Notes on Classical Translation

Because I’m currently reading Sarah Ruden’s new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions (out this week from Modern Library), and also because I seem to have made the acquaintance lately of a lot of scholars of antiquity and classical languages, I thought it would be a useful exercise to think back on how my undergraduate Latin and Greek professors had us approach translation so we can compare notes.

Starting with Latin. Here’s the gist: the Classics department at Georgetown offered three levels of language-learning courses. The intro classes were always your standard order Latin class, where you learn your grammar and syntax and maybe translate some Catullus or something at the end of the semester (I placed out of this level as a freshman so I don’t know what texts and textbooks they used). The intermediate classes were primarily translation-based—I started here and read parts of Cicero’s In Catilinam and book 2 of the Aeneid—but there was also a substantial focus on the finer points of Latin grammar and style via Moreland and Fleischer’s Latin: An Intensive Course. After that, you were ready to dive headfirst into the upper-level course, which would pretty much always be on individual authors, excepting the prose composition class that was offered once every four semesters or so (sadly, I never had the chance to take either Latin or Greek prose comp).

The first advanced Latin course I took in college was on Lucretius’s De rerum natura, of which we read pretty much the whole text, skipping over select parts of books 2–5. The “textbook” for the course was the Oxford Classical Text edition with critical apparatus; we weren’t given any commentaries, though the existence of such was vaguely alluded to. The class met twice a week and our at-home preparation consisted of reading 120 lines or so of Latin for each class; by the end of the semester, the professor had dialed up the assignments to 180 lines (I don’t think he ever crossed 200). On lecture days, we’d meet in the Classics Department conference room—the appointed chamber for all such upper-level courses, swelteringly hot in both summer and winter because the 100-year-old Healy Hall was not built to comfort its inhabitants through the elements—where we’d all sit around the table, wall of Loebs to our backs and chalkboard to our front.

When the professor arrived we’d start right in on translating. Normally he’d choose someone at random to lead us off and then work in a circle around the room (although, in later courses I took with him, all semblance of order went out the windows and he’d cold call anyone as he felt like it). When it was your turn to translate, you were expected to work your way through 8–15 lines using only the text in front of you—no flashcards, no lists of vocab, no electronic devices of any kind (heavens forbid): just you and the Latin. You were strongly discouraged from marking up your text. The goal in translating, and in preparing for class, was to familiarize yourself with any vocabulary you didn’t know (including the particular uses of words as they appear in the assigned passages), work out a solid understanding of the grammatical relation between words (you’d better know your declensions!), and, finally, think about the passage on a macro level—what’s going on here, what’s the author doing, what does this remind me of. I should note that this third piece was always subordinate to the first two: if you didn’t understand the Latin at a word-by-word level, it was considered less than useless to try to interpret the text at any other level.

So Tim is called upon in class one day to translate 12 lines of Lucretius. I put myself to the challenge of working from a blank text, with nothing whatsoever written in the margins or above the words or anything. I’d work my way through the lines, trying to recall the relationships between words I had worked out at home, occasionally stumbling over arcane vocabulary (as I got older and gained more familiarity with my professors, I had a bit more chutzpah in admitting when I didn’t know something; more than once I got a chuckle out of a professor from throwing my hands up and asking him to help me out—generally he was okay with this! It was actually preferred that you admit to forgetting single words than spend minutes agonizing over what dirimi means and holding up the class).

After you got to the end of your assigned lines, the professor would correct any glaringly obvious mistakes you had made before turning discussion over to the rest of the class. “So what’s interesting here?” At this point people would chime in, pointing out rhetorical devices, making connections to broader concepts in classical philosophy or literature (the seniors and overzealous freshmen were always relied upon to supply that kind of commentary), recalling echoes of previous passages we had gone over as a class. Only if something noteworthy were passed over would the professor step in and supply anything approximating a lecture; at the beginning of the semester, in the example of my Lucretius class, this would inevitably imply a couple minutes’ digression into an explanation of Epicurean philosophy. (I should note that each semester began, in the first two or three days, with a brief overview of when the author was writing, where they were from, how to use the critical apparatus, etc.)

That’s about it! Throughout the semester we’d have a midterm exam and final exam, a final research paper on any topic of our choosing (lacking a deep background of classical history or philosophy, as I mostly took philology courses in college, I invariably had  trouble coming up with interesting topics), and 4 or 5 one-page papers where we were asked to do a “local analysis,” to explain, interpret, and make a larger argument about the usage ofa single word or cluster of words in a select passage of the text. These were extremely challenging assignments, not least of all because the guidance we received on them was quite laissez-faire.

Greek courses worked much the same way, though since I started from scratch I can give you a fuller picture of how it was taught. Intro ancient Greek was a 2-semester sequence, meeting 4 days a week, with Hansen and Quinn’s Greek: An Intensive Course our textbook. Semester 1 was all grammar and vocab; we’d get through about one chapter of the textbook per week, with quizzes on the previous week’s chapter each Thursday. In semester 2, we’d finish off the textbook by mid-April and jump right into translation, which was approached pretty much in the same spirit as the Latin courses I described above. We started with a few defense speeches of Lysias, then had enough time by the end of the semester to tackle book 1 of the Odyssey. 

After Intro Greek you could either sign up for Intermediate Greek the following fall, or if you were a crazy person like I was you could take an intensive 3-week summer course in Greek to start advanced classes in the fall. The summer course might twice a day in 2 hour blocks, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. We read Plato’s Ion, Euripides’s Medea, and a couple of pages of Herodotus. The emphasis in this course was on exposing yourself to as much Greek as possible, which came at the expense of discussing, say, Plato’s philosophy in any great detail. If memory serves we had to translate about 3 single-sided pages of Greek for each session, so 6 pages per day until the end of the course when the professor started adding on more work as he saw fit for our reading speed. The advanced courses (I only took one, on Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe) were taught almost identically to the advanced Latin courses as described above.

When you were a senior, if you were a translation all-star, you could opt to create a tutorial instead of writing an honors thesis! I didn’t want to escape undergrad without having read some Ovid, so I assembled a syllabus for a yearlong read-through of the Metamorphoses, complete with secondary literature to supplement approximately 500 lines of Latin each week. This was the last “translation” class I took in college, and most of the onus was on me: I met with my advisor weekly (though typically less frequently, as he was the department chair and always had to cancel for meetings, though he did so in knowing confidence of my ability to stay on task and read what I had promised I would get through each week) to discuss what I had found interesting about the previous 500 lines and ask questions about what was going on, names and stories I didn’t recognize, etc. Only if he was in the mood would he ask me to do any translating on the spot for him. At the end of the year, I had a 2-hour-long exam, consisting of one part translation (I was given three long passages of Latin, chosen at random from the Met., and asked to render them into English in the span of an hour) and one part discussion, where I met, Oxford-style, with my advisor and my ancient Greek professor, who gave me two Latin passages and asked me to comment on them. They didn’t give me any prompting whatsoever, but as I worked my way through the text they would question my interpretations and play the devil’s advocate to really push me on my weak points and see just how capable I was of explaining myself and the Latin before me.

So there you have it! That’s how I learned Latin and ancient Greek. Emphasis, you will see, was obviously philological and linguistic far more than philosophical, though to my mind it was a far more valuable education to learn how to translate ancient authors with accuracy and faithfulness to their language than to interpret ancient texts through any particular ideological lens.

Addendum: I forgot to add that, when it came to making claims about an author’s intent, whether in writing or in class discussion, students were expected to have at least three pieces of evidence to back their argument up. So if you saw Lucretius using Latin in a way that would seem to indicate he feels a certain away about, I don’t know, Stoics, one instance of what you’re observing was treated as nothing to write home about, two instances were looked on with more interest and curiosity, and three instances were fair game for serious discussion and grounds for a paper topic.