Classicist John K. Schafer had no idea that being in the right place at the right time—and knowing his Ovid—would lead to an epic meeting with Matt Damon.
Harvard’s Classics department is often called upon to perform translations, from salad dressing labels and Vatican documents to military mottoes and movie lines, as the University’s scholars of the ancient world show a surprising impact on our own.
In Schafer’s case, a department administrator found him in the graduate student lounge and told him that the dialect coach for “The Good Shepherd” was looking for someone to translate a passage from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”
In the movie, a beautiful German translator asks Matt Damon’s character if he’s read Ovid, and Damon responds with the quotation Schafer translated.
As a thank-you, Schafer and his wife were invited to one of the movie’s rehearsals at the set in Manhattan.
“And this very nice guy, the brilliant dialect coach, said, ‘Hey Matty! Here’s John! Helped us on the Latin!’” Schafer said.
He continued, “[Damon] smiled a huge grin at me and said, ‘Thank you.’ And I tried not to feel goofy standing next to this Adonis—while [Robert] DeNiro walks up and down this room scowling at people in the aisles, with a bad haircut and slummy-looking clothes.”
Although Schafer said it was thrilling to meet Damon, a member of the Class of 1992, the encounter had its downsides.
“It was bad for my male ego,” he said, “standing next to him.”
TO COIN A MOTTO
Another common caller to the Classics department is the U.S. military—specifically, subdivisions of the Air Force.
But when the Air Force Academy enlisted Schafer’s help for a motto requiring Latin translations of “leadership” and “honor,” he recalled running into some difficulty. Both words proved nearly impossible to translate.
“There’s really no comfortable way to put that in Latin,” Schafer said, referring to the word “leadership.”
Schafer, now a lecturer in the Classics department, said that the closest word to “leadership” in Latin is “auctoritas,” which can easily be misinterpreted for “authority.”
“Honor” was not any easier for Schafer to translate.
“Latin has a word ‘honor,’ but...the shades of meaning are very different,” Schafer said. “Honor doesn’t mean a personal code of right conduct, That notion of honor is foreign to the Latin word.”
Although Schafer offered a few suggestions, the Air Force Academy did not take any of them.
Graduate student Justin C. Lake said he too has struggled to translate modern English words into august Latin phrases.
Lake received an e-mail from a major at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, asking him to translate the motto “chaos under control” into Latin.
“I sent up three to them, and they actually picked my least favorite,” Lake said. “They ended up using ‘confusa sub moderatione’—literally, things in disorder under more than moderation; it means regiment or control.”
Lake said he was glad to do the translation for free. As a bonus, he received a special coin from the Air Force base with an engraving of the motto.
“It was nice in the middle of a war to do something for the Armed Forces, even if it was something very small like writing a Latin motto,” Lake said.
NOT ALWAYS STARRY-EYED
While translating for the Air Force and Hollywood may sound glamorous, Harvard classicists have not always been pleased with the results.
Lake now says that he wishes he had just sent the Air Force his favorite motto.
Similarly, Schafer did not find the “Good Shepherd” scene—or the movie itself—to be very coherent.
In the scene, when Damon is asked if he’s read Ovid, he replies with the quotation: “I grabbed a pile of dust, and holding it up, foolishly asked for as many birthdays as the grains of dust. I forgot to ask that they be years of youth.”
Schafer said that, given the context, the quotation seemed obscure.
“If someone says, ‘Have you ever read Tolstoy?’ and someone responds with something from ‘War and Peace,’ it would be weird,” he said.
The original scene was not as awkward.
“The original idea is that Matt Damon is about to go to Tibet with this gorgeous German woman, and she says to him, ‘When you were at Yale, did you read Ovid?’ And he says, ‘Sure.’ And she starts reciting Latin to him, and between each line he translates it,” Schafer recalled.
“But the version they came up with made no sense at all,” Schafer said.
Nonetheless, both Schafer and motto-translator Lake said they enjoyed their experiences.
On the other hand, Kathleen M. Coleman, a Classics professor currently teaching Ovid, was not so excited about the prospect of recounting her experience with Hollywood.
When asked in a phone interview to talk about her experience working as a historical consultant for the 2000 movie “Gladiator,” the normally friendly Coleman said, “No, sorry. Bye.”
An expert on Roman games, Coleman asked to have her name removed from the credits when she discovered the film’s glaring historical inaccuracies.
She recalled one exchange between the filmmakers in a 2005 Financial Times article: “Kathy, we need to get a piece of evidence which proves that women gladiators had sharpened razor blades attached to their nipples. Could you have it by lunchtime?”
“That was not a very good experience for her,” department administrator Teresa T. Wu said. “I think she won’t work with Hollywood again.”
PAUL NEWMAN’S ON LINE 1
Over the years, the Classics department has received its share of odd phone calls.
Once someone called to find out how to say “74” in Latin, Lake said.
“Someone has some random Latin question, and they figure, ‘I’ll just call Harvard, and some nerd at a desk will tell me what I want to do,’” Schafer said.
Christopher P. Jones, a Classics professor, said he does not believe that the department should give out translations gratis.
“My belief on the whole is we’re not a service and that people should not suppose that we are just around to give out information for free,” Jones said.
“When I say I’ll do it for $100, they normally look somewhere else and find someone more tender-hearted,” he added.
But John M. Duffy, chair of the Classics department, said he does not find these calls very bothersome.
“We’re happy to provide the service,” he said, “as long as it doesn’t become something that becomes too often or becomes a nuisance, but in my case that hasn’t happened.”
Lenore S. Parker, a department administrator who answers phone calls to the department, recalled one memorable experience.
“Someone from Paul Newman’s office once requested a translation of a motto for his salad dressing label,” she said, “and sent us cases of his microwavable buttered popcorn that perfumed our hallways for months afterwards.”