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.”

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