... or Translating as you Read !

It is now a more than a half-century since language teachers started having students "read in the language", that is read materials in a foreign language as they are written, without translating. It should have been obvious all along that reading a poem in French means "reading it as French", not reading the French visually while you are translating on a separate track in English. Not only is this process of constructing a running translation in English slow and clumsy, missing the nuances and sounds of the original, it comes with an iron-clad guarantee that you will never develop a "reading knowledge".

To a modern teacher of the modern languages, this must sound like beating a dead horse. But this is the horse many Classicists still ride, secure in their traditional approach, and convinced that students are really a dumb lot and won't understand the texts properly without translating it so the teacher can see everything is correct. In past years the student not only translated each word but parsed out the grammar on demand, an even more dangerous process and still not entirely abandoned.

But suspicious schoolmarm mentality is out of place in the process of getting a reading knowledge of any language. One Latin teacher I know stated that if the students didn't translate, how would she know if they understood it at all. I am sure that students doing Greek or Latin are a linguistically able and interested group or they wouldn't be doing that kind of work. What they really want is getting a real reading knowledge of their ancient texts, perhaps slower than reading a French newspaper because some of the texts are tough and involved. But there is only one way to read a Greek or Latin text, which is to read it in the original form while your mind stays fully within the language, grammar and sentence structure with the meaning of the individual words.

Over the years I have known teachers who could not read in an ancient language. I have watched lips moving in English while they were reading their Homer, and I am sure that no matter how fluent they became in this process of "transverbalization", they were not possessed of a real reading knowledge of Greek. I recall mentioning this point years ago to Harvard's late John Finley, who noted "Why, I read my Plato as easily as I reach French.....".. The key to this natural kind of reading is first of all eschewing translation and staying closely with the text.

There is a use for translating knotty passages, or documenting a sentence you can't get straight so you can ask the teacher for help. But this is the emergency solution, you use it when in trouble, and should move ahead at your natural pace when the going is clear.

My warning is clear and succinct: If you want to get a useful reading knowledge of Greek or Latin, start from the beginning reading the words in their original form, sound and order. Each word should evoke an image, an idea or a simple grammatical relationship to the other words. Go with the flow of the sentences, let the words speak to you and enjoy the directness of connecting, word by word, with the mind of someone who has been dead for two thousand years. This involves "immediacy", directness of communication, and this is what the Classics are all about.

Having jettisoned the idea of word-by-word translation, you have another burden to deal with. What we call "Grammar" is a double edged knife, on the one side there are simple and direct connections of words with words and with ideas, the glue of cementing words into phrases and sentences. Think of English, how invisible the glue and the glue joints of this sentence which I am writing, actually are. A natural sentence is like well made furniture where the fingernail can't find the joint, to use the Roman poet's example.

But there is the other edge of this knife, the dull one which won't cut butter, and I should call it "Grammarism". This is on over- preoccupation with the formalized linguistic glue I just mentioned, as if it were the most important aspect of language, while words and ideas were its servants. By clothing Grammar with a specialized language of its own, a "meta-language" devoted to grammar, we construct another heavy and unnecessary burden for the reader. Now it is something like this:
a) read a word in Latin while.....
b) you speak it out in your mind in English, and at the same time........
c) you track it in the terminology of Grammarese.

No wonder few people ever achieve a fluent and worthwhile reading knowledge of a Classical language. But if you are not too far up this ladder, you can get off and start on your own with Direct Reading.

You deal with what is there in black on white paper copy, you read the words carefully absorbing images and ideas from the words, and at the same time relationships (the natural grammar) from their configuration. And as always happens with your native tongue, your imagination will fill in the correct answer for something new or unfamiliar, if you have already grasped three or four of the items in that configuration.

This pertains to the grammar, but especially to the much more demanding requirement for vocabulary which goes on forever. We hardly ever look up words in English, they are all learned by use, and so with an ancient language. If you read well, and remember well, and have faith in your own assembly of that set of skills, you are in the process of achieving something really worthwhile: A Reading Knowledge.

ADDENDUM: A Practical Approach

Over the past two years a number of people have communicated with me about this matter of automatic "transverbalization" when reading Latin. But although I think I made the case fairly well in the above essay a few years ago, from a linguistic point of view, I didn't offer much in the way of a getting around and past this chronic Classical translating malaise. So I am going to try to say something more on the subject, but from a different angle.

What you really need is a teacher who doesn't do the daily word-by-word translation, but these are rare. The Classics is a conservative field and teachers who were taught in school to translate automatically in real-time as it were, are not likely to change direction in their middle years of teaching. Younger Latin teachers who have done parallel work in one of the modern foreign languages will realize that you don't do French or Spanish this way, and these are the group most likely to be teaching Latin directly in the Latin text, not in English transformation.

The high school or college student's worst enemy is two or three years of 'translating" in class, which establishes a complex pattern of behavior that will be hard to break. Adults who have learned their Latin years ago still retain an automatic urge to speak out English while reading Latin, and this habit has to be dealt with if they are serious about really learning to read Latin as Latin in the language.

I was just discussing this with a very perceptive and intelligent student, who was intent on doing his Latin the right way, but felt he lacked directions. So I emailed him back a set of procedures which I thought would help him, and from that short email reply, I am going to work out a pathway for un-learning the old translating system, or starting Latin from ground-base as he is planning to do on his own.

I must make one point by way of preface. Some years ago an experienced teacher remarked to me: "If they don't translate, how do I know if they understand it at all ?" Many Latin teachers will echo this note, which raises the old problem of student comprehension. In an English class, the teacher asks questions, observes discussion, asks for comment on critical points, and gets a competent assessment of what the student has grasped. But nobody would think of asking for a word-by-word paraphrase of a short story or a poem in English, but this would be the all-English analog to translating a test from Language A into Language B.
Clumsy, indirect, un-intuitive and tedious, this is in effect what we have been doing in our teaching of Latin for over a century. But remember that from the Renaissance up through the l8th century Latin was a usable language, commentaries for the Delphine editions were written in Latin, and reading Latin did NOT mean re-thinking the words in French, German or Italian. It was only when Latin died as a vehicle for communication and verged into a Literary Tradition, that teachers began to treat it as 'foreign' and difficult, to be continually checked at the word-level by translation.


It is useless to try to learn a language without some interest, which in a modern language may be as minor as asking where the post office is, or how to order a glass of beer. For an ancient language we can try to go this route, but there are difficulties with Latin where we are not sure about many of the daily phrases in use. We have to "reconstruct" Latin as we think it may have been spoken, fake terms for a 'study' from a few questionable passages, and avoid 'telephones' and 'automobiles' as a matter of common sense. A Neo-Neo-Latin could be constructed to cope with everything of our age, like classical Hebrew expanded in Israel into the third Millennium, but this is another project and one which sheers away from reading Classical Latin.

Never learn from a boring source or teacher. So my best suggestion is to take something interesting to start with, and I can think of nothing better than some of the poems of Catullus.

Read through ONE poem first, using where necessary grammar and dictionary and work through the whole traditional mode. I suggest getting this firmly in mind, and then setting it aside in an effort to forget it, which means consigning it to somewhere in the unconscious mind. Language works that way, you read concentrating actively on the words and sounds of your text, while your grammatical apparatus is operating "in the background" as we say in computer language. This is how language works. No background means no comprehension. But background pushed into the foreground means no real reading at all.

Then memorize the poem you have selected, so you can speak and read it aloud from memory when the book is closed, when you are walking down the street or watching a sunset in another mood. Now you have something in Latin which has become a part of your mind, without the grammatical claptrap rearing up between you and the words. Walking around, away from the book, talk it through again. And again.....and again. But sooner or later, at some critical point in your progression, you will be hearing and visualizing the images, the thoughts. At this point, you are dealing directly with Meanings as you read, and you will be started off on the right road.

But this takes time and effort, it has to be your own work and your own path, like everything important in this world. You don't get "Perception" from a three-credit Course or from a lesson-book, any more than you get Exuberant Health automatically from a set of hospital treatments. Your work and your returns, it has to be that way. Speaking of this in terms of learning Latin, maybe consider this as an experiment : How much can you learn on your own without teacher, or school, even without a textbook? What you learn independently is your personal possession, and will carry over later in future ways which are completely unforeseen now.

So I suggest we start with Catullus, whose poetry is brilliantly alive even when on trifling topics. There is none of the difficult Ciceronian periodicity of sentences, nor Horace's over-clever innuendo weaving, so you an concentrate on the words without wondering (as with Vergil) if they mean something else than what they are saying.

Start with poem #I which is an easy little 'dedication', but clever with a little joke about Nepos the heavy historian, as compared with his own 'trifling verse'. Not a great poem but cleanly written and a good start.

Cui dono lepidum nouum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas
iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aeuum tribus explicare cartis
doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis.
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
qualecumque; quod, patrona virgo
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo.

Depending on where you are with your Latin skills, former student or reviewer or cold-turkey beginner, there will be problems. But most of these you will figure out by yourself as you pursue the following section. Meaning may not appear at once, as when you first hear a new word in English, but wait and it will surface.

Remember that when we read, a certain part of the meaning comes through by guesswork and intuition. Our vocabulary in a native language is not the result of tables of words looked up in the dictionary, but guessed meanings which become firm after three or four trials. Words only have secure meaning in a context, and a line of Catullus which has five known elements will provide us with pretty fair search-tactics for the one unknown word. A word not known is to be noted and filed in memory, word or form or a special usage --- these are all the basis for a search and intuitive identification. We do this all the time at home, don't freak out and run for the dictionary, just try it is Latin too.

Just a few words to comment: 'esse aliquid' sounds like English 'be Something!, but the English raises the value, while the Latin is slyly (if insincerely) pejorative. So 'quicquid hoc (est) libelli' is almost the same idea, but 'be' often vanishes in Latin, and 'such as it is' is about the right tone here. 'Libelli' is like French 'quelquechose de nouveau'. Why? because they do it that way.

If I told you I was thinking of putting at the head of my website as a classical citation "Plus uno maneat perenne anno", you should be able to figure out the Latin final line of the poem with "........saeclo" the point of the line, from a perspective of two thousands years. But you do the search.

When you have got this poem memorized so you can recall it without thinking, you will sooner or alter find it 'speaking ' back to you (which is really what we were asking for). That is the proof of this linguistic pudding, when you are talking out these words,. Your mind is coursing over Catullus and his little dedication, (which is aimed at someone quite different from him), at the end you will find a sincere low-key finale which has stood the test of time car better than Catullus could have imagined. At that point you possess the poem, you've got it.

Let's skim next through to a few of the love poems which are a curious mixture of love with an intimation of trouble after the first flush of emotion is fading. We do know who Lesbia is, the name is nothing more than Mme. Litteraire, actually a really bad woman in her time, and certainly no simple girl as the poet seemed to believe at first. But his love is so bold and exuberant, so flashing and careless of what other will certainly be saying --- this is pure romantic poetry from the heart, well ahead of the imitations in the Renaissance and the Romantic Revolution.

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum seueriorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit breuis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

The verbs bracketing the first line are Subjunctives: 'Let us....' since the vowels are changed from what you learn first. If line 5 is bright, line 6 is deep organ tones of another dark world. And don't be surprised by the number-playing, a nice jokey mood, leading to 'the Evil Eye' of Puritanical Roman big brother snooping and cursing with envy.

But the words and meaning are nothing without the sounds, and there is also rhythm which you will have to assess as you go, letting the natural beats emerge as you read. The old way of 'paper scanning' with marks over the words is useless, a sure way of denying the musicality of the lines. Later it will be good to go back and check the subtle interplay of Long and Short syllables, which are somehow meshed in with a Latin prose speaking Stress accent. But this is a complex relationship best heard and felt, not something to be puzzled over in a manual. And the formal Scansion may never really be necessary if you follow you ear carefully and adroitly.

If the above poem is light and brightness, with just a touch of evil at the tail, this one is all a distillation of despair, love gone wrong, and a trail of anger in the memory of what it was before.

Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod uides perisse perditum ducas.
fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum uentitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
ibi illa multa cum iocosa fiebant,
quae tu uolebas nec puella nolebat,
fulsere uere candidi tibi soles.
nunc iam illa non uult: tu quoque impotens noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser uiue,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
uale puella, iam Catullus obdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit inuitam.
at tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla.
scelesta, uae te, quae tibi manet uita?
quis nunc te adibit? cui uideberis bella?
quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?
quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis?
at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.

Think of English cognates whenever possible, although they will not have the same exact meanings. 'Ineptire' is more than being inept, but like that word it is 'foolish, kidding oneself'. Now he is remembering happiness with line 5, jolted to reversed negative at 10, a hint of 'good-bye'. But a flash of anger, right on with lightening strokes till the last line, when mutedly, 'hold on, hang in there...'. Now "Good-bye (if you can" !)

Many of us have or will find themselves in this same situation, not knowing what to say or feel. We can do worse than mentally read to ourselves, in the dull throes of desperation, this poem of an ancient lover long gone but for his words. It won't do any harm to memorize now, for insurance against some future need.

There are many more of these wonderful poems compounded out of love and also hate, and you will find over fifty of Catullus' finest ones in my rearranged collection on this website. Rather than recommend my favorites, I think it is more important for you to find your own pieces to work out, perhaps following leads from the short literary notes I have attached to each poem.

But I have to talk about one more poems here, the famous # 101, since it is so deep and laden with feeling in every word. Catullus' brother had died at a far place, he comes to the funeral which is no funeral only too late, and there is nothing more to say than a final word of 'greeting' and a long 'good-bye'.

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
     advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
     et multam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.
     heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
     tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
     atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

This short poem on death is harder to read because it is so very painful, and there are ritual words pertaining to death at Roman funerals which do not match with our practices. It will take time for the various accents to come out, but this will only work if you do it the right way. That mean reading aloud slowly, carefully, as if you were handling the ashes of a cremated relationship, starting from the words from 'traveling to here...', to the final line with its 'brother (forever) good-bye'.

I must stress the point that ion reading Latin it is essential to have superb writing to work with from the very start. And it is also important to have the grammar backgrounded in your unconscious mind, while you are reading the words which are not just words, with conscious sound in mind. Together these elements must be mixed and burned into you mind so they are a part of your thinking, and out of that will come the full range of the author's meanings. If deep meaning is there, your reading of the text is will be a complex spider's web of technique and attention, in which the meaning is captured.

I am sure that for beginner or for a person already into Latin but mired in the automatic process of translation, this is the right approach. If you don't have a sympathetic and understanding teacher, you will have to go it alone, which in the end may be the best route.

We as Americans have an overrated sense of respect for "Institutions" like colleges and courses and lesson-books, which we believe will lead us to enlightenment. But the learning process is always quite private, we are the ones who do the learning in our own sphere of activity. What we learn is for ourselves and by ourselves, and things thus learned are what we retain for our use for the rest of our lives.

If what I have said here seems reasonable and potentially useful, still remember that all this will take time and effort. Nothing important comes easy, but if you have a good spirit, and are prepared to stay with it for a while, I would certainly say: Go for it....!

Return to Latin Background index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College