Harry Mount seems a witty, decent guy. I mean amo Amo Amas Amat and all that and he is a proud Classicist. But his comments comparing Latin-to-English translation to busking has caused a stir.
In the blog post with the title “The tragic dumbing down of Latin in our schools” (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/harrymount/100070694/the-tragic-dumbing-down-of-latin-in-our-schools/) Mount suggests that:
“When you’re translating Latin into English, you can busk it: translate the words roughly and then cobble them together into goodish English. With the other way round – English into Latin – there’s no busking. You’re either right or you’re wrong – there’s no grey area. That’s one of the joys of Latin; precisely because it’s a dead language, there’s no wriggle room, no negotiating over the correct answer, as there is with the shifting meanings of modern languages.”
You may agree with Mount, but I do not. I hope to provide another post for a detailed counter-argument but let me ask you to consider a few points. On “no wriggle room” in Latin, I challenge anyone to be a judge of a correct answer in English-to-Latin translation, prose composition or however it should be termed. We are not Romans and we do not think, speak or write like Romans, however much we practise. Mount’s suggestions that there is only one correct answer is only verifiable if Cicero is alive, and even then only if we were tasked to compose in the style of Cicero. Coincidently, when translating into “shifting… modern languages”, are we asked to translate in the style of Borges or Moliere? If so, then perhaps Modern Foreign Language would gain “rigour” as defined by Mount.
It also riles me that Mount’s comment discount the work of GCSE students for the past many years, who, in his eyes, would have been “busking it” because they did no Latin-to-English. Nor is English-to-Latin necessarily harder – if in a Latin course students only learn to translate English-to-Latin, then Latin-to-English would be difficult for them. In reality, the situation is that students only learn to translate Latin-to-English, which is sensible if Latin were not to be treated as another intellectual exercise such as Su-Do-Ku and its variants.
I cannot doubt Mount’s passion for the subject despite the fact that our views are very far apart. Not only views on prose composition, but views on Latin as a whole. Some passionate Latinists promote the subject as more rigorous than other subjects, the language as more challenging than others. Indeed a GCSE in Latin is seen as a grade more difficult to the second most difficult subject, while Latin maintains a more complex structure that French, Spanish and English does not have. But if complexity is such a draw, should we not (indeed some do) push our students to study Russian, Arabic or Mandarin Chinese or indeed Ancient Greek? Latin is a difficult subject at GCSE level, but it is up to the authorities to decide at what difficulty level a public Latin exam should sit – and we can always influence their thinking on this matter.
Latin is also inherently complex and some seem to mistake the challenge of a complex language to be the sole driving force for learning Latin. Comments on Latin include “it is a precise language”, “it is succinct”, “there are many things to remember to work out a sentence”. Yet we cannot sell a subject on the merit of challenge alone. The British tradition of grammar-translation is a very long one and the fact that the grammatical and translation exercise is so rigid in requiring exact translation is, I suggest, a result of this tradiion. Yet times has changed and so have the course books.
Learning Latin now has a stronger emphasis on understanding rather than linguistic exercise. And why should it not? If learning Latin should open a door to the Classical texts, we need to be able to read the text efficiently, extracting relevant information. A precise grasp of the language helps our reading of Latin, but a precise translation and analysis of Latin every time a Latin text is encountered does not help improve our Latin reading skills. A climate of Latin learning where a perennial precision is aimed for also moves the focus of Latin onto a linguistic exercise at the expense of understanding Classical culture through original language – in this climate Latin truly is a dead language.