ABOUT THE STUDY OF LATIN AND ITS VALUE


The real reason for studying Latin is to read the masterpieces written in that language, which can never be translated in any satisfactory way. Meanings and storylines can be translated, but the tone, the feelings, the emotional thrust, and the musicality disappear. The last word on this subject should be the statement of Robert Frost, who stated long ago that "poetry is that which disappears in translation". If you want to read Vergil, you are going to have to learn Latin, or simply forget about it.

Vergil is the obvious "locus classicus" for this topic:

His storyline might have been stirring for a patriotic Roman, but for us, in an age in which nationalism has run amuck and led us into international intolerance as prelude to generations of warfare, the drumroll of the glory of Rome's mighty hand cannot operate for many of us as the basis for a major work of art. Nor is Vergil a penetrating psychologist, a deep seer into human nature in the manner of the Greek dramatists. But those are not the things which Vergil is about, he is working in an entirely different level, or perhaps we should say in his case, a different set of levels.

Vergil projects scenes of men and places which are veiled in a sense of interiorness. Whether this inner view of things is vested in the denoted content, or the intimate structure of the forms and sounds of the words as they are strung like beads on a waxed linen thread, is not clear. Nor it is intended to be clear, and it was probably not clear to the artist, who was writing with mind composed of elements of conscious and unconscious intermixed. In a telling passage he describes the Cumaean Sibyl writing abstruse messages on oak tree leaves, which scattered in the wind into unforeseen assemblages. The ancient Life of Vergil describes his fitful method of composing, leaving parts undone until the time was right, shored up on temporary props waiting for the final form to come about. There is mystery in all this, in his composition, in his composed lines, in his mind, and this shines unaccountably through even when he is telling a factual tale. The later Romans felt wonder in Vergil, Dante recognized a fellow soul in appointing Vergil as his guide in a world of Christian theology.

In such a world of hidden mysteries, of nascent images intertwined with wreathes of magic words and sonorities, you cannot tamper with a single word without outrage. Then how can you think of accepting a re-do in which every word is recast into the mould of another language, in which all the sounds are ignored, and the magic of Vergil's technique of writing somewhere in-between the lines, comes to nothing? That is what translation does! And that is why I maintain you have to read art of this quality in the original, not because it is recommended by the academic establishment, but because there is no other way.

But there are other ways of approaching books. The study of any foreign language is by itself a good experience in the Humanities. One learns that people in different times and places express themselves in very different ways, and that some of the things which they say quite casually in their own tongue cannot be put into English at all. Everybody becomes impatient at trying to say something to somebody who is incapable of understanding, but the first lesson of Linguistics is that languages are not universally compatible.

When one comes to see that it is interesting, rather than infuriating, that different folks have different ways of speaking, one has learned an important lesson about the human condition. Furthermore different ways of speaking imply different ways of thinking. The lesson about cultural diversity that Linguistics initiates, Sociology and Anthropology can document in detail. The final chapter may someday be written by a future generation of Humanists, if they learn to take their role as "philosophers of humanity" in a serious way.

Return to Latin Background index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris