“The Cheapness of Our Tongue”: Three Latin Passages on Translation

Seneca the Elder, Contr. 9.14

“People who teach translation have never made a lot of money”

numquam magnas mercedes accepisse eos qui hermeneumata docerent.

Pliny, Letters C. Plinius Arrio Antonino Suo S.

“How could I give you a greater sign of how much I want to copy you and admire you than the fact that I am trying to translate your Greek epigrams to Latin? Still, this is a decline. I bring to it the feebleness of my own ability, and add to this the poverty, or what Lucretius calls “the cheapness of our own language.” Nevertheless, if these Latin translations of mine seem at all charming to you, you will know how much pleasure your Greek originals brought me! Farewell.”

Quemadmodum magis adprobare tibi possum, quanto opere mirer epigrammata tua Graeca, quam quod quaedam Latine aemulari et exprimere temptavi? in deterius tamen. Accidit hoc primum imbecillitate ingenii mei, deinde inopia ac potius, ut Lucretius ait, egestate patrii sermonis. Quodsi haec, quae sunt et Latina et mea, habere tibi aliquid venustatis videbuntur, quantum putas inesse iis gratiae, quae et a te et Graece proferuntur! Vale.

Cicero, de optime genere oratorum 18

“Two kinds of objections are possible for this task. The first is: “It is better in Greek.” One can answer such people by asking if they can make anything better in Latin. Another is: “Why should I read this translation rather than the Greek?” Well, the same people often embrace a Latin Andria, Synephebi, and even an Andromache, Antiope and Epigonoi. Why is there so much intolerance for speeches translated from Greek when there is none for translated poems?

Huic labori nostro duo genera reprehensionum opponuntur. Unum hoc: “Verum melius Graeci.” A quo quaeratur ecquid possint ipsi melius Latine? Alterum: “Quid istas potius legam quam Graecas?” Idem Andriam et Synephebos nec minus Andromacham aut Antiopam aut Epigonos Latinos recipiunt. Quod igitur est eorum in orationibus e Graeco conversis fastidium, nullum cum sit in versibus?

Greek, Latin and Arabic

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