Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reading Latin

I can almost not believe I’m writing this, it’s so surreal (but not nice, fellow Notting Hill fans).

A brief prologue for full disclosure: I learned Latin for six years in high school. That school was and is considered excellent; the teachers were extremely competent (one of them also taught in university); and in some years, we had as many as six class periods each devoted to both Latin and Greek. My final grades were more than adequate, with particularly good notes for the final exams, especially in Greek.

I remember that, after I finished high school, I was quite disappointed that, despite all those hours and decent grades, I was still utterly unable to read Latin (forget Greek) independently. Many years later, call it chance if you will, I was asked to teach Latin, took on the challenge, and soon started to teach myself Latin with the eminent Lingua Latina per se illustrata series. I finally learned how to actually read (and later also write and speak) Latin.

After teaching Latin in the US and Australia, in schools and universities, to kids and adults for a total of some ten years, I now find myself teaching in my home country. Although that means compromising my teaching style in a many ways, I have also been encouraged to speak Latin in class. So that’s nice.

But of course, not everybody is happy. A colleague who visited a class expressed surprise at my speaking Latin, even though it concerned only reading out loud. “You can not,” said the colleague, as if patiently explaining one of the most basic laws of the universe, “read Latin from left to right.”

Pardon me?

“With the modern languages,” the colleague explains, “it is possible, because the word order is the same.” As in Dutch, it goes without saying.

How to answer? I really don’t know. Do I read Latin from left to right? Why of course I do, how else? I even speak Latin from left to right! What am I supposed to do? Think about the verb first and then save it for last? It may even be that the brain actually works that way, who the heck knows. But even if it does, sorry, when I speak Latin, I just speak Latin. (Of course that does not mean I can not think about a word or a sentence before speaking.)

Of course what’s behind this, let’s say, misunderstanding is a very different way of thinking about Latin. In the eyes of many, Latin is not really a language, merely a (relatively very small) corpus of texts that students translate into Dutch with such grave difficulty that they themselves often don’t understand their own so-called translations. (Evidently translating a text that you don’t understand is impossible, which is why such pieces of Dutch un-prose should not be called translations to begin with, but that’s a different story.)

I have often written stories in Latin and recently published Latin translations of some short stories by legendary Dutch writer Simon Carmiggelt. But why? “Why would you want to write Latin,” the aforementioned colleague opined. “Do you think you can write better than the Romans?” Why? Well, perhaps because it’s fun? And, I mean, Erasmus wrote Latin, didn’t he? And better than many a Roman, I may add. J.S. Bach, on the other hand, not only created the fugue as we know it, he also brought it to Absolute Perfection (note capitals A and P) within a decade or two, spending the rest of his life making clear once and for all that no-one would ever be able to come even remotely close. But that hasn’t stopped generations of composers from trying!

Just imagine the English teacher saying, Look guys, why write English? Do you really think you can do better than a Shakespeare, a Dickens, a J.D. Salinger? And what about the Russian, Chinese, or even Italian teacher who explains you could never read that language from left to right because the word order is different from Dutch? 

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