Transformational Procedures for Nudging Latin Learners Towards Producing Coherent English Translations

Donka D. Markus

University of Michigan

I do not espouse the Grammar-Translation method, but most teachers feel pressure to teach translation skills, because their students will be evaluated on their ability to translate from Latin into coherent English both on college placement exams, in higher level Latin classes and for entry into graduate school and beyond. I endorse the finding of the Classical Investigation (CI further on) of 1924  which proclaims that resorting to 'slovenly translation English' is 'vicious'. The CI concludes that only such amounts of text should be assigned for translation which can reasonably be completed at an acceptable level of quality. This paper builds on basic concepts from translation theory (Dryden [1963], Lefevre [1998], Wechsler [1998]) and advocates the systematic teaching of principles and techniques which make Latin learners aware of the science behind a good translation and which protect them against the pitfalls of 'translation English'.

'Translation' itself is an ambiguous concept since it can mean three different things as detailed in the CI (pp. 196; 101-2). The lack of clarity on what 'translation' means in the context of teaching Latin leads to frequent confusion between reading and translation (e.g. Cerutti [1999]). I look at reading primarily as focused on eliciting meaning and on translation as focused on transformation and manipulation of the structure and word-order of the original. Of course, translation, as Hoyos [1996] points out, must be the result of reading and understanding. But even when comprehension has taken place, 'bad translations' do not go away. I believe that the production of "good translations" ought not be left entirely to talent and linguistic intuitions and that there are easily applicable transformational procedures, which turn the production of coherent translations into a teachable skill.

This 15 minute paper, aimed at instructors who teach Latin at all levels, identifies and illustrates with textual examples the following five transformational techniques and procedures for teaching well-structured English renditions of Latin texts:

1. Transformations and adjustments in understanding the author's world, individual perspective, writing style and the specific requirements of the genre then as they differ from the requirements for that genre today (top-down); 2.  Identifying 'glued' clusters of words, which are inseparable and must travel together during the transformational process, i.e. identifying items which cannot be subject to major rearrangements in the English version; 3. Establishing syntactically governed criteria and specific rules for rearranging the words in order to avoid 'slovenly English.' 4. Acquiring dictionary skills for making intelligent lexical transformations, adjustments and choices. 5. Adding cohesive devices, tiny words like "but" or "therefore" which may mean the difference between a translation, which makes no sense and a coherent rendition.

It is a fact of life that for the majority of our students (especially those who can only afford to devote two years or less to the study of the classical languages), the works of the Classical authors will remain approachable primarily through translations. Therefore, to teach students how to evaluate existing translations by learning the hard and fast principles that go into their creation, and by teaching them how to produce some on their own is an essential component of their liberal arts education.


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