Reading Original Classical Texts

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Sebastian Swift
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Reading Original Classical Texts

Post by Sebastian Swift » Fri Apr 22, 2005 9:38 pm

Greetings,

I have been a Latin student for four years, but even having translated and studied huge chunks of De bello Gallico, the Aeneid, Carmina Catvlli, Metamorphoses, and the Amores (I have studied and translated about thirty-five hundred verses of Latin poetry within the last two years.), I still have not developed my comprehension skills to the point where I can read works without translating on paper and parsing in my head.

My question is for those who have read or do read the Classics in their original texts: what is it like? It is my understanding that the experience is much different than reading a translated version. Many authors and philosophers of history, with Thoreau coming to mind before all others, have hailed the act of reading texts in their original language not as the better way to read, but rather the only way.

I just can't fathom what it's like, how it's done, and why it's so much better. Is it the alliteration and onomatopoeia? These figures of speech aren't even that common. Is it the meter? I've heard reading Latin poetry without the meter described as watching a film without the sound. It must be the meter. But how does one recognize meter as he is reading? Scansion on paper can be very tricky, nevermind scansion in one's head at a live pace.

Any insights, either Latin or Greek, would be appreciated.
Last edited by Sebastian Swift on Sun May 15, 2005 8:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Gunnarius » Fri Apr 22, 2005 10:24 pm

I want to expand a bit on your ponderings. A 17th century Icelandic scholar, Páll Björnsson (or Paulus Biornoni filius), said that not knowing hebrew and greek (when reading translated texts) was like ruminating with other people's molars and flying with other people's wings. His opinion was also that german and latin should not be translated at all.
I'm not saying that these views apply today (and personally my skill is nil in hebrew and greek, but both latin and german growing, albeit not fluent in any way), but they show an interessing attitude towards language learning.
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edonnelly
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Re: Reading Original Classical Texts

Post by edonnelly » Fri Apr 22, 2005 11:38 pm

Sebastian Swift wrote: I have been a Latin student for four years, but even having translated and studied huge chunks of De bello Gallico, the Aeneid, Carmina Catvlli, Metamorphoses, and the Amores (I have studied and translated about thirty-five hundred verses of Latin poetry within the last two years.), I still have not developed my comprehension skills to the point where I can read works without translating on paper and parsing in my head.
I wouldn't be too discouraged. It's not like these works would be considered "light reading" even if Latin were your native language (well, I'm not so sure about Caesar, but I digress). Even when I read Shakespeare (written in my native language) I have to translate and parse in my head. Maybe you should look for some lighter material to practice (or better yet, gain confidence in) your comprehension skills. We need a "TV Guide, Latin Edition."

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Post by Carola » Sun Apr 24, 2005 1:19 am

I am only just starting to be able to "read" in Latin, which seems a bit grim as I am in my 3rd year of University level Latin! To me the main differences are: the way expressions are used, things like ablative absolutes which don't really translate easily into English, the metre of poetry and also some prose - Latin was really meant to be read out aloud. Because the language doesn't rely on word order for its grammatical sense (mostly) , words can be arranged to stress importance or just to sound good. My Greek is still at "baby talk" level, but I would imagine it would be a similar feel.
But it would be a great shame to miss out on the stories and the history just because you don't speak a language.

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Beati Pauperes
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Post by Beati Pauperes » Sun Apr 24, 2005 4:24 pm

Hello there,

I am just a beginner in Latin, but I will give a clear a example of what you are refering to...

I have read all the books by Hermann Hesse, a German, and in my public library they had the same book, "Narcissus and Goldmund," translated by two different persons. If you read both you would be mesmerized. They are utterly different!!! Even the expressions and situations in the book...

So I guess is better to read a book in its original language, although we cannot learn all the languages in the world, there is certainly a difference in translation... :wink:
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Post by amans » Sun Apr 24, 2005 8:08 pm

I am not sure what you mean. Are you saying you have studied works in Latin and that you, because of the translating and the parsing, are not sure it is worth your while to read the original?

Or are you thinking about how it will be one day, when you can read Latin works of literature at your leisure, without any difficulty?

Regarding the first problem, I'd venture that there are several advantages to reading the original over a translation:

1: Traduttore - traditore. Translators can be traitors: translations can be more or less litteral, but something is always... lost in translation. They choose the words for you and thus determine your associations. They may break up sentences and use different constructions. Et cetera.

2: Even though our understanding of Roman pronunciation and metre may not be perfect, there's something to be said for getting a feel for what Roman poetry did sound like. Since it was performed orally.

3: I find the study of Latin grammar fun. I do not read only for the literary pleasure. But of course others may consider this less interesting.

As to the other problem, I'd say it must be a question of practice. You've been studying for some time now - don't you think it's becoming easier and quicker after all? But, I do see your point, and I'd question whether it is really possible to read Latin literature as if it were your daily paper. Dealing with foreign languages will, I think, always involve an extra effort.

I have just reread some of Seneca's moral letters, and I found them really easy and quite straightforward the second time around. Perhaps you should try to do a round of hard work first and then read the piece for pleasure afterwards. If you know a work really well, you'll be able to enjoy it much more! I don't think literature has to be, like, surprising in the way detective novels can be. You may know very well how the Aeneid is going to end and what stages the poem passes through, yet you read it. The second or third time you read one of its books, it will be a real delight :)

You might even take this to the extreme of learning the literature by heart. In this respect, I wouldn't recommend the Aeneid... but, say, carmina Catulli. I know a few of the poems by heart - and I adore these pieces in a way I couldn't possibly love a translated version.

I hope you won't be discouraged in your Latin studies, but that you'll persist and find much joy and pleasure from it. You've reached an advanced level, but if you hang on, you'll take your proficiency even further. Imagine yourself learning any other foreign language in school: where would you be after four years? You might be able to speak the language and write some, but you'd probably not, unless you'd spent time in the country where it was spoken or unless you were extraordinarily gifted, be able to read, speak or write it or listen to it with absolute confidence. Rome wasn't built in one day - or four years ;)

Good luck!

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Sebastian Swift
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Post by Sebastian Swift » Mon Apr 25, 2005 2:08 am

amans,

Your response was worth every minute you put into it: every sentence was its own tiny revelation to me.

I think I might take a crack at a Catullus poem. I've already committed literal English translations of almost every poem to memory; they'd be the easiest to attempt to read in Latin, not to mention the most enjoyable. :D

I've been a student of Spanish as well for three years and it, being a far less complex language than Latin, has come to me much more smoothly. I read and hear words in Spanish and they associate themselves with ideas rather than correlating words in English. Perhaps if I study one poem and its vocabulary so thoroughly that the words become ideas in my mind rather than translated English words, then I may say that I've read a Latin work in its original text.

Surely I will let you all know how it turns out. Thanks to all for the input, and to you, amans, in particular since your post contained some sort of mental electricity which jump-started my mind.

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Post by amans » Tue Apr 26, 2005 11:24 am

Sebastian,

I wanted to get back to you, but here goes, a little belated: I am happy you were inspired by my comments and that you valued them.

You're relatively new here at Texkit and I welcome you: I think you'll like it around here, because people are quite enthusiastic about learning Latin and Greek. Do use this forum: if you're stuck with a problem, you can get help; if you feel like sharing a positive experience, you can do so for others to enjoy, too; if you feel lacking in motivation and spirit, you can talk to others about that, too :-) I reckon we all have ups and downs in our studies. And it can sometimes be hard to find someone to talk to about absolute ablatives or Livius' literary style or whatever. Here you can.

I am glad you're having good experiences with Spanish: you might not attain the same fluency in reading Latin, but if you get the feeling that you can read whole letters or poems without consulting a dictionary or a grammar, I think you'll begin to feel much more comfortable with the language. You'll experience its flow and, thus, its inherent beauty.

Best wishes,
David :D

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Re: Reading Original Classical Texts

Post by cweb255 » Tue Apr 26, 2005 2:17 pm

edonnelly wrote:I wouldn't be too discouraged. It's not like these works would be considered "light reading" even if Latin were your native language (well, I'm not so sure about Caesar, but I digress). Even when I read Shakespeare (written in my native language) I have to translate and parse in my head. Maybe you should look for some lighter material to practice (or better yet, gain confidence in) your comprehension skills. We need a "TV Guide, Latin Edition."
Really? You can't read Shakespeare without translating? I mean, after one chapter I easily adapted to the text, and this was way back when I was a kid in high school. You should probably read more Shakespeare, and throw in some Donne, Bible, etc... you'll get it eventually.

As for reading the texts without translating, the best way to do it is just keep translating. Your brain has to develop the synapses to associate arbor with the concept of tree, not the word tree. It takes time. Try reading some beginner stuff, like Ecce Romani. I can read through that in no time no translating involved, just pure reading. The language is extremely beginner, though, so it's no accomplishment. Yet still... And even some of the stuff I translated a while back, like Eutropius or even some Caesar, what I've already done I can read near-fluently. So just keep practicing. Good luck!

Chris Weimer
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Post by whiteoctave » Tue Apr 26, 2005 9:45 pm

one day, Mr. Weimer, your knowledge will be ours. as for now, i'm throwing some Donne in with my Shakespeare. do PM me with any help for the Elegiac exam tomorrow.

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Sebastian Swift
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Post by Sebastian Swift » Tue Apr 26, 2005 10:13 pm

amans,

I will most definitely stick around. Hell, I plan to major in Classics Studies next year: Textkit will be (as if it hasn't already been) quite valuable.

Disciples of Donne,

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure: then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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