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It’s vital that children translate English to Latin at GCSE

Gove is quite right to suggest we turn English into Latin

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

One of the most rewarding exercises a Latinist can attempt is to turn a piece of English prose into Latin. The reason is quite simple: it means getting under the surface of the English meaning — to ‘get beyond the word to the thought behind it’ (Gilbert Murray) — and transferring it into a form most closely corresponding to a Roman way of thinking and writing. It takes one to the very heart of how Romans made sense of their world. Only someone with a supreme understanding of the Latin language and its culture can do that effectively. That master prose-composer Colin Leach was once asked in an exam to translate ‘The hour brought forth the man’ into Latin. He came up with vir quantus, di boni, quanto in rei publicae discrimine! ‘What a man, good gods, at what a critical juncture for the state!’ Utterly brilliant.

Many regard this sort of exercise as a waste of time. The purpose of learning Latin, we are told, is to read Latin literature; there is no place for these intellectual acrobatics, especially at a time when, with the pressure on school timetables, one will be lucky to get two periods a week for two years to prepare pupils for a GCSE that will demand they read e.g. Virgil and Tacitus. Besides, Latin is already one of the most difficult GCSEs. What future will the subject have if it is made harder still? But no one has decreed that pupils do Latin prose. What Michael Gove has proposed is that Latin GCSE must contain an element of translation of English into Latin, worth 10 per cent of the total marks. Is he right? Yes.

The meaning of an English utterance is (largely) determined by word order. ‘Titus loves Claudia’ and ‘Claudia loves Titus’ mean radically different things, and word order is the reason for it, not any change in the words ‘Titus’ and ‘Claudia’. Any language that works like this will, up to a point (I emphasise this), be relatively easy for a native English speaker to make sense of. Take French. Given vocabulary and basic rules, one can fudge one’s way along reading French without too much difficulty. The problem with Latin is that it works in a way completely different from English. Vocabulary and a few basic rules will not get you very far.


A simple example will suffice. In the sentence ‘Titus loves Claudia’, there is no question who (subject) loves whom (object). But to express that moving sentiment in Latin, the words could come in any order – Claudia loves Titus, loves Claudia Titus and so on — and it would still mean exactly the same thing. Why? Because their position in the sentence, so vital in English, is irrelevant: it is their form that defines their function and so delivers their meaning. Titus as subject of the sentence is Titus in Latin; Claudia as object is Claudiam. That is why you can put those words in any order: the words themselves tell you what their function is. If you want to change the relationship so that Claudia loves Titus, Claudia would stay as Claudia (subject form), and Titus would become Titum (object form). This explains the peculiar difficulty of Latin. The Latin words on a page, if we pay attention simply to their dictionary meaning, regularly come in what to us is an unintelligible order. Unless we can decode their form and therefore their function (subject, object and so on), we will not be able to turn them into English.

There was a time when, to those of us of a certain age, this did not represent a tremendous problem, because from the very start we learnt Latin both ways: English into Latin and Latin into English. Decoding the language held no fears for us. But times change and, given the constraints, the emphasis is now rightly directed towards teaching Latin into English — a ‘reading/translation skill’, helping the pupils to develop a capacity to sense the significance of the Latin in context and then translate the whole into English.

That is fine in a language that works like English — but Latin? How can pupils possibly sense the precise meaning of a sentence unless they can also analyse the form, and so understand the function, of the words they are reading, and thus convert the Latin way of making sense into the English way? Let alone understand or get the full linguistic and aesthetic benefit from writers of the subtlety of Virgil and Tacitus?

This is why Gove’s proposal is so important. To translate out of the mother tongue into the target language, one really must understand how and why the target language works as it does. This active use of the language helps learners to get under its skin, to think how a Roman might think; and by doing that, one is immediately making the business of translating Latin into English — the ultimate purpose of the exercise — that much easier and more enjoyable. Far from hindering one’s pleasure in Latin, English into Latin confirms and enhances it.

In some school quarters, Gove’s proposal is causing considerable disquiet. Fears are expressed that it will put pupils off Latin and destroy the subject in schools for ever. Indeed, one teacher expressed his outrage that pupils might have to learn some Latin off by heart (or rote-learn, as he inevitably put it), as if there was something profoundly anti-educational about knowing things.

This strikes me as overreaction. Gove is not proposing any change of direction in the teaching of the subject: translating Latin into English is still, entirely rightly, the dominant linguistic aim of the exercise. All it requires is that, from the very start of learning the subject, a little English into Latin, or the active manipulation of the language, or some equivalent exercise — there are many ways to skin a cat — is added to the predominant Latin-English work: integration is the key. One can be absolutely confident that exam boards will produce fair and sensible terms under which this element can be tested. The result will be a more confident and enlightening understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of this marvellous language and a firmer footing for advanced work at A-level and beyond.


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