19 April 2021


A valued reader, who has made this point before, disapproves of my choice occasionally ... quite rarely ... to write in Latin without providing him with a a crib.

(1) Frankly, this is my blog, and I will write in any language I know and choose. This is still a free country ... er ... up to a point ...

There are things one can more easily say in one language than one could in another. There are devices that sit easily in the rhetoric of language A which will look gawky or de trop or even, possibly, dangerous, in language B. Perhaps the use of rhetorical questions is one example. Traduttore traditore? as the Latin poet put it.

Dr William King, of this University, made a magnificent oration in Latin  in 1748, at the Dedication of the Radcliffe Library. He forbade his fellow-docti to translate it. Had one of them done so, and had he made a poor judgement in regard to a single nuance, King could have ended up with a rope around his neck. Those were years when the cultured and cultivated Whig Oligarchy was still killing people in public with gruesome cruelty, and perpetrating genocide in parts of Scotland. Come to think of it, England, then, was rather like present-day Burma ... treasonous crooks, not financially unmotivated, had illegally seized power, and imposed a tyranny, and were still murdering whom they chose in order to sustain it. Within quite recent memory, undergraduates had been hanged at the entrances to Oxford.

(2) I am ideologically suspicious of the 'Crib' culture. Try engaging ... exempli gratia ... with any pre-modern work via your computer or your local bookshop, and you will find that 'Homer' means 'a translation of Homer'. It is a laboured business to get to an actual copy of Homer, probably involving explanations such as "I mean, what I want is the original Greek text of Homer ... er well ... not necessarily of course, um, the original, because, as we all know, the textual tradition seems to get more unstable the earlier the papyri, and the great Alexandian scholars did not always make clear exactly why they athetised certain lines, and the concept of an 'original text is indeed discounted by many modern practicioners of textcrit, but, er, ... ..."

The person who wants the Latin original of a Magisterial Document will probably find his search long and wearisome.

Declining to submit to the 'crib' culture seems to me one way of sticking up for authenticity and for cultural continuity.

So ... No; I am not going to be pushed around and bullied into writing in languages I choose not to employ.

If this is objectionable to anybody, there are possible solutions available. But I do appreciate the implied compliment paid to me by my reader's plaint, so I will refrain from jokes and arcasms. I do very much value him as a reader.

Translations are  not Pretty Much the Same Thing. I admit: they may be not without uses. When I was about twelve, I came to love what I thought was Homer through Dr Rieu's Penguin translations. (But when I came to man's estate, I realised that what I had been missing was ... er, Homer.) And when, around Christmas, I read to our infant children at bed-time about Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, I will confess that I did read it in a translation. And Harvard University publishes handy texts, conveniently using Green covers for the Greek, red for the Latin, and blue for the Renaissance Latin, with the original on the left hand page and a crib on the right. Like the Rosetta Stone but not so heavy as you drag them through Security.

Mind you, there are times when, to paraphrase Mgr Ronald Knox*, the left hand page seems a useful crib for understanding the right hand page.

So, in conclusion, I leave all my kind and valued readers with these immortal words of C S Lewis (The Pilgrim's Regress lib 5 cap 5 iuxta finem): 

"pellite cras ingens tum-tum nomoi hos diakeitai."

* I believe Knox once described the Greek NT as a useful crib for understanding the Douai-Rheims Bible.


Éamonn said...

"The person who wants the Latin original of a Magisterial Document will probably find his search long and wearisome." Perhaps, when the search is for a Latin original that doesn't exist. For everything else there's Acta Apostolicae Sedis, courtesy of the Vatican website.

FatherTF said...

I fondly recall these sentiments expressed in his own characteristic style by the late Father Reggie Foster when I was a student of his in the early 1980s in Rome. Having taken us through a text from the collection in Rouet de Journel's Enchiridion Patristicum, he lamented that so many students could no longer benefit from the collection owing to their lack of Latin. He said,

"What do people do these days?"

One of the Nigerian Sisters of Divine Love in her majestic royal blue habit volunteered,

"Father, we have translations."

The class collectively held its breath, cowered under tables, and otherwise indicated fear and trembling at the inevitable reaction. Reggie snarled and retorted with the lack of nuance he had brought to the eternal City from Milwaukee,

"Sister. You got translations, you got NOTHING!"

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Father. Excellent post.

This is off topic but have you been following the publicity about the Vatican Conference on Mind, Body, and Spirit, featuring New Age Gurus?

ABS thinks it should be called The Trichotomy Heresy Conference .

Body, mind, spirit is the Gnosticism of the GNew Age

This Pauline system, presented to a world already prepossessed in favour of a quasi-Platonic Dualism, occasioned one of the earliest widespread forms of error among Christian writers — the doctrine of the Trichotomy. According to this, man, perfect man (teleios) consists of three parts: body, soul, spirit (soma, psyche, pneuma). Body and soul come by natural generation; spirit is given to the regenerate Christian alone. Thus, the "newness of life", of which St. Paul speaks, was conceived by some as a superadded entity, a kind of oversoul sublimating the "natural man" into a higher species. This doctrine was variously distorted in the different Gnostic systems. The Gnostics divided man into three classes:

pneumatici or spiritual,
psychici or animal,
choici or earthy.

To each class they ascribed a different origin and destiny. The spiritual were of the seed of Achemoth, and were destined to return in time whence they had sprung — namely, into the pleroma. Even in this life they are exempted from the possibility of a fall from their high calling; they therefore stand in no need of good works, and have nothing to fear from the contaminations of the world and the flesh. This class consists of course of the Gnostics themselves. The psychici are in a lower position: they have capacities for spiritual life which they must cultivate by good works. They stand in a middle place, and may either rise to the spiritual or sink to the hylic level. In this category stands the Christian Church at large. Lastly, the earthy souls are a mere material emanation, destined to perish: the matter of which they are composed being incapable of salvation (me gar einai ten hylen dektiken soterias). This class contains the multitudes of the merely natural man.


Perhaps it is thought that there is just not enough confusion yet.

william arthurs said...

Fr Fortescue said, when explaining why his proposed edition of Boethius should not be accompanied by a translation:

"... I hate those Loeb texts, with the crib staring at you on the opposite page. They are nasty cram books for people too lazy to read a text properly. I cannot see for what class of person they are meant. If a man cannot read Latin, of course he must get a good translation. If he can, he does not want the crib. They are meant for lazy people who want to pretend they are reading a foreign language when they are not. Also I think there must be a number of people who would like a well printed edition of a most famous classic without the annoyance of a crib on the opposite page."

(letter to Francis Meynell at Burns & Oates, 7 ii 1919 -- quoted in Aidan Nichols, 'The Latin Clerk', 286-7)

Fortescue is a model for us all when we are trying to capture in words our feelings when confronted by a troublesome or annoying person or thing.

Tom said...

A wit said concerning the Loeb Library, "If you know Latin and/or Greek, you don't need the English; if you don't know those languages, you have no need for the Greek or Latin, and you've wasted half the money that you spent on them!"

frjustin said...

"pellite cras ingens tum-tum nomoi hos diakeitai"

Google helpfully explains that the first word is Finnish, and means "pellite" in English. The next three words are entirely Latin, and mean "tomorrow bulky tum-tum". The final phrase is Greek, and means "laws are in place".

Lewis Sensibly left the phrase untranslated, as communicating exactly what he wished to communicate.

rick allen said...

"I cannot see for what class of person they are meant. If a man cannot read Latin, of course he must get a good translation. If he can, he does not want the crib. They are meant for lazy people who want to pretend they are reading a foreign language when they are not."

You might as well ask why anyone needs a dictionary, since obviously if you know English you don't need one.

For those of us who love Greek and Latin, but have full-time jobs (outside of a Classics faculty) and full-time families, the Loeb editions are invaluable for deciphering unknown words and disentangling the occasionally-fantastic syntax of our classical authors.

Dr. Johnson once famously said that, like lace, each man gets as much Greek as he can. Nowadays few men want anything to do with either. But crib or no crib, I don't see why it shouldn't still be encouraged. And even for those most expert in the ancient tongues there is that acerbic observation of Ms. Woolf: "For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of [ancient Greek] schoolboys...."

Jhayes said...

Horace and Pythagoras crash into each other


DMG said...

Pas d'elle yeux Rhône, que nous?

E sapelion said...

In my youth I read Toynbee's "A Study of History", starting as the later volumes were published in 1954. I had the feeling at that time that it would soon be no longer possible to assume as Toynbee does that his readers could read Latin, Greek, French and German, and not only that quotations did not need translation, but it was reasonable to borrow a word in these languages freely in the text. A feeling soon confirmed by reaction to C P Snow's 1959 lecture on "The Two Cultures"

Jhayes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Father, you would like to go back to hanging undergraduates on occasion. Admit it. ;)

Christophorus said...


Athanatous men prota Theous nomoi hos diakeitai – Tima : (Greek) “The most important thing is to honour the gods as is required by law.” First line of the Golden Verses, ascribed to the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (6th century b.c.).
Cras ingens iterabimus [aequor] : (Latin) “Tomorrow we will take up our course again over the huge [sea]”. Horace, Odes (Carmina) I.7, 32. The full passage is Nunc vino pellite curas; cras ingens iterabimus aequor, where the first half means “With wine now drive away care...”
Pellite cras ingens tum-tum, nomoi hos diakeitai : A drunken mixture of the previous two quotations; “Push off tomorrow on the huge... pom-pom, as is required.”

frjustin said...

I wonder if "regressquotes" quite gets the meaning of "tum-tum" here. It seems more likely to me that Sensible is lapsing into English with the meaning given in this link:


tum tum(Noun)


Etymology: Reduplication of tum, a shortened form of tummy.

That would fit the context of a scholar in his cups.

Andrew Malton said...

Excellent! I always tried to pas d'elle, or mot d'heures gousse, but could never get past Polite crass Injuns..

Calvin Engime said...

Est etiam animadvertendum fontes disciplinarum ecclesiasticarum maximam partem lingua Latina esse conscriptos. Quid vero dicendum de praeclaris operibus Patrum aliorumque magni nominis scriptorum, qui hunc ipsum sermonem adhibuerunt? Verae quidem scientiae compos non est putandus, qui linguam eiusmodi scriptionum mente non comprehendit, sed solum versionibus, si quae sunt, niti debet; quae tamen raro plenum sensum textus primigenii praebent. Hac de causa Concilium Vaticanum Secundum sacrorum alumnos merito monuit: « eam linguae Latinae cognitionem acquirant qua tot scientiarum fontes et Ecclesiae documenta intelligere possint ».

St John Paul II, address to Latinitas, 27 November 1978, AAS 71 (1979) 45

phaedruscj said...

I agree with the commenter who respectfully made an observation. Your lack of humility in your response says a lot

Jhayes said...

For comparison, the Vatican English version of that portion of the 27 November 1978 Address:

One must also point out that the sources of the ecclesiastical disciplines are for the most part written in Latin. But what must be said of the outstanding works of the Fathers and other writers of importance who use this tongue? One ought not to be considered a master of learning who does not understand the language of these writers, but who must rely only on translations, if any exist. These rarely bring out the full meaning of the original text. For this reason the Second Vatican Council rightly advised students of sacred studies that "they should acquire a command of Latin which will enable them to understand and use the source material of so many sciences, and the documents of the Church as well" (Optatam Totius, 13).


Monday, 27 November 1978


Banshee said...

Documenta Catholica has a lot of magisterial documents in Latin.

There's also a papal bull website that has a lot of stuff on it, which you can't necessarily find on vatican.va, but I can't remember the name of it.