16 May 2021

Prose Composition

What more pointless procedure could there be than making boys and young men spend hours putting a piece of English into Latin (or Classical Greek ... or, indeed, any other language)?

I think it is (was?) the finest, the choicest element in the traditional education of a literate Englishman who knew how to think

The little fellows often started off fiddling around with English-Latin Pocket Dictionaries, as they attempted to render the English, word for word, into Latin. One had to break them of this. They had to be made to understand that the point of the operation was ask oneself what the English really meant; and then to reproduce that meaning in Latin. The resulting passage of Latin would not, in fact, look at all like the English. 

I am sure that C S Lewis had been immersed in just this educational process. He demonstrates it in the passage (Out of the Silent Planet) where Ransom, a philologist, is required to act as an interpreter between Weston and the Oyarsa of Mars. 

Weston (and readers will note the proud assumptions of the 1930s in all this) says: "To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower."

With difficulty, Ransom renders this as follows:

"Among us, Oyarsa, there is a kind of hnau [rational creature] who will take another hanau's food and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind. He says what he does now will make very different things happen to those of our people who are not yet born. He says that, among you, hnau of one kindred all live together and ... have spears like those we used a very long time ago and your huts are small and round and your boats small and light and like our old ones, and you have one ruler. He says it is different with us. He says we know much. There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and bcomes weak, and he says we sometimes know how to stop it. He says we have many bent people and we kill them or shut them in huts and that we have people for settling quarrels between the bent hnau about their huts and mates and things. He says we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it. He says we build very big and strong huts of stones and things ... and he says we exchange many things among ourselves and can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way. Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people."

It is, of course, difficult to translate from the languages of one fallen world into the languages of different and unfallen planets ... even more difficult than to translate from Modern English into Ciceronian Latin. Hence Ransom's unavoidable prolixity. 

But the real point Lewis is making is that modern English (particularly when spoken by the Intelligentia) is very pompous and tends to conceal meaning rather than to make it clear. Once you have unpacked a word or phrase, it seems remarkably less impressive and distinctly less attractive ... and might even make you wonder about its rationality.

Ratio, Logos, will not return to our culture until our brighter students are once again taught by crumbly old gentlemen (or ladies) in MA gowns green and disintegrating with age who intermittently sustain themselves with snuff while giving advice on Ciceronian cursus.  

To follow: Lewis on Science.


Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

Censeo te verum scripsisse.


Fr Edward said...

Yes, yes, this is exactly what I did at school. And so the onus was on us to read widely, understand cultural traditions, respect the gravity of history, know modern idioms, and so forth. Quite a 'big ask' for school boys, and we absolutely thrived on it.

I can't help but think of the 2001 CDW, 'Liturgiam Authenticam' about all this sort of thing, as well as some of the dynamic equivalency theory that it was addressing. Understanding the meaning of a text as well as the author's intention, whilst not adhering to the original structure and form, always seemed reasonable to me. And yet, wilful misinterpretation and a refusal to respect and understand theological cultural and history, to say nothing of obscuring and ignoring dogmatic content, seems to me just pig ignorant.

I dread to think of all the red ink on the exercise books of the translators of the 1970s when they were at school. My Latin master would have hit the roof if any boy had shown him that tripe.

Jesse said...

Your post, Father, puts me in mind of a letter from Dean Church to Canon Liddon, written for inclusion in the latter's biography of E. B. Pusey. It explains how candidates for fellowships at Oriel College, Oxford, were examined in the 1830s. I've transcribed the relevant passages (which blogspot.com has forced me to spread over two comments) in case they may be of interest to your readers.

R. W. Church to H. P. Liddon, January 31, 1883, in Henry Parry Liddon, Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, ed. J. O. Johnston and Robert J. Wilson, 4th ed., 4 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, 1894), vol. 1, pp. 66-69.

If the Provost gave leave [to apply for a fellowship], he told you that you were to write a Latin letter to each of the Fellows, stating the grounds on which you desired election, and on which you thought that you might be entitled to do so. This was not a mere formal application, and in some cases it was a lengthy affair: it was meant to test a man's power of putting his own personal case and wishes and intentions in Latin; some of these letters were very good and characteristic.


The examination was always in Easter week, and lasted four days, from Monday to Thursday. I received a card (I am speaking of 1838) from the Dean, W. J. Coplestone, telling me to be in the hall at ten on Monday, and bring with me a certain volume of the 'Spectator' [i.e., the literary daily published by Addison and Steele in 1711-12, and again in 1714]. [...] We had a longish passage from our 'Spectators' to turn into Latin, and an English essay to write on a passage from Bacon.


On Tuesday it was the same thing, the papers being a Latin essay and (I think) a bit of English to be translated into Greek. On Wednesday, a bit of Greek to be translated into English, and a paper of so-called philosophical questions. On Thursday, I think only one paper, Latin into English. But the work was mainly composition and translation. The questions were very general, not involving directly much knowledge, but trying how a man could treat ordinary questions which interest cultivated men. It was altogether a trial, not of how much men knew, but of how they knew, and what they could do.

The last two days were varied by excursions to the 'Tower' for vivâ voce, which was made a good deal of. [...] You were placed before a desk, on which were Greek and Latin texts. You were given one of these, and told to look over a given passage for two minutes, or one minute, or to read it off at sight and translate it. This you did in perfect silence round you -- the only thing heard, besides your own voice, being the scratching of a dozen pens at the table. You bungled through it without remark, and another book was given you, and then another -- the last being perhaps some unintelligible passage from Plutarch about the moon, or the like.


Jesse said...

(Excerpts from Dean Church's letter to Canon Liddon on examinations at Oriel College, Oxford, in the 1830s, concluded.)

The Oriel common room was rather proud of its seemingly easy and commonplace and unpretending tests of a man's skill in languages and habits and power of thinking for himself. They did not care if he had read much, so that he came up to their standard of good Latin, good Greek, good English, and good sense: points which were as well settled by a well-chosen bit of the 'Spectator' as by some fine paragraph from Macaulay, and by a well-chosen text for an English essay as by some question which made a man feel a fine fellow by having it to write upon. It created a prejudice against a man if he seemed to be trying to flash, or to show off his reading, especially if he also showed that he did not know how to make good use of it.


The papers were very carefully read and considered. The custom was for the whole body of Fellows to examine together each set of papers. We met in common room and sat round the table, each of us having one man's essay or translation; if a translation, one of us read a sentence of the English, &c., and the corresponding sentence of each translation went round the table in turn, till the paper had been gone through, sentence by sentence, and each sentence had been discussed and criticized. It was a tedious process, but very thorough, and rather amusing in watching the way in which difficulties were met or pitfalls avoided by different men.


The style of examination was objected to as narrow and minute, as it certainly was troublesome. But it was certainly searching both to examinee and examiner, and it was not easy for a crammer or loose scholar or mere fine writer to slip through the meshes. A good deal of weight was attached to vivâ voce, which, as I said, was spread over two days. It was thought to be a good test of the way in which a man met difficulties, and whether he faced them fairly or tried to evade them.

jaykay said...

Fr. Edward: I well remember the unmitigated scorn our Latin teacher (Fr. Moore S.M.) poured out on the "We believe" version of the Credo when it slithered in circa 1975 - he having taken us through the rigours of Latin grammar for the previous 3 years. He himself still said his private Mass according to the 1962 Missal, in one of the Altars in the "crypt" of the school chapel.

Unknown said...

I did it. Then taught it. And still love it in senectute.

William A. Torchia, Esquire