Do you need to know classical Greek to write murder mysteries set in classical Greece? No. But sometimes it helps. Sacred Games is unique in that it's the only book to date in which I've used a quote that I translated myself.
I discovered early on in the series that the translations by classics professors are so vastly better than my own slow and feeble efforts that there was no point in trying. I was much better off reading the translations from Penguin Classics, Loeb Library, and the online Perseus Digital Library. The Penguin versions are the most literary, Loeb the most accurate, and Perseus the most literal.
This works brilliantly, since usually I only need information. The experts translate the history and I get on with turning it into stories.
I ran into trouble with Sacred Games because one of the main characters is a lad named Timodemus, a for-real Olympic athlete of classical Athens who as it happens had a poem written about him by the famous praise singer Pindar. The first stanza of that poem was so directly relevant to my murder that I wanted to include it up front.
Here's the original (from the Perseus edition):
ΤΙΜΟΔΗΜΩι ΑΧΑΡΝΕΙ ΠΑΓΚΡΑΤΙΑΣΤΗι
ὅθεν περ καὶ Ὁμηρίδαι
ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων τὰ πόλλ᾽ ἀοιδοὶ
ἄρχονται, Διὸς ἐκ προοιμίου: καὶ ὅδ᾽ ἀνὴρ
καταβολὰν ἱερῶν ἀγώνων νικαφορίας δέδεκται πρῶτον Νεμεαίου
ἐν πολυυμνήτῳ Διὸς ἄλσει.
Don't panic. Here is the translation from Perseus:
For Timodemus of Acharnae Pancratium
Just as the Homeridae, the singers of woven verses,
most often begin with Zeus as their prelude,
so this man has received a first down-payment of victory in the Sacred Games
by winning in the grove of Nemean Zeus, which is celebrated in many hymns.
Praise songs were written to be sung, but this doesn't exactly trip from the tongue. The Loeb and Penguin versions were much better, but I felt bad about using their work. Besides, in a moment of hubris (a fine Greek word) I decided I could do a better job.
Herewith is my own version, as it appears at the front of Sacred Games:
In Praise of Timodemus
So as the bards begin their verse
With hymns to the Olympian Zeus,
So has this hero laid the claim
To conquest in the Sacred Games.
So if you don't count changing almost all the words and completely altering the meter, I pretty much left it alone. I hope Pindar's psyche will forgive me.