Monday, December 03, 2007

I Vote For Latin, Too

I am very sad that I've lost the majority of my Latin translation skills. It was a point of contrarian pride that I satisfied my language requirement in college by starting anew with Latin rather than continuing with Spanish. I didn't take any "easy" options in college--I took honors classes, I wrote theses, I satisfied my math requirement with statistics rather than linguistics (seriously? wtf?!), etc. etc. I took an intensive course in Latin, cramming a year's worth into 12 weeks during the summer, for 5 hours each day and 30-35 hours outside of class. I was really good at it! Good enough to join the Latin Honors Society, or Eta Sigma Phi. I continued onto intermediate Latin, and then prose and poetry. I remember reading a lot of Cicero and Virgil. A lot of scansion and parsing. I used to have the declensions down pat. Now, my skills are beyond rusty, although not hopelessly so. I can teach myself again, I figure. It'll always come back to you.

I still have my Moreland and Fleischer "Intensive Latin" textbook with me, and I just brought up my Sinkovich "Intermediate Latin." I've always intended to re-teach myself Latin, except that I should probably get a head start on re-learning Spanish (which I haven't touched for 11 years) or learning French if I do indeed transfer to a Ph.D program with a translation/fluency requirement.

But I am hopeful that my training in Latin will help me re-learn or learn any latinate romance language, and the years I spent parsing and translating have instilled in me good language and grammar skills, such that I approach all languages with a clear logic.

But for another vote for Latin, read this. It's interesting. And yes, there is nothing like reading The Aeneid in the original Latin. If there was another language I would love to learn, it would be Russian, just so that I could read my other favorite authors.

Why not just study all this in English? What do you get from reading the “Aeneid” in the original that you wouldn’t get from Robert Fagles’s fine translation, which came out just last year?

Well, no translation, however fine, can ever sound the way Latin was written to sound. To hear Latin poetry spoken smoothly and quickly is to hear a mellifluous, rat-a-tat-tat language, the rich, distilled, romantic, pure, heady blueprint of its close descendant, Italian.

But also, learning to translate Latin into English and vice versa is a tremendous way to train the mind. I think of translating concise, precise Latin into more expansive, discursive English as like opening up a concertina; you are allowed to inject all sorts of original thought and interpretation.

As much as opening the concertina enlarges your imagination, squeezing it shut —
translating English into Latin — sharpens your prose. Because Latin is a dead language, not in a constant state of flux as living languages are, there’s no wriggle room in translating. If you haven’t understood exactly what a particular word means or how a grammatical rule works, you are likely to be, not off, but just plain wrong. There’s nothing like this challenge to teach you how to navigate the reefs and whirlpools of English prose.

With a little Roman history and Latin under your belt, you end up seeing more everywhere, not only in literature and language, but in the classical roots of Federal architecture; the spread of Christianity throughout Western Europe and, in turn, America; and in the American system of senatorial government. The novelist Alan Hollinghurst describes people who know history’s turning points as being able to look at the world as a sequence of rooms: Greece gives way to Rome, Rome to the Byzantine Empire, to the Renaissance, to the British Empire, to America.

You can gain this advantage at any age. Alfred the Great, the ninth-century king of England, who knew how crucial it was to learn Latin to become a civilized leader, took it up in his 30s. Here’s hoping that a new generation of students — and presidents — will likewise recognize that *“if Rome is the eternal city, Latin is the eternal language.”


Update: My favorite pedant offers his own thoughts here.


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