Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Roma urbs aeterna; Latina lingua aeterna.

This from the New York Times.
...But what they gain is a glimpse into the past that provides a fuller, richer view of the present. Know Latin and you discern the Roman layer that lies beneath the skin of the Western world. And you open up 500 years of Western literature (plus an additional thousand years of Latin prose and poetry).

Why not just study all this in English? What do you get from reading the “Aeneid” in the original that you wouldn’t get from Robert Fagles’s fine translation, which came out just last year?

Well, no translation, however fine, can ever sound the way Latin was written to sound. To hear Latin poetry spoken smoothly and quickly is to hear a mellifluous, rat-a-tat-tat language, the rich, distilled, romantic, pure, heady blueprint of its close descendant, Italian.

But also, learning to translate Latin into English and vice versa is a tremendous way to train the mind. I think of translating concise, precise Latin into more expansive, discursive English as like opening up a concertina; you are allowed to inject all sorts of original thought and interpretation.

As much as opening the concertina enlarges your imagination, squeezing it shut — translating English into Latin — sharpens your prose. Because Latin is a dead language, not in a constant state of flux as living languages are, there’s no wriggle room in translating. If you haven’t understood exactly what a particular word means or how a grammatical rule works, you are likely to be, not off, but just plain wrong. There’s nothing like this challenge to teach you how to navigate the reefs and whirlpools of English prose.

With a little Roman history and Latin under your belt, you end up seeing more everywhere, not only in literature and language, but in the classical roots of Federal architecture; the spread of Christianity throughout Western Europe and, in turn, America; and in the American system of senatorial government. The novelist Alan Hollinghurst describes people who know history’s turning points as being able to look at the world as a sequence of rooms: Greece gives way to Rome, Rome to the Byzantine Empire, to the Renaissance, to the British Empire, to America.
Read the rest here.

I have always regarded it as one of the great misfortunes of my life that all of my undergraduate studies were conducted at schools where the classics were no longer taught. Time and circumstances permitting I hope one day to fill this unfortunate gap in my education.


Richard said...

I don't know how old you are, but do it sooner than later. I found myself in a similar position, subsequently trying to enter humanities grad programs in academic fields that assumed knowledge of Latin and Greek. This meant I got to start learning them at age 29. I'm now 31, in my second year of Greek, my first year of Syriac, and about to start my second year of Latin. I'm *hoping* I'll actually get into a grad program for next year.

It's been, shall we say, an adventure. It would have been a heck of a lot easier had I been able to do this ten years ago, if not earlier.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes. Languages have been seriously overlooked and de-emphasized in the American public schools. I say that as a former Spanish teacher.

I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary. I hold a Master of Divinity degree. The public school system doesn't recognize (or value)my degree, so I was paid on a Bachelors level. Eventually I lost my teacher certification, since I was too old to go back to work toward the less valueable Master in Education (political correctness) degree.

Wordsmyth said...

Funny you should post on this topic at this time. Last saturday I spent my free time browsing in the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. I stood in front of a collection of Latin and Greek textbooks, grammars, etc., trying to decide which language to study. I've been wanting to learn more of both of those languages for years. Ultimately I wimped out and got a Spanish book because it was more "practical."

orrologion said...

Most of this simply seems to be an argument for learning any language, not Latin in particular. I have head essentially the same argument made by grecophiles re Greek, with side comments about how much more accurate Greek is than Latin, even.

In the end, though, language is a tool for understanding. The most precise or beautiful language in the world is gibberish and babble to one who doesn't understand it. That can be an argument for learning that or every language, or for translation and the use of vernacular (when in Rome...).

Anonymous said...

"Most of this simply seems to be an argument for learning any language, not Latin in particular.

But you cannot read Virgil or the Latin Fathers properly in Finnish.

Only Latin and Greek can open up the thought of the western world. They are the supreme languages of the West.