Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I have to give a talk in a week (actually less than that - *panic*) to year 12 Latin students on how to prepare for and do the 'unseen translations' in their final examination. I have some idea of what I would like to say, but I turned to youtube to see if there was anything useful on there.

All I could find was this guy, who apart from being incredibly dull, was also (in my humble opinion) incredibly wrong. I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing, but he started off by saying how important it was to analyse every word - first deciding what part of speech it was, then working out the case/number/gender or tense/voice/mood/person etc., and, where more than one possibility existed, making a list of all the potential forms.

This kind of method would be ok, if you are a computer, but it has serious flaws. Firstly, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is far too time consuming. It's not a sensible strategy for an exam context with limited time, even when you are only translating a short extract. And can you imagine (as my uni professor used to say) trying to read all 53 extant speeches of Cicero in this way? It would take forever, and it would be mind-numbingly, soul-destroyingly boring.

Secondly, and more importantly, it doesn't help you to understand the mechanics of a Latin sentence, or the way in which Roman authors crafted their writings. If you approach translation in that way, I think you will forever be trying to 'fix' the Latin - to put it into some kind of 'proper' (i.e. English) word order. Or to put it another way, it makes Latin into a puzzle to solve, a code to crack, rather than a language to be appreciated. Perhaps a code-cracking approach is appopriate for an exam, where all that matters is your final mark, although even then I think a more well-rounded approach has the potential to be more beneficial. If you're relying on a strictly analytical method, what will you do when an author breaks the rules, as they often do, or when you come across a usage with which you're not familiar? If on the other hand you are able to develop a feel for the Latin language, if you become used to the balance of flexibility and structure in herent in the language, and for the way in which different authors write, even if you can't give an exact grammatical analysis of every word, you will be able to understand the whole and to come up with a more faithful translation.

This raises the question of whether students should be taught to translate at all, or just to read and understand, but leaving that aside, what advice should I give to the students in my talk? What trick or strategy do you find most helpful? What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

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