Sunday, November 14, 2010

From the Septuagint to Judy Collins

One thing I like very much about my community intermediate Latin class is that it is so intergenerational. Of the four students in the group, one is a sophomore in high school, another one his dad; I think it would be fair to describe the remaining two as seniors. It's a very nice group, and they're making excellent progress in their Latin studies. (With one 90-minute class meeting a week and very little homework, they move at about the speed of a good high school class.)

It is very important to me that all the students in the class are comfortable at the level we're working at, but it's perhaps understandable that, in some ways, the class focuses around the teenage boy. He seems remarkably dedicated to his Latin studies, obviously doing all the work in his spare time. His parents clearly support his studies a great deal, and it's quite beautiful to see the kid and his dad interact in class. The boy is often the first to volunteer reading in class, in fact, he'd happily read on for pages if only we'd let him... There is, however, absolutely nothing nerdy about him.

Anyway, the other day we were reading the chapter in our textbook about numeri difficiles—difficult numbers. When we got to the word septuaginta, "seventy," I couldn't resist saying a few words about the septuagint: the Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, allegedly crafted by 70 scholars. We talked a bit about what might be the importance of the septuagint for us and I pointed out that, in some cases, the text may reflect versions of the Hebrew bible that we no longer have in the original. Having the translation is obviously not as good as having the original, bet still better than nothing, I suppose.

"Imagine," I said, "that we didn't have Shakespeare's Midsummernight's Dream in English—that it was somehow lost early on—but that we did have a German translation from, say, the 1650s. That would obviously not be nearly as good as Shakespeare's original, but it would be a lot better than not having the play at all. In fact, you could probably reconstruct Shakespeare's original to quite an extent from such an early translation."

"Or," I went on, "imagine we didn't have the Beatles' own recording of 'Yesterday,' but only Judy Collins covering it on an early 1970s LP. That might not be quite as good as the Beatles' own version, but it would be a LOT better than nothing. In fact, come to think about it, it might almost be better than the Beatles' own recording."

To my delight, both my young student and his father protested. Surely, I was pushing things just a little too far. Judy Collins covering a Beatles song, OK, good enough—but better than the Beatles?! You gotta be kidding. "Look," I said, "if we finish this lectio in time, I'll play you a recording of Judy Collins covering a Beatles song that's actually better than the Beatles' own recording."

We finished the reading quickly and even managed to squeeze in an extra exercitium, so while the class was packing up, I quickly found the record and put it on the turntable. My student, his dad, and I listened to Judy Collins's superb version of "In My Life." "Can you hear the double bass?" I asked my student. "Very subtle," he agreed. More superlatives about Collins's recording ensued.

"You see," I said to my student, "I shouldn't be saying this, but to me, this is far, far more important than learning Latin."

My student agreed, thank goodness. I think I saw his dad smiling.