From Tacitus to Nelson Mandela: A New Approach to Intermediate Latin Prose Composition

Kristin O. Lord

Wilfrid Laurier University

Students of Latin have typically translated passages of prose from English or other modern languages well into their college or  university careers. However, most of the intermediate-level exercises currently available for English-speaking undergraduates are out of date in terms of both methodology and subject matter; they emphasize translating events from military or political history into the style of Julius Caesar or similar writers (e.g., C.E. Bennett, New Latin Composition 1912). The requirements of students have changed: they tend to need more assistance in Latin grammar and syntax, even in the second year of language instruction, but on the other hand, they are likely to have a broader education in the sciences,  humanities, and social sciences;  in particular, they tend to possess a more sophisticated understanding of social history, as is consistent with overall trends in Classical Studies. Unfortunately, newer books suitable for the second-year undergraduate Latin student (e.g., J. Morwood, A Latin Grammar 1999, and M. Minkova, Introduction to Latin Prose Composition 2001), while of an excellent standard, lack sufficient exercises. A new selection of exercises for intermediate Latin prose composition is needed.

This presentation addresses the experiences and concerns of the author in compiling the draft of such a textbook. Perhaps the most pressing need is to bridge the gap between elementary grammar and the syntax of connected Latin prose of the late Republic and early Empire, in a way compatible with the major grammar books available. After  approaching the paragraph as a unit of thought by way of such topics as the resumptive relative pronoun, students proceed to work with the sequence of tenses within indirect statement, in particular conditions within oratio obliqua and mixed indirect statement and question. Exercises based loosely on the letters of Cicero and on the daily work of a chef introduce a wide range of subject matter and vocabulary, while at the same time using humor to heighten interest. Nevertheless, philosophy and military history are not neglected, with selections from Aristotle, Maimonides, Averro√ęs, and Thucydides adapted for translation in addition to passages composed for the occasion.

Students in the fourth semester revisit these and many other topics in a more sophisticated way. At this stage many will be interested in the issues involved in translating contemporary topics and the thoughts of more recent writers, which are interwoven among more traditional types of translation assignments. Pedagogical issues here include the diversity of thinkers, approaches to controversial topics, and the inclusion of neologisms, as well as the practicalities of approaching syntactical problems which do not correspond to the topic at hand. For example, an apparently straightforward sentence about marriage invite discussion of same-sex relationships in Roman times, while selections from twentieth-century politicians, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights require a nuanced approach to imperialism and human rights in both the ancient and modern contexts.


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