Pedagogical Pains and Pitfalls: Translation

Alston Hurd Chase, Time Remembered 2.1:

“In all the years after the first, a great deal of emphasis was placed upon sight translation since we all felt that that is the only true test of one’s knowledge of a language — as Macaulay put it, ‘An educated man is one who can read Plato in the original with his feet on the fender.’ I gave weekly tests in sight and a large portion of all the regular examinations was made up of sight passages. One special advantage of sight as a means of testing knowledge is that it minimizes the part played by the use of translations which may work to the aid of the lazy in prepared work.

This problem of translations is one of the most ancient facing all teachers of languages, particularly the Classical ones. Some have viewed this as a grave moral issue. Members of my generation may recall from their boyhood reading of Tom Brown’s Schooldays how Little Arthur’s crusade against a parallel practice in metrical composition led to a moral crisis in the life of the hero. Personally I refused to view this as a moral problem, pointing out that the practice carries its own punishment, since one learns words best only by the toil of looking them up in a dictionary. Furthermore, morally speaking, it is hard to make a sound case for the difference between looking up a single word in a dictionary and in a translation. Most modern texts for schools are heavily annotated and translate entire sentences for the students. One well-known edition gave all the crabbed indirect discourse in Book I of the Gallic Wars in a direct form in the notes. The experienced teacher is usually able to detect a translation drawn from a trot by the presence of words quite foreign to the student’s usual vocabulary. When I was teaching at Harvard we used to have infallible proof of the use of a trot in Horace class. The popular translation was an English one which used the word undertaker in the new archaic sense of what we call a contractor. One used to wonder what the student thought undertakers were doing on a construction job.

I explained to my classes that learning vocabulary is often a process of looking up the same word over and over until one remembers it out of sheer irritation. I used to tell of my own frequent frustration in looking up a strange word occurring in the text, finding it in the dictionary or vocabulary, then turning back to the text only to discover that I had already forgotten the meaning. This revelation of preceptorial weakness always brought bright smiles of response from the class.

Moreover, one cannot accept wholesale the translation of a difficult passage without the least understanding of how editor or translator arrived at it. For this reason I objected to the very heavy annotation that is now the practice. In general I agree with Professor A. A. Howard’s contention that notes are merely a device to display the erudition of the editor. To insure that I knew that the student knew what the Greek or Latin actually said, I insisted in the early years, upon literalness at the cost of elegance, explaining that when I was certain that they knew what they were doing they might begin to cultivate freedom of rendition.”

Have You Seen My Special Chair?

A former dean of mine once sent an email to the faculty announcing a large grant to the college by a local business, providing for endowed chairs in the liberal arts. He had the temerity to announce in the very same email that he was giving himself one of these chairs. And he had a chair made with an inscription. The following is a slightly more humble epigraph.

 Constantinus of Sicily, Greek Anthology 15.13

“If you are wise, sit on me. But if you’ve tasted the muse
Only with the tip of your finger…..
Move far away and find a different sit.
I am a chair who bears the burden of men who seek wisdom.”

Εἰ μέν τις σοφὸς ἐσσί, ἐφέζεο· εἰ δέ γε Μούσης
δακτύλῳ ἀκροτάτῳ ἀπεγεύσαο, . . . .
πόρρω στῆθ᾿ ἀπ᾿ ἐμεῖο, καὶ ἄλλοθι δίζεο ἕδρην·
κλισμὸς ἐγὼ φορέων σοφίης ἐπιΐστορας ἄνδρας.

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“He Does Not Prefer Thucydides out of Love”: Romans on the Greek Historian

In my discussions of Thucydides with students over the years, we have focused on the typical modern topoi, his rivalry with Herodotus and Homer, his notion of the representation of speeches which were “appropriate to what was needed for the situation” (ὡς δ’ ἂν ἐδόκουν ἐμοὶ ἕκαστοι περὶ τῶν αἰεὶ παρόντων τὰ δέοντα μάλιστ’ εἰπεῖν, 1.22), the scientific presentation of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, his belief that his history was a “possession for eternity” (κτῆμά τε ἐς αἰεὶ), Perikles’ rhetorical power in Athens, the suspenseful danger of the Mytilenean debate (book 3), and the depressing logic of power in the Melian dialogue (5.84-116). But most of all, we have read his history as a tragedy: Athens falls just as much if not more because of herself as because of Sparta.

Roman authors did not see this Thucydides. (One is tempted to say they value the style far beyond the substance.) Here are some samples of their views.

Cicero, de optimo genre oratorum 17

“This is why if there is ever anyone who claims that he will plead legal cases in the style of Thucydides, he will show that he is completely ignorant of what happens in political and legal matters. If he will merely praise Thucydides, let him record my opinion with his.”

Qua re si quis erit qui se Thucydideo genere causas in foro dicturum esse profiteatur, is abhorrebit etiam a suspicione eius quod versatur in re civili et forensi; sin Thucydidem laudabit, ascribat suae nostram sententiam.

 

Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 9

“Roman orators, historians, and poets have not ripped off many words from the Greeks, but rather they have improved upon them. Then he offered a saying by Thucydides “success is adept at hiding and cloaking everyone’s mistakes” followed by Sallust’s version: “success is a miraculous cover for vice”. Although the chief virtue in Thucydides is brevity, Sallust has done better and has overcome him in his own territory. The Greek saying is brief enough that you can shorten it without losing the sense. You may take out “hiding” or “shadowing” and then “everyone” and the sense remains, perhaps not as polished, but still whole. You cannot take anything away from Sallust’s version without losing the sense.”

Multa oratores, historici, poetae Romani a Graecis dicta non subripuerunt sed provocaverunt. Tunc deinde rettulit aliquam Thucydidis sententiam: δειναὶ γὰρ αἰ εὐπραξίαι συγκρύψαι καὶ συσκιάσαι τὰ ἑκάστων ἁμαρτήματα, deinde Sallustianam: res secundae mire sunt vitiis obtentui. Cum sit praecipua in Thucydide virtus brevitas, hac eum Sallustius vicit et in suis illum castris cecidit; nam in sententia Graeca tam brevi habes quae salvo sensu detrahas: deme vel συγκρύψαι vel συσκιάσαι, deme ἑκάστων: constabit sensus, etiamsi non aeque comptus, aeque tamen integer. At ex Sallusti sententia nihil demi sine detrimento sensus potest.

Contr. 9

“He does not prefer Thucydides out of love for him, but he praises one he does not fear and believes he may defeat Sallust more easily if he appears to be conquered by Thucydides first.”

Nec hoc amore Thucydidis facit, ut illum praeferat, sed laudat quem non timet et facilius putat posse a se Sallustium vinci si ante a Thucydide vincatur.

 

Pliny, Natural History 7.111

“The Athenians drove Thucydides the general into exile but recalled the historian. They appreciated the eloquence of a man whose bravery they had condemned.”

Thucydiden imperatorem Athenienses in exilium egere, rerum conditorem revocavere, eloquentiam mirati cuius virtutem damnaverant.

 

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Homer’s Work: A Wild Paradise

Alexander Pope, Preface to the Iliad:

“Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever. The praise of judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their pretensions as to particular excellences; but his invention remains yet unrivalled. Nor is it a wonder if he has ever been acknowledged the greatest of poets, who most excelled in that which is the very foundation of poetry. It is the invention that, in different degrees, distinguishes all great geniuses: the utmost stretch of human study, learning, and industry, which masters everything besides, can never attain to this. It furnishes art with all her materials, and without it judgment itself can at best but ‘steal wisely:’ for art is only like a prudent steward that lives on managing the riches of nature. Whatever praises may be given to works of judgment, there is not even a single beauty in them to which the invention must not contribute: as in the most regular gardens, art can only reduce beauties of nature to more regularity, and such a figure, which the common eye may better take in, and is, therefore, more entertained with. And, perhaps, the reason why common critics are inclined to prefer a judicious and methodical genius to a great and fruitful one, is, because they find it easier for themselves to pursue their observations through a uniform and bounded walk of art, than to comprehend the vast and various extent of nature.

Our author’s work is a wild paradise, where, if we cannot see all the beauties so distinctly as in an ordered garden, it is only because the number of them is infinitely greater. It is like a copious nursery, which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants, each according to his fancy, to cultivate and beautify. If some things are too luxuriant it is owing to the richness of the soil; and if others are not arrived to perfection or maturity, it is only because they are overrun and oppressed by those of a stronger nature.

It is to the strength of this amazing invention we are to attribute that unequalled fire and rapture which is so forcible in Homer, that no man of a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads him. What he writes is of the most animated nature imaginable; every thing moves, every thing lives, and is put in action. If a council be called, or a battle fought, you are not coldly informed of what was said or done as from a third person; the reader is hurried out of himself by the force of the poet’s imagination, and turns in one place to a hearer, in another to a spectator. The course of his verses resembles that of the army he describes,

     Οἳ δ’ ἄρ’ ἴσαν ὡς εἴ τε πυρὶ χθὼν πᾶσα νέμοιτο·

‘They pour along like a fire that sweeps the whole earth before it.’ It is, however, remarkable, that his fancy, which is everywhere vigorous, is not discovered immediately at the beginning of his poem in its fullest splendour: it grows in the progress both upon himself and others, and becomes on fire, like a chariot-wheel, by its own rapidity. Exact disposition, just thought, correct elocution, polished numbers, may have been found in a thousand; but this poetic fire, this ‘vivida vis animi,’ in a very few. Even in works where all those are imperfect or neglected, this can overpower criticism, and make us admire even while we disapprove. Nay, where this appears, though attended with absurdities, it brightens all the rubbish about it, till we see nothing but its own splendour. This fire is discerned in Virgil, but discerned as through a glass, reflected from Homer, more shining than fierce, but everywhere equal and constant: in Lucan and Statius it bursts out in sudden, short, and interrupted flashes: In Milton it glows like a furnace kept up to an uncommon ardour by the force of art: in Shakspeare it strikes before we are aware, like an accidental fire from heaven: but in Homer, and in him only, it burns everywhere clearly and everywhere irresistibly.”

Pliny’s Advice to a Friend: Retire, Read, and Write!

From Pliny’s Letters, 1.3:

“Why not just entrust the lower and dirtier business to someone else, and apply yourself to your studies in that rich and lofty retreat? Let this be your business, let this be your leisure; let this be both your work and your rest. Let your waking hours and your sleep be spent in your studies. Contrive and fashion something which will be yours forever. All of your other affairs will find one master after another after you are gone, but this will never cease to be yours, if it ever comes into being. I know what spirit, what intellect I am urging on; you should just strive to be worth as much to yourself as you will appear to others if you become so to yourself. Farewell.”

“This could be you!”

3 Quin tu — tempus enim — humiles et sordidas curas aliis mandas, et ipse te in alto isto pinguique secessu studiis asseris? Hoc sit negotium tuum hoc otium; hic labor haec quies; in his vigilia, in his etiam somnus reponatur. 4 Effinge aliquid et excude, quod sit perpetuo tuum. Nam reliqua rerum tuarum post te alium atque alium dominum sortientur, hoc numquam tuum desinet esse si semel coeperit. 5 Scio quem animum, quod horter ingenium; tu modo enitere ut tibi ipse sis tanti, quanti videberis aliis si tibi fueris. Vale.

Do It Drunk: Some Ancient Advice for Making Decisions

Herodotus, Histories 1.133.3-4

“The [Persians] are really fond of wine. It is not permissable to puke or to piss in front of another—these things are guarded against. And they are in the custom of taking counsel about the most important matters while they are drunk. Whatever seems fit to them while they are deliberating, the housemaster of the place where they deliberate proposes to them on the next day when they are sober. If the idea is pleasing to them when they are sober too, then they adopt it. If it is not, they waive it. When they have debated an issue while sober, they make a final decision while drunk.”

οἴνῳ δὲ κάρτα προσκέαται, καί σφι οὐκ ἐμέσαι ἔξεστι, οὐκὶ οὐρῆσαι ἀντίον ἄλλου. ταῦτα μέν νυν οὕτω φυλάσσεται, μεθυσκόμενοι δὲ ἐώθασι βουλεύεσθαι τὰ σπουδαιέστατα τῶν πρηγμάτων:

[4] τὸ δ᾽ ἂν ἅδῃ σφι βουλευομένοισι, τοῦτο τῇ ὑστεραίῃ νήφουσι προτιθεῖ ὁ στέγαρχος, ἐν τοῦ ἂν ἐόντες βουλεύωνται, καὶ ἢν μὲν ἅδῃ καὶ νήφουσι, χρέωνται αὐτῷ, ἢν δὲ μὴ ἅδῃ, μετιεῖσι. τὰ δ᾽ ἂν νήφοντες προβουλεύσωνται, μεθυσκόμενοι ἐπιδιαγινώσκουσι.

Tacitus ascribes a similar process to the northern barbarians, concluding (Germ. 22):

“therefore, the mindset of everyone has been exposed and made clear and on the next day the issue is discussed again, and for each opportunity a resolution and accounting is reached. They deliberate when they are incapable of lying; they make a plan when incapable of messing it up.”

ergo detecta et nuda omnium mens. postera die retractatur, et salva utriusque temporis ratio est. Deliberant dum fingere nesciunt, constituunt dum errare non possunt.

 

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[Credit to Perseus for having the How and Wells Commentary online]

I Hate Learning Verbs!

Alston Hurd Chase, Time Remembered 2.2:

“Then came a brief quiz on the forms if it was a grammar day. Usually I sent students to the board for these and corrected and graded them immediately. As soon as the class had learned one or two tenses of the verb I began the practice of sending them to the board as soon as class opened to write a tense synopsis, i.e. all the forms of a certain person and number in all moods and voices of a certain verb which they had studied thus far. It fascinated the boys to watch these synopses grow in length from two or three forms until the board could scarcely hold them all. Like all teachers I had pet proverbs, one of which was, ‘A synopsis a day keeps the zeros away.’ This had reference to my much cursed practice of giving a zero for any sentence in which any error of any kind was made with the verb. I explained that the verb was the engine of the sentence, its most important part. This is particularly true in Greek and Latin where the pronoun subject is regularly omitted, the person and number being found in the ending of the verb. Furthermore, each synopsis had to be accompanied by the principal parts, those basic forms from which all other parts of the verb can be derived. Because of the unbelievable variations in the tenses of many Greek verbs a command of the principal parts saves hours of baffling search in the dictionary. (For example, the present of the Greek verb to bear is pher, its future ois, its past definite enengkon. Again, I used to say sententiously, ‘See ye first the principal parts and all other things shall be added unto you.’ Many of my old students who went on with Greek in college rose up and called me blessed for this once hated insistence upon learning the verbs.”