me forever.  Sometimes that feels virtuous because it's prudent; other times I wonder if that's not a moral failing on my part, like I should be willing to commit to something.  But I think for now I will remain uninked, and will continue to admire the commitments of my students.


* For example: I am borrowing this phrase ("live and move and have their being") from St Paul in Acts 17.28; he, in turn, appears to be borrowing it from Epimenides, who writes Εν αυτω γαρ ζωμεν και κινουμεθα και εσμεν.  The phrase winds up being used in a number of other places, having been so eloquently translated into English by the King James Version of the Bible.  See, for example, its use in the Book of Common Prayer, and in the first line of the hymn "We Come O Christ To Thee."


Update: a week or so after posting this I ran into the mother of one of the people whose tattoos are shown above.  She thanked me, though I am not sure whether she was thanking me for helping her son get a tattoo, or for helping him to get the grammar right. 


  1. Hi I don't know if you will ever read this but is there any chance you could help translate "be still" in Greek for me? I've done some extensive research but I just want to make sure it is correct! Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi, Jane. Like I said above, I am reluctant to do translations for tattoos, but if you're looking for the phrase "be still" that occurs in Psalm 46.10, you might look at the way it was translated into Greek in the Septuagint. Here's a link: If you scroll down to verse 10, the first word of that verse is one way to translate "be still." Or, more accurately, that is the translation of the Hebrew phrase into Greek, that we translate into English as "be still." The verb, scholazo, means "to be at rest," or "to have leisure." It is related to our word "school," interestingly enough, since school is what you do when you have leisure, when you don't have to work every day in order to survive. It is worth pointing out that the verb as it appears in Psalm 46.10, is *plural*, as in "Y'all be still." It is addressed to more than one person. I hope that helps!

  2. Wow thank you for your quick response! I was wondering if there was perhaps a singular form of it? I'm guessing not since you didn't tell me but just making sure! Also, I had help from a friend (who is here in Greece with me and she is also Greek) but she gave me the same translation except no accent breath mark over the a. Is there a proper way? Thank you so much in advance! Your help is really appreciated!

    1. Yes, there is a singular form as well, and there are other ways one could say "be still." Modern Greek no longer uses the breathing marks; they were used in Greek from the Hellenistic period, but have fallen out of use in modern writing. It's still appropriate to use them (and other diacritics) in reproducing ancient texts, though. When the text is in all capitals, diacritics are generally not used. See the runner's tattoo, above, for an example of that.d

  3. Hi David,
    I know it's been some time since I have contacted you- and I was wondering if you could give me the other ways to say "be still"? Similar to "cease striving" "relax" and "let go".

    Also, is the correct plural form "σχολάσατε"?
    Thank you in advance for your help!