Reading and Translating, Part II

salvēte iterum, amīcī – et, fortasse, nunc inimīcī!  If you find yourself in the inimīcus or even hostis category after the most recent post, I truly appreciate your continued interest in the project.  It’s hard to keep reading about stuff that you simply detest! 🙂  For those who are still amīcī, we’ll take a closer look in this post at why Tres Columnae won’t use a “pure” grammar-translation approach, even though we’ll certainly learn about Latin grammar (and even learn how to use it!) … and even though some tasks for our participants may well involve some translation.

For early language learners, though, I see two main problems with a grammar-translation approach: the grammatical analysis and the translating.  Both, I’m convinced, are higher-level tasks for which learners need to be prepared.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, analysis is a very high-level task. On Bloom’s taxonomy, it’s near the top of the pyramid; in the Paideia framework, it’s firmly ensconced at the level of Understanding. But a beginning Latin student is often struggling with knowledge and comprehension – the base of Bloom’s pyramid.  It’s one thing to read and comprehend a sentence like these, from early in Cursus Prīmus of Tres Columnae:

Milphiō est servus Valeriī.  servus in faucibus stat et iānuam aperit.  Lollius est cliēns Valeriī, et Valerius est patrōnus Lolliī.  Lollius domum intrat et patrōnum salūtat.

A beginning Latin student could quite easily comprehend these sentences,and could certainly “translate” them if needed.  In fact, the beginning student could easily distinguish the nouns, or even the nominative or genitive nouns.  These are reasonable goals for a beginning Latin student.  But is it really reasonable to assume, as many “hard-core” grammar-translation teachers do, that students should be able to say and understand all this information about a word:

Valeriī, 2nd declension, genitive, singular, masculine, genitive of possession with servus

What if the student accidentally says “partitive genitive” instead?  Does this mean he or she doesn’t “know” Latin?  Now, at some point, it might be perfectly reasonable to ask a learner for all this information – but in Lectiō Tertia of Cursus Primus?  After the equivalent of a week or two of instruction?  I really don’t think so!

As for translation, it’s an even higher-level task than analysis.   Fundamentally, translation is an act of evaluation and creation – the highest level in both Bloom’s revised taxonomy and the Paideia framework. Translation may seem straightforward with a simple sentence like the ones above – and yet, what if the student says “Valerius is Lollius’ patron” rather than what the teacher wanted, which is “Valerius is the patron of Lollius”?  Was the student wrong?

But what about this one, from Eutropius’ Breviarium ab urbe condita VI.21, describing the last battle between Caesar and Pompey:

Pugnatum tamen est ingenti contentione victusque ad postremum Pompeius et castra eius direpta sunt.

How can we faithfully represent that impersonal passive verb pugnatum est?   And how can we deal with the position of tamen?  To translate literally, we’d have to say “it was, however, fought” – but that doesn’t mean, in English, what pugnātum tamen est means Latīnē. “A fight, however, occurred?” “Fighting, however, happened?” “There was, however, a fight?” “But they fought?”   All are possible translations; how to choose between them?

In the end, all translation choices involve aesthetic, artistic questions (which is why no two published, literary translations of anything are exactly the same).  And to make such judgments, the translator requires a high level of comfort and familiarity with both Latin and English – in other words, a high level of ownership of several disparate things: Latin grammar, English grammar, Latin syntax, English syntax, Latin prose style, English prose style, Latin vocabulary ….

And yet this Eutropius passage appears in at least one third-year high-school textbook.  Latin III students are perfectly capable of reading and understanding such a sentence, and they ought to be able to analyze it grammatically.  But is it really appropriate to ask them to “translate literally” something that, by its very nature, can’t be said in English?  Of course, the solution is usually to “have a note about it” or to omit that sentence from the literal-translation part of the test! 🙂  But whenever we do so, aren’t we admitting that “literal translation,” the One Right Way, isn’t always the right way – or even a possible way?

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that as a profession, we Classicists haven’t been clear about our goals, or about the level of understanding that our goals require. That lack of clarity is not unique to Classicists, by any means!   We teachers, as a group, tend to “teach as we were taught.” If we prepared written “literal” translations as Latin II or III students, we’re likely to ask our Latin II or III students to do the same, just as math teachers who completed 35 odd-numbered problems for homework every night are likely to ask the same of their students, or teachers who were made to “outline the chapter” assign that same task to their own students.

In each case, we assume “they’re learning something” – even though we’re not quite sure what that “something” is! In fact, we assume that our students “understand the passage because they can translate it” – or, conversely, that they don’t understand the passage because the can’t translate it to our liking! Yet our wise colleague Dexter Hoyos of the University of Sydney makes it one of his Ten Rules for Reading Latin that

RULE 5: If translating, translate only when you have seen exactly how the sentence works and what it means. Do not translate in order to find out what the sentence means. Understand first, *then* translate.

Another problem with “teaching as we were taught” is that we tend to exclude learners who aren’t like the “us” who do the teaching. In the case of that math teacher, students who quickly develop a conceptual understanding will grow bored and restless with those 35 odd-numbered problems, while those who need real-world applications will probably be lost at problem #1. In the case of the Latin teacher, think of all the students who might feel excluded:

  • those who read and understand quickly, but find written translation tedious
  • those who might understand the passage fairly well, but whose written English is non-standard, or not as developed as the teacher expects
  • those with visual-processing disabilities, or with dysgraphia or other muscle-control issues that make lengthy writing tedious
  • those who decide the task is pointless because they’ve already Googled the text and found a “literal” translation (or more than one, depending on the text. Just try it if you don’t believe me! Yes, the publishers will send a cease-and-desist order if it’s a textbook, but just wait: more “literal translations” will pop up, like mushrooms!  I dare you: Google a textbook title and the word “translation” – do it right now!  And let me know if you don’t get any results back!)

Yet Magister A and Magistra B, overwhelmed with multiple preparations, continue to teach as they were taught, perhaps pausing sometimes to wonder why their upper-level classes are so small – or why, when their students’ homework was “so good” (and so similar), the translation sections of tests are so poor. :-0

While Tres Columnae will not exclude translation as a tool, we think it’s been so overused, especially with beginning and intermediate level learners, that we’ll severely limit its use. From our perspective, there are a lot of ways to demonstrate understanding, on the one hand, and grammatical analysis, on the other. And so we aim to help our participants do one thing at a time, well, rather than many things, poorly, as so often happens when we ask students to “translate the passage.”

At least, that’s what we’ll aim to do. quid tamen respondētis, lēctōrēs cārissimī? If you’re a passionate devotee of translation – or if you feel it really is a superior technique for developing or testing understanding – I’d like to hear from you. For that matter, if you’re a passionate opponent of translation and feel it should be banned forever, I’d like to hear from you, too. I would not, however, like to sit between the two of you at dinner! 🙂

How exactly will Tres Columnae test understanding, on the one hand, and grammatical analysis, on the other, without translation? Ask a modern-language teacher if you know one, or take a look at many, many discussions about this issue on the Latinteach and Latin-BestPractices listservs. You can also find some clues in the previous blog posts where we previewed stories from Cursus Primus and Cursus Secundus. But in tomorrow’s post we’ll take a closer look at another sample story, and we’ll follow the whole process from pre-reading through reading and beyond.  Tune in tomorrow for more!


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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Another great post. Well about seven actually as I’m catching up from the last one I read on Thursday or Friday.

    I personally shy away from translating but I had never given much thought to it. For me, learning on my own, completing the exercises where it is expected that one give the Latin for the English word, phrase, etc or English for the Latin was at best tedious. I never put so much thought into the process before. Your descriptions of the Higher versus Lower level tasks and understanding put it into perspective.

    I started Latin with Latin For Beginners by Benjamin L. D’Ooge and I remember enjoying the reading sections, and even the vocabulary (which I would copy along with charts, declension break downs etc. over and over again). The actual translation was a drag, and after the first few lessons, that is once, I didn’t understand well enough to translate mentally as I read, I skipped them.

    Let me jump back a moment while I’m commenting. You had asked after my previous comment on vocabulary which strategies did I find most useful in vocabulary learning. To answer it came in two parts. When I first started and knew no words, that is when I had nothing to build on, I copied. I learn visually, so I would read a word then copy it into a notebook. Then I would read through the list (without writing the definition just the Latin) and think to myself the meaning. Then repeat in a column next to the first. Rewriting all of the words again, then rereading them. Once I filled a page any word that I didn’t comprehend on sight I wrote again and read again until I did.

    After working through Latin for Beginners I knew nearly 500 words fairly well. I found it rather difficult to learn new vocab as I picked it up trying to read the Vulgate and the Gallic War. Eventually I started do the same for new vocab as I did originally. I would read from the Vulgate (which was helpful starting in Genesis since the I new the stories well). Once I came upon an unknown word I would write it down. At the end of the night I would reread and rewrite any unknown words. Then each night I reread what I wrote and then the chapter it came from before moving on the next. It worked well but the process is much longer than having fresh word supplied with easy reading material like with Latin for Beginners.

    Hope this is helpful. Thanks for the great words.

  2. Euthyphro carissime,
    Thanks so much for this very thoughtful and detailed comment! I’m glad the Higher vs. Lower distinction helped you understand your aversion to translation.

    I’d guess that you’re a kinesthetic learner; that’s probably why you learn so well from repeated copying. Since you don’t copy the meanings, I’m guessing you’re not a visual learner, or at least not the kind who wants to “see everything together” – and that’s probably why you don’t like the diagrams and such that I described earlier. If you hear the words in your head as you’re writing them, you’re most likely an auditory-kinesthetic learner like me 🙂 … it’s not a very common learning style, but it works for me! In lectures and such, I take detailed notes (for the muscle memory), read over them a few times (hearing them in my head), and have pretty good recall … much to the frustration of many, many friends of mine over the years!

    Yes, your description of how you learn is a big help to me. Now the question is, how might we offer repeated writing for muscle-memory as an option for Tres Columnae participants? And what other “unconventional” vocabulary strategies might we suggest?

  3. Salve Magister-

    That is interesting. I would not have thought of myself as kinesthetic, but it makes sense. I always picture kinesthetic learners as dancing around, more larger motor movement than fine motor movement.

    There is an important step in my process that I overlooked. In fact it happens so naturally that I hadn’t thought about it till after I read your response. When I read the vocab list I read out loud and picture the action or the object in my mind in lieu of reading the definition. I would read pugnare and see two bare chested centurions in a fist-fight, or gladius and see a roman broad sword, etc and so forth. I found that having the image in mind keeps me from making 1 to 1 comparisons between Latin and English; for me this keeps the word meaning more organic, because it isn’t a set image for each word. Instead it is whatever comes to mind at the reading at that moment.

    It might also be of interest to you that this method of coping and reading is not the fashion in which I normally study. My usual method is reading and rereading without the coping. For the rote memorization the coping helps drill it in, and so it developed over the course of trial and error.

    As for how to implement this type into the program, I would suggests having small groups of new vocabulary. I would think 15 words at most. I think small groups of words are easier to learn at a time, but with that in mind it would be nice to have occasional reviewing of the list as a whole, and I think it is a must to have readings for each set of new words. For me it always helps to be able to immediately apply the new words.

    As the list grows it could include synonyms, antonyms, and other connections. For similar words it would be nice to have descriptions of the nuances between meanings. For instance a ESL speaker asked me a few months ago what the difference between the words pick and choose. It would be nice to know when a Roman would have chosen maturarare, properare, and adcelerare.


    • salve atque tu, optime discipulorum,

      Yes, there are all kinds of varieties within the broad-brush categories of learning styles — and it also seems to be the case that people apply different styles in different areas. It sounds like (can you tell that I’m an auditory learner from that phrase? 🙂 ) you have a lot of visual elements too, since you create visual images rather than “words” (in auditory or visual forms) as part of your vocabulary-learning process. That would also correlate with your tendency to read things repeatedly. Do you hear the words in your head when you read, or do you see pictures? Or both?

      I agree, smaller lists of words are definitely the way to go, combined with periodic review of “the whole thing.” And yes, I also agree that any new words need to be used immediately in readings. Otherwise, it’s like the process I described for my (partly fictional) alphabet-teacher colleague who assigned random words each week. When I asked her about this (actually, there were two or three of her, but when I asked one of them, years ago), she said, “But they have to have weekly vocabulary tests!” 😦

      Yes, synonyms, antonyms, and other connections are a big part of vocabulary learning, and I love the idea of drawing those distinctions!

      ut valeas!

  4. Ha ha, Justin – your little story there is a great example of word meanings. When I read “in faucibus stat,” the world of Aesop’s fables in which I spend most of my time, and where animals are often ending up in the fauces of other animals, intervened, and I plunged poor Milphio into the throat of a wolf… but then I realized that there must be a metaphorical meaning of fauces to mean a doorway or narrow passage. PERFECT. That is just the kind of thing I will write about in my “word diary” if you create a space like that for us to share together! Here is a simple fable with faucibus! (SOURCE)
    In faucibus lupī os inhaeserat. Mercēde igitur condūcit gruem, quī illud extrahat. Hōc grūs longitūdine collī facile effēcit. Cum autem mercēdem postulāret, subridēns lupus et dentibus infrendēns, Num tibi, inquit, parva mercēs vidētur, quod caput incolume ex lupī faucibus extrāxistī?

    Again, I am completely in agreement with you about the perils of translation. Plus, I have a personal repugnance for the whole business. As someone who’s worked as a professional translator and who has published translations, I feel nothing but dissatisfaction for my work as a translator: it is an inherently frustrating profession, because no translation is ever adequate to the task, whatever that task may be.

    Over the past couple of years, I have bowed to a lot of pressure and published more English translations of materials online, but that doesn’t mean I like it. I don’t like it at all. UGH. So I long for a Latin community where translation is set aside and we focus on activities that are both more valuable and more enjoyable, too. So many Latin teachers and students don’t seem to realize all the alternatives available, and they settle for translation as if it were the only possibility.

    GoogleBooks has a preview of my Aesop book where you can read my plea for doing things other than translating; these are just a few possibilities, of course… and there are so many more. Here’s the page of the preface where I talk about that. (BTW: I love GoogleBooks). 🙂
    Why Translate When You Can Innovate?


    • Hi again, Laura, and thanks for the links and for the great story. I’m glad to find someone else who agrees with me about translation! Tres Columnae may not exactly be a “translation-free” zone, at least at the beginning, but it will be a “translation-limited” one. One thing that I’ll never ask Tres Columnae participants to do, though, is to “translate the passage” — now, of course, if they’re school-based learners, their teachers might ask them to do this, but I won’t. In so far as there’s a place for translation in the Tres Columnae system, I would envision things like:

      • Each of the following English sentences is a possible “translation” for (this Latin sentence). What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of each one?
      • The following “translation” of (this Latin sentence) has some obvious errors. What’s wrong with it, and how might you improve it?

      I’m really looking forward to reading your Aesop book now! And how exciting it is that a “mainstream” Classics publisher has brought forth a book with such a subversive preface! 🙂

      I’ll look forward to reading the Aesop book in a bit, and I’m truly excited that a “mainstream” Classics

  5. […] teachers, especially teachers of Latin and Greek? I talked about our approach in this post and this one.   Tres Columnae rejects extreme, “my way or the highway” positions in general, and we […]

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