Thursday, September 19, 2013

Res Publica and the rigours of translation

The 'think tank' (What is one of those?  Is it like a 'drunk tank' but the intoxication is purely intellectual?) Politeia has published a pamphlet urging some changes to the place and examination of Latin in British schools.  You can read a press release here and read the pamphlet here.

The authors cannot be held responsible for the comments they provoke.  But, whatever one thinks of the pamphlet itself, some of the comment it has generated seems to me to be unhelpful.  For example, here is Harry Mount in the Telegraph in an article entitled 'The tragic dumbing down of Latin in our schools'.
When you're translating Latin into English, you can busk it: translate the words roughly and then cobble them together into goodish English. With the other way round – English into Latin – there's no busking. You're either right or you're wrong – there's no grey area. That's one of the joys of Latin; precisely because it's a dead language, there's no wriggle room, no negotiating over the correct answer, as there is with the shifting meanings of modern languages.
Um.  Well, it seems to me this is questionable on two counts.  First, there are of course plenty of ways in which a translation from Latin into English can be just plain wrong.  And even 'goodish' English is not what is being aimed at, at least in any of the examinations I'm familiar with.  But there are, to be sure, various ways in which equally accurate translations may differ from one another.  That, I've always thought, is at least part of what makes translating a language like Latin into English an interesting thing to do.  So 'busking' is not a helpful way to put it; it's just that people whose first language is English tend not to make great grammatical howlers in the English of their translation.  But they may of course misunderstand the Latin they are translating.  Or they may understand it perfectly well, but choose to render it in various different ways.

And I really don't understand the contrast between the 'shifting meanings of modern languages' and their ancient counterparts.  Is the implication that there can be no ambiguity (deliberate or otherwise), say, in Latin?  No room for reasonable debate over what is meant?

Similarly, it is surely not the case that there is one and only one correct rendering into Latin of any given phrase in English.  Again, there are various wrong ways to do it: ways of getting the syntax of the Latin wrong, getting the vocabulary wrong  But there are usually a number of equally accurate but different ways of rendering a given English sentence into Latin (or, for that matter, most languages, I reckon).  That's part of what is interesting about this kind of translation too.

So, this is a misleading way of putting things.  Yes, translating from English into Latin is hard.  It requires an active knowledge of Latin grammar and vocabulary.  But translating from Latin into English is also hard, certainly if one is interested not merely in producing a bit of 'translationese' into 'goodish English'.  ('Caesar, his legion having been arranged into a hollow square, fortified the ditch lest he be surrounded by the Gauls...'.)

There is a danger, it seems to me, that comments of this kind will lead to the impression that there is a 'two tier' approach to teaching and learning Latin in schools: the soft way, for the buskers, of translation into English, perhaps with a bit of ancient history and literary discussion thrown in, and the rigorous road, for those who want to tackle turning English into Latin. 

Harry Mount begins his article with the exclamation: 'o tempora! o mores!'  How would you translate that into English and retain the meaning and force and rhythm of the original?  Try busking it.

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