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.”

“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.

 

Image result for thucydides ancient Greek

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.

 

Image result for ancient greek and roman drinking

 

[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.”

Pliny on the Life of Scholarly Leisure

Pliny (Epistula 1.9) discusses the distress of urban business, and the delight of study in a country retreat:

It is marvelous how on individual days, you can account for your time (or at least, you seem to be able to), but when many days are joined together, the account does not add up. For, if you were to ask someone, ‘What did you do today?’ he would respond, ‘I was there for the ceremony of the toga virilis, I went to an engagement or a wedding, this one guy needed me to sign a document, this other guy needed my legal assistance, and a third man asked for my counsel.’ Now, these things all seem necessary on the day during which you do them, but when you look back and consider that you have done them every day, they seem totally inane, especially once you retire from the city.

Then the thought comes upon you: ‘How many days I have wasted in such cold business!’ This happens to me when I retire to my villa in Laurentum to read, write, or even give a rest to my body, by whose support the spirit is held up. There, I neither hear nor see anything which I would regret hearing or seeing; no one slanders someone else with malicious talk in my presence, and I myself need not reproach anyone, except perhaps myself when I write poorly. I am made anxious by no hopes or fears, and am disquieted by no rumors: I speak only with myself and my books. O, what an upright and pure life! O, sweet, honest leisure, perhaps more beautiful than any business! O sea, o shore, o you true and secluded home of the Muses, how many things you discover, how many things you say! Accordingly you too should abandon that noisy bustle, that vain running-about and those exceptionally unsuitable labors, and as soon as you get the chance, you should give yourself to study or leisure. As our own Atilius said in that most erudite and charming way of his, it is more satisfying to be at leisure than to do nothing. Farewell!

Plinius Minicio Fundano suo s.

Mirum est quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque non constet. [2] Nam si quem interroges ‘Hodie quid egisti?’, respondeat: ‘Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in consilium rogavit.’ [3] Haec quo die feceris, necessaria, eadem, si cotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: ‘Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!’ [4] Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. [5] Nihil audio quod audisse, nihil dico quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me cum parum commode scribo; nulla spe nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor: mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. [6] O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! [7] Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. [8] Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere. Vale.

“Read Any Books What Ever Come to Thy Hands”

John Milton, Areopagitica: 

“Not to insist upon the examples of Moses, Daniel, & Paul, who were skilfull in all the learning of the Ægyptians, Caldeans, and Greeks, which could not probably be without reading their Books of all sorts; in Paul especially, who thought it no defilement to insert into holy Scripture the sentences of three Greek Poets, and one of them a Tragedian, the question was, notwithstanding sometimes controverted among the Primitive Doctors, but with great odds on that side which affirm’d it both lawfull and profitable, as was then evidently perceiv’d, when Julian the Apostat, and suttlest enemy to our faith, made a decree forbidding Christians the study of heathen learning: for, said he, they wound us with our own weapons, and with our owne arts and sciences they overcome us. And indeed the Christians were put so to their shifts by this crafty means, and so much in danger to decline into all ignorance, that the two Apollinarii were fain as a man may say, to coin all the seven liberall Sciences out of the Bible, reducing it into divers forms of Orations, Poems, Dialogues, ev’n to the calculating of a new Christian grammar. But, saith the Historian Socrates, The providence of God provided better then the industry of Apollinarius and his son, by taking away that illiterat law with the life of him who devis’d it. So great an injury they then held it to be depriv’d of Hellenick learning; and thought it a persecution more undermining, and secretly decaying the Church, then the open cruelty of Decius or Dioclesian. And perhaps it was the same politick drift that the Divell whipt St. Jerom in a lenten dream, for reading Cicero; or else it was a fantasm bred by the feaver which had then seis’d him. For had an Angel bin his discipliner, unlesse it were for dwelling too much upon Ciceronianisms, & had chastiz’d the reading, not the vanity, it had bin plainly partiall; first to correct him for grave Cicero, and not for scurrill Plautus, whom he confesses to have bin reading not long before; next to correct him only, and let so many more ancient Fathers wax old in those pleasant and florid studies without the lash of such a tutoring apparition; insomuch that Basil teaches how some good use may be made of Margites, a sportfull Poem, not now extant, writ by Homer; and why not then of Morgante, an Italian Romanze much to the same purpose. But if it be agreed we shall be try’d by visions, there is a vision recorded by Eusebius far ancienter then this tale of Jerom to the Nun Eustochium, and besides has nothing of a feavor in it. Dionysius Alexandrinus was about the year 240, a person of great name in the Church for piety and learning, who had wont to avail himself much against hereticks by being conversant in their Books; untill a certain Presbyter laid it scrupulously to his conscience, how he durst venture himselfe among those defiling volumes. The worthy man loath to give offence fell into a new debate with himselfe what was to be thought; when suddenly a vision sent from God, it is his own Epistle that so averrs it, confirm’d him in these words: Read any books what ever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter.”