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HomeUncategorized“A Great Ox Stands on My Tongue”: The Pitfalls of Latin Translation

“A Great Ox Stands on My Tongue”: The Pitfalls of Latin Translation

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

Cicero’s De Finibus Malorum et Bonorum (“On the Ends of Good and Evil”) is a true classic – a text that many people own but few ever bother to read. Yet if you are interested in translation, you probably want to read the first few pages of Book One at the very least. Here Cicero discusses a few of the problems involved with writing a philosophical work in the Roman world; one of these is the Romans’ inferiority complex when it came to Classical Greek. He describes intellectuals who scorn to read philosophy in their native language, yet have no problem with Greek literary texts translated word-for-word (ad verbum e Graecis expressas) into Latin.

The discussion is interesting in part because Cicero frankly acknowledges just how bad a lot of translations were in his day. He defends Latin as a language, and has a few positive-sounding things to say about the Latin literary tradition, even though he seems tacitly to accept its inferiority to Greek literature. But there seems to have been no point in sticking up for most contemporary translations of Greek books. Or was there? Cicero himself was a brilliant translator, particularly of Plato. He thought hard about the relationship between Latin and Greek. Perhaps, though, his contemporaries were less conscientious than he was. He didn’t just provide mechanical, literal-minded translations: he wanted the Greek Classics to sound like themselves when rendered into his own language. Then again, translators who succeed at this task are rare in every age.

A face that has seen things: “Cicero’s bust” (Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy).

Translation is simply the art of taking something in one language and expressing it accurately in another. Easier said than done, of course. If you speak more than one language fluently, you are not necessarily good at translating. Many members of my own family are multilingual, with varying degrees of Punjabi, Hindi and English, along with whatever languages they learnt at school, or picked up for various religious or professional reasons. But if you think a particular set of thoughts in one language, you cannot always figure out how to express it in another. This is painfully evident when I try to tell a Punjabi joke in English.

Students of Greek tragedy will remember that image from early in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: βοῦς ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ μέγας / βέβηκεν (“a great ox stands on my tongue”). That’s exactly how translation feels sometimes, certainly where jokes are concerned.

Those of us who have studied French remember how tempting it can be to leave certain phrases in the original language, not only on the grounds that it allegedly looks sophisticated to do so, but because we either don’t know what they mean or else don’t have the imagination or linguistic resources to transform them into plain English. This is not just a problem if you are translating poetry, or some difficult literary text: everyday French has any number of colloquialisms that do not sound right if you put them literally into English.

A gruff French bishop once asked me about my studies when I was completing my MA dissertation on some Renaissance translations of Pindar. After my explanation he shrugged and used an old-fashioned expression which translates literally as “those are not my onions”. “Not quite my cup of tea,” I might say.

At least French is a living language: if you are lucky, you might have the chance to go to any country where people live and think all day in French and acquire some grasp of the language as it is currently used. Whom you speak to will inevitably affect your sense of linguistic nuance. If you want everyone to understand you, you probably want to learn the clear, efficient French that schoolteachers speak. Certainly you will draw minimal attention to yourself in this way. I have never properly studied Italian, and picked up the little I know by ear or through reading texts. As a result I sound in Italian like a bartender – the sort of bartender who belligerently recites fourteenth-century love poetry at his customers and then wonders why he is not a success.

There are still French people who think it chic to speak with what seems to them to be an English accent. Yet even these people would prefer to speak to you in English, rather than hear your clumsy efforts in their language. This is not purely a matter of accent: if your French amounts to a word-by-word translation in your head of unadapted English-language thoughts, you will never sound right.

The Bust of Charlemagne, a 14th-century reliquary (Aachen Cathedral, Germany).

Dead languages are even harder in this respect. Latin is still alive as the principal sacred language of the Catholic Church; until recently it had some practical application as a legal language, as well as the learned language common to ‘educated’ people internationally (though this function began to diminish in the eighteenth century). But as a spoken language Latin has been dead since the time of Charlemagne (who died in AD 814). For over a thousand years, nobody has been brought up to speak it naturally at home; nor has anybody picked it up in the streets. When you know Latin, you have been taught the language systematically. The only way to acquire real competence in the language is to immerse yourself in Classical texts. Most of us who can read Latin relatively easily only got there through the slow, painful, sometimes maddening exercise of translation – not only from Latin into English, but also, more bruisingly, from English into Latin.

If you pick up a volume of Latin and simply start reading it, you can quickly be fooled into thinking that you know what is going on. Inside your head, you convince yourself that you are taking everything in. But if you read the text out loud, and then try to render it into normal-sounding English in a way that someone standing in front of you can understand, you often see that you only understand about 90% of the words. Alas, that final 10% is the only part that really matters, to prevent that person in front of you from subjecting you to a sad, pitying look.

It takes a while to get past the point where you need to look up every other Latin word in a dictionary or grammar. The fastest way to overcome this is very slow: it involves your writing out a prose translation by hand, and taking notes on all the unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary that has not yet lodged in your memory. But if you do not make this effort, you might never graduate to that stage where you can sit down, read a text and genuinely make sense of it.

When you begin to translate the Classical languages, it takes time to write in idiomatic English, rather than translation-ese. Classicists have a special translation-ese of their own known as “Liddell Scottish” (from Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon, first published in 1843). Older texts in the Loeb Classical Library are sometimes composed in this hideous dialect, which is supposed to sound ‘literary’ but involves phrases like “be thou of stouter heart, sirrah”. Nobody has ever talked like this. Yet the quaint diction in Victorian-era dictionaries can be addictive, not least because it can be used to disguise the fact that you don’t really understand what you are translating (or what you just said). You have only started to master the art of translation when you can express yourself simply, in something like the language that you actually speak.

Robert Browning in his seventies (c. 1888).

Composition in Latin (and Greek) is much harder, because you need to memorise so much material: not just vocabulary, but grammatical constructions, syntax, rhetorical devices and so on. It helps to have learnt passages from ancient literature by heart so that you have some sense of the style that you are trying to recreate. You may dream idly of writing artistic prose like Tacitus or Apuleius, but when you have a working knowledge of a few dozen Latin words, most of which relate to military manoeuvres that you in truth can’t fully picture, then you have a long road ahead of you before attaining that sort of fluency. Composition also begins from translation: step by step you have to build up the skill to avoid looking like you plugged a few words into an online translator and then hoped for the best. There is no faking style, rhythm or nuance.

Translation and composition were at the heart of what we call the ‘Renaissance’, which we can understand, not just as a vaguely-defined historical period, but as a conscious attempt to revive all aspects of Classical antiquity – particularly Latin. As Rome declined, so did its language and literature. Mediaeval Latin (a phenomenon that followed the fall of the Roman Empire) has its highlights, many of which can be found in the wonderful Dumbarton Oaks Mediaeval Library series from Harvard University Press. There are some beautiful mediaeval Latin poems (mainly hymns); and a few geniuses like Saint Thomas Aquinas managed to express themselves with clarity, force, originality and even elegance. But in general, mediaeval Latin literature seems impoverished compared to its Classical models. Mediaeval Latinists were often at the mercy of a language that they did not know well enough to be able to express themselves fully. The Renaissance began when writers like Petrarch (1304–74) tried to change this.

Renaissance Latinists tried to restore the full range and flexibility of the language that was spoken and written when Rome was at the height of its power. They wanted to rediscover the eloquence of Cicero, and could only do this through trying to find and study as many ancient texts as they could. Harvard’s I Tatti Renaissance Library publishes texts by some of the most brilliant writers of the period: Politian (1454–94), Pietro Bembo (1470–1547) and Girolamo Fracastoro (1478–1553) could all express themselves in Latin as stylishly as any ancient Roman could. Obviously, not everybody had this knack. Renaissance Latin texts are more sophisticated and refined than their mediaeval predecessors, though many are still tricky to translate accurately into English. With second-rate ‘neo-Latin’ writers, you must try to think partially in Italian (or whatever the author’s mother tongue is) to piece together the precise meaning of what has been written.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sandro Botticelli, 1481/2 (Granger Collection, New York, USA).

All this was on my mind some years ago, on the first Tuesday of March in 2014. I had just finished lunch and was trying to drag myself back to the university library, where I was working on a very badly-written fifteenth-century scholarly text. It was so dull that I forced myself to copy it all out in pencil, purely so that I would have no excuse to skip lines (or entire pages). At the time I thought that it might be useful for a section of my PhD dissertation, although I was beginning to realise that I was wasting my time. Before I could think of another excuse not to get back to work I received a text message from an old friend who asked me to translate ‘Lorem Ipsum’ into English.

‘Lorem Ipsum’ is a piece of text that looks like Latin but is in fact gibberish. First concocted in the 1960s, this artifical text subsequently underwent increasingly bizarre evolutions. The paragraph that came my way read:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nam hendrerit nisi sed sollicitudin pellentesque. Nunc posuere purus rhoncus pulvinar aliquam. Ut aliquet tristique nisl vitae volutpat. Nulla aliquet porttitor venenatis. Donec a dui et dui fringilla consectetur id nec massa. Aliquam erat volutpat. Sed ut dui ut lacus dictum fermentum vel tincidunt neque. Sed sed lacinia lectus. Duis sit amet sodales felis. Duis nunc eros, mattis at dui ac, convallis semper risus. In adipiscing ultrices tellus, in suscipit massa vehicula eu.

At first glance this has the feel of an authentic Classical text because it is in fact a scrambled version of a passage from De Finibus Malorum et Bonorum (1.32–3) in which Cicero discusses the mistaken idea of scorning pleasure whilst extolling pain. A difficult passage even before scrambling, because (as is so often the case with Ciceronian philosophical texts) it is easy to lose the thread of the argument, once you tire of how long the sentences are. This makes it a perfect template for nonsense.

At the time this was sent to me, I had not yet read De Finibus Malorum et Bonorum. This ignorance was a Godsend: it meant that within twenty minutes I was able to produce the following:

Rrow itself, let it be sorrow; let him love it; let him pursue it, ishing for its acquisitiendum. Because he will ab hold, unless but through concer, and also of those who resist. Now a pure snore disturbeded sum dust. He ejjnoyes, in order that somewon, also with a severe one, unless of life. May a cusstums offficer somewon nothing of a poison-filled. Until, from a twho, twho chaffinch may also pursue it, not even a lump. But as twho, as a tank; a proverb, yeast; or else they tinscribe nor. Yet yet dewlap bed. Twho may be, let him love fellows of a polecat. Now amour, the, twhose being, drunk, yet twhitch and, an enclosed valley’s always a laugh. In acquisitiendum the Furies are Earth; in (he takes up) a lump vehicles bien.

The chaffinch knows.

My task was to make this bit of text just as incomprehensible in English as it is in Latin, and in the exact same way. All I had to do was read it word by word, and translate phrase by phrase. The first word, ‘lorem’, looked like dolorem minus the do-. Dolorem is the accusative of dolor, the word for ‘grief’ or ‘sorrow’. Hence ‘rrow’, which is sorrow without the ‘so-’. ‘Dolor sit amet’ posed a different challenge: three perfectly correct-looking words which, taken together, almost mean something. Sit is the third-person singular subjunctive of the verb ‘to be’, so I made sense of it as ‘let it be’. But it is followed by another third-person singular subjunctive, of the verb ‘to love’. As a translation, ‘let him love’ makes the most sense, or least nonsense. At least ‘consectetur’ seems straightforward: it comes from consector, consectari (‘to follow’). Except that this is yet another subjunctive.

For those who have forgotten – or are yet to learn – all their grammatical terms: the ‘subjunctive’ is a particular grammatical ‘mood’ (this, alas, is the technical term in English) expressing a particular attitude towards what is being said. The subjunctive is what you use to express an imaginary situation, a hypothetical possibility, an opinion, an emotion, or polite (or mildly passive-aggressive) request.

To return to the first sentence of ‘Lorem Ipsum’: ‘adipiscing elit’ looks like adipisci velit with an added ‘ng’ and a subtracted ‘v’. Adipisci velit translates roughly as ‘he may wish to acquire’; but velit (‘he may wish’) must lose its first letter to become ‘ishes’; and if the English ‘-ing’ is tacked on to the end of adipisci in Latin then it only seems fair play to deface the English equivalent with the Latin –endum. That being accomplished, I altered the whole slightly for (as it were) coherence.

Some lines of ‘Lorem Ipsum’ were easy: ‘sed sed lacinia lectus’ translates very literally as ‘yet yet dewlap bed’. As for misspelt words: ‘porttitur’ with its double-t could be rendered as ‘cusstoms offficer’. Readers with Classical Greek with notice that the last word of ‘Lorem Ipsum’, ‘eu’, seems to be a transliteration of εὖ, the adverb meaning ‘well’. If Greek gave educated Romans the same inferiority complex that French continues to give us English-speakers, then the text’s ‘eu’ seems logically to go into English as ‘bien’, the French word meaning the same thing.

Sharp-eyed readers will note a few slips and misjudgments. By accident I did not bother to translate ‘aliquam erat volutpat’; the friend who asked me to translate ‘Lorem Ipsum’ had alas forgotten all his Latin and did not notice the slip. A rare slip from a uniquely sensitive and attentive editor. Or was it a slip? Perhaps the omission reveals something of the personality or psychological state of the translator, and thus ought to be allowed to stand. This is a very twentieth-century attitude towards literature (we have not yet developed a twenty-first-century attitude worth discussing) and there is much to be said in its favour; though it seems anti-Classical in its basic assumptions. In many eyes an anti-Classical stance is in fact no bad thing, of course.

My translation of “Lorem Ipsum” was published on 14 March 2014, with typically shrewd and insightful commentary by my friend. This paragraph may well end up being the single most widely-read text that I ever write.

Horace reads before Maecenas, Fyodor Bronnikov, 1863 (Odessa Art Gallery, Ukraine).

Too often, Classicists treat translation as something akin to a crossword puzzle, forgetting that people once spoke and thought in the ancient languages, which were never simply voiceless words on a page, as they now seem to be. When you translate a coherent text, it ought to be rendered into intelligible English: you should not feel awkward reading your words aloud to someone else, unless what you are translating itself makes you squirm. Classicists sometimes preface their versions of ancient texts with disclaimers like “this translation has no pretensions of literary brilliance”. This sets up a false dichotomy.

True, the Odes of Horace (for example) are impossible to bring fully into English verse or prose because the English tradition lacks the resources to replicate anything like Horace’s metre, word order or delicate sound effects. Nobody denies this. But the claim that one has “no pretensions of literary brilliance” usually ends up being a lazy excuse for an underthought translation that communicates inadequately. There is no literary genius or talent involved in producing a plain prose translation of a given text, just competence in the language you are translating, an understanding of your material, and basic communication skills in the ‘receiving language’.

The inspiration of the poet, Nicolas Poussin, 1629/30 (Louvre Museum, Paris, France).

Translation confronts you with your own limitations, as well as those of language itself. In that sense there might be something morally improving about the exercise, at least for those of us who habitually overrate our abilities.

Years ago I had the good fortune to study with the late Fr Reginald Foster OCD, a plumber’s son from Milwaukee who became a Carmelite friar, and spent decades in Rome as Latin Secretary to the Holy See. His job mainly involved drafting and correcting official Vatican communications.

“Father Reggie”, as he was universally known to his Anglophone students, looked like a figure from the margins of a mediaeval manuscript: piercing bright-blue eyes, and a bald, shiny, bright-red head. His voice was loud yet raspy, like a malfunctioning public address system – though the sound itself was more like a toad gargling with bleach. Father Reggie was at once hilarious and terrifying: if you did not know who he was, you would guess he was a former professional wrestler who had recently become a blues musician, after a brief spell as a junkie.

Father Reggie remains the most genuinely learned man I have ever met; his depth of memory and speed of mind were like nothing I have seen before or since. His former students remember how kind, generous and relentlessly funny he was, whilst never forgetting how intolerant he was of laziness and stupidity. He not only dreamt in Latin: he knew the language so well that it seeped into his English, which could sound eccentric and over-compressed because Latin had taken over so much of his brain.

I was proud of my abilities as a Latinist right up until my first day with Father Reggie. He gave me an assignment: all I had to do was render a perfectly plain, simple piece of bureaucratic English prose into correct Latin. Two hundred words, and all my confidence melted away. It felt like I was translating at the rate of a word an hour or less, as I checked every word and phrase three times in my lexicon and grammar, drafting and redrafting line after line; I was afraid to sleep until I had finished a first draft, and after I had dozed lightly for a few hours I went back to my desk at dawn, discarded that version entirely and started again. It was uncommonly hot and humid in Rome, but even with the air conditioning on in my bedroom I was bathed in sweat, purely from the realisation that this was the first time I would be judged by a real judge.

At last I produced a text that seemed worthy of Father Reggie’s attention, and produced a fair copy, which I handed to him as calmly as I could. He scanned it rapidly but attentively. After a long thirty seconds he looked up and growled: “Maybe that’s the way they say it Kathmandu.” Then he showed me how to do it correctly, in Ciceronian Latin rather than faux-Latin translation-ese. Father Reggie never heard my late father attempt to recite lines from Ovid and Lucretius in his thick Punjabi accent, but he was familiar enough with the peculiarities of Latinity on the Indian subcontinent (even if his sense of geography remained touchingly vague). I needed to regularise my diction and grammar if my prose was to be comprehensible outside of (say) a few learned circles in the Diocese of Jalandhar. After all, what was the point of trying to communicate in Latin, if it was to be reduced to a mere private language or idiolect?

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here.

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