Sol Day

Sol Day 22Sep2013 – Latin-to-English is not dumbing down

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” ( 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.


3 thoughts on “Sol Day 22Sep2013 – Latin-to-English is not dumbing down

  1. Dear Colleague “Sol Day”,
    First I commend Harry Mount for using his own name on his blog. I am new to your blog, and so perhaps that is why I cannot find your name, unless by happy fortune it really is “Sol Day.” I am sure you are a dedicated Latinist, but I have to agree with Harry. His point is not, really, that there is anything wrong with Latin-to-English per se, but that it is a sad state of affairs when English-to-Latin is entirely omitted, probably from the assumption that it is either too demanding for the students, or too hard to grade.
    English-to-Latin usually is more difficult, and a higher level of mastery of the language is required. English-to-Latin practice, or better yet, just writing and speaking in Latin, also provides the best path towards language comprehension and language mastery. This statement is based on an enormous quantity of language-acquisition research, and as well on my own long experience. Endless years of only translating Latin into English simply cannot achieve as good results for reading comprehension (which is also your stated goal), and therefore does not seem to be at all “sensible.”
    Yours truly,
    Diane Warne Anderson

    • Diane,

      Though I disagree with you in terms of translating English-to-Latin being significantly more difficult than to do so in the opposite direction, I do agree with you that it is sad English-to-Latin is entirely omitted.

      The Latin curriculum, as it is, is already challenging for students. In the current GCSE curriculum students translate from Latin-to-English to the level of reading original texts as set unaided and reading original texts unseen with some help. By focusing solely in the process of Latin-to-English students can achieve this, though it is no mean feat for a 16 year-old juggling around nine other subjects. My main issue with Harry Mount is that this is somehow “busking” – it is not. It is an unfair thing to say and Latin does not deserved the “dumbed-down” level. I sat my GCSE seven years ago and I did not find the exam a breeze. English-to-Latin cannot be done to a reasonable level if fitted in to a GCSE curriculum. On a separate argument, it may also make the subject less appealing to those seeking an alternative from modern foreign languages in schools where a language ancient or modern must be learnt.

      The proposal from Politeia is to include simple sentences for English-to-Latin translation. The purpose for this will be purely linguistic and not beneficial to a student’s understanding of any text. The sentences will be devoid of any context, and it will require good grammar teaching only to perform well. I here agree with you that being required to translate English-to-Latin will help grammar learning but I would rather, at the level of GCSE, that students have a sound basis on understanding text. The reading, inductive method of learning as employed by the Cambridge Latin Course will result in students spending more time in understanding text at a sentence and text level than at a word-by-word level. They will not be as careful or sound with their translations and parsing but will be more efficient with, and interested in their text. That, to me, would be better than perfecting the grammar in order to provide sound translations for a few sentences. If the suggestion were to put in prose composition as a significant proportion of the exam, I would still disagree but prefer that to the current piecemeal effort, for the reason that it would allow for longer passages which has a context. But for this to happen I would feel that a significant part of the syllabus must make way.

      I believe it is right that the place to tighten up Latin language skills is at the post-16 level. The greater amount of time that can be devoted to Classics teaching then makes it more suitable. Those who at post-16 level take up Latin will be doing this alongside only three or four subjects and can afford to devote a greater amount of time and mind to the Latin cause, and willingly too since they narrowed the subject choices of their own accord. We have to decide, of all the things that are beneficial to language learning, which strategy to include without harming time we can spend to encourage students’ appreciation of ancient texts and the ancient world.

      It is mainly in when they do English-to-Latin or when they develop this level of rigour in grammar as required by contextless sentence compositions that leads me to believe that pre-16 is not the correct time to introduce English-to-Latin as part of the curriculum. Nor do I accept that this means Latin GCSE students can busk – accusations like that is quite hard to fight but I believe that most students and teachers have enough content in the GCSE syllabus to content with. And to bear in mind some do not even have a timetabled lesson at this level.

      This is only a view, along with many views out there, of mine. I am no expert but I have knowledge in teaching Classics. Diane your comment did make me think about my views and I look forward to hearing from you or anyone else who has a view on this!

      Henry Lee
      Classics Collective

      (P.S. We are still building this new blog but feel free to check out our Twitter account, or Facebook page

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