Thursday, June 14, 2012

translation

I have to give a talk in a week (actually less than that - *panic*) to year 12 Latin students on how to prepare for and do the 'unseen translations' in their final examination. I have some idea of what I would like to say, but I turned to youtube to see if there was anything useful on there.

All I could find was this guy, who apart from being incredibly dull, was also (in my humble opinion) incredibly wrong. I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing, but he started off by saying how important it was to analyse every word - first deciding what part of speech it was, then working out the case/number/gender or tense/voice/mood/person etc., and, where more than one possibility existed, making a list of all the potential forms.

This kind of method would be ok, if you are a computer, but it has serious flaws. Firstly, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is far too time consuming. It's not a sensible strategy for an exam context with limited time, even when you are only translating a short extract. And can you imagine (as my uni professor used to say) trying to read all 53 extant speeches of Cicero in this way? It would take forever, and it would be mind-numbingly, soul-destroyingly boring.


Secondly, and more importantly, it doesn't help you to understand the mechanics of a Latin sentence, or the way in which Roman authors crafted their writings. If you approach translation in that way, I think you will forever be trying to 'fix' the Latin - to put it into some kind of 'proper' (i.e. English) word order. Or to put it another way, it makes Latin into a puzzle to solve, a code to crack, rather than a language to be appreciated. Perhaps a code-cracking approach is appopriate for an exam, where all that matters is your final mark, although even then I think a more well-rounded approach has the potential to be more beneficial. If you're relying on a strictly analytical method, what will you do when an author breaks the rules, as they often do, or when you come across a usage with which you're not familiar? If on the other hand you are able to develop a feel for the Latin language, if you become used to the balance of flexibility and structure in herent in the language, and for the way in which different authors write, even if you can't give an exact grammatical analysis of every word, you will be able to understand the whole and to come up with a more faithful translation.

This raises the question of whether students should be taught to translate at all, or just to read and understand, but leaving that aside, what advice should I give to the students in my talk? What trick or strategy do you find most helpful? What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

6 comments:

Seumas Macdonald said...

Here is my most helpful tip:

Write out sentences with blanks in them when you don't know certain words. Far better to have "Caesar did _____ to ______ at _____" than to just have nothing; in fact, filling in the blanks with latin words and grammar info at least shows you know what's going on even if vocab is beyond you. This is always better than just saying "I don't get this sentence" and writing nothing for it.

Laura Gibbs said...

I like Seumas' suggestion! As an inveterate foe of translation, esp. for examination purposes, my suggestion is really just to share your own awareness of the problems of translation with your students, just so that they realize their struggles and frustrations are not a personal problem but something inherent in the translation process itself. Perhaps it might help to create some means by which they can compare their translations with one another (maybe in a collaborative Google Doc?), so that they can assess the strengths and weaknesses of different choices, realizing that there is no "one right translation."

Mike Salter said...

Doctissimus Dexter's "first understand, THEN translate" principle is undoubtedly a sound one, but unfortunately in the pressure environment of the HSC the minutiae tend to cloud the mind. I also think that there's no one method that's perfect for everyone, especially at such a relatively early stage of studying the language (five years with a few periods a week is really not that long, in the scheme of things).

One small thing I might suggest is trying to foster the skill of being a good "predicter" (predictor? Or does that mean something different?) of what is going to come next in a Latin sentence when one is reading through an unseen. If you see "Caesar omnibus quae ad proelium pertinerent satis paratis..." and realise that a transitive verb in the third person singular has to come soon, that's a small victory (however simple it may seem) and most likely an aid to comprehension and ultimately to translation.

Mike Salter said...

By the way JM, I'm just as nervous about the grammar talk I'll be giving. It didn't go all that well last year (I felt), and it's a bit underprepared this time. Hmm...

Vajra Regan said...

I suggest scanning the entire passage first, trying to get a sense of the context and the basic thought being expressed. If you have some idea of what is happening, then often you can make an educated guess regarding the words you don't know. In the end, however, there is very little practical advice that you can give, especially at this late stage. Either they have put in the work or they haven't. No last minute words of advice or magic strategy can make up for a lack of studying. I know a lot of people talk about "natural" methods of learning Latin, but ultimately things like vocab (especially Latin vocab) requires hours of memorization, and, preferably, daily practice.

jm said...

good advice, i agree. my first point ended up being something like this:

step #1: be good at Latin (this involves hours of practice and revision, daily over many years).

for the rest of you however...