Lost in Translation


If I were asked to single out a word that better mirrors the new generation of adolescents is: activity. The average life of a teen-ager must be active, marked by an intense schedule made of sport, courses of any kind, social life etc.; to be sure they are never alone, as they are in the constant company of their smartphones which, actually, seem to be stuck in their hands. This is “a truth universally acknowledged”, you cannot deny it, therefore; the school system could not watch indifferent and above all, be static to interact successfully with such dynamic realities, hence, to keep up with the (fast) times, myriads of activities of any kind have been introduced in any schoolΒ  in order to make the educational “product” more attractive. Of course, as we have discussed in some previous posts, in a daily routine, thus conceived, there is no or little room for homework, that’s why we have recently seen the birth of many debates about it.

However; what I can see is a highly committed generation, but distracted, whose life seems to move faster as if they were the protagonists of a movie but in a fast forward mode. In such a mode you can just perceive things superficially, everything is consumed quickly, becoming thus soon worthless and meaningless while you keep on moving ahead unconscious of what you are doing and why. Of course, if you watch that movie in the normal pace you have the time to see, understand and even enjoy what and who surrounds you, but the real challenge nowadays is to stop. If you stopped that movie for a while, in that single shot you would be able to see the details that would have gone missing otherwise. In that moment you would find truth, intensity, beauty and even joy. Only stopping for a while. It sounds so Keatsian, I know, but I firmly believe it.

Now I am about to suggest something, I would have never dreamed to utter or think in my teenage years, that is : among school activities, the practice of translation and in particular the translation of Latin and Greek classicals should be given greater importance. I said it. It sounds so obsolete, I know, but it is a fundamental exercise that makes you stop for a while and ponder. I feel obliged to confess that since I started to study Latin in seventh grade it was “first sight hatred”, as I could not understand the reason why I should waste my precious time in such a tedious activity. Well, it took time, but now I know. The exercise of translating and translating classicals in particular, stimulates the ability of understanding and organizing data. In that effort of giving meaning and form even the sense of beauty is thus developed, in fact, the perfect choice of a word which matches harmoniously with the rest of the sentence is an act which can be accomplished only in a “slow” time in the company of thinking and beauty.This is the reason why those who have attended grammar schools are equally proficient if they decide to study scientific disciplines at university. I know it is not an engaging or popular suggestion, but, as the old bard said: “I must be cruel only to be kind”, they will understand the importance one day. I did it. Be kind!


13 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. While I’ve never studied Latin or Greek, I did grow up in a multi-lingual household, none of which were the language of the country in which we resided. Having to translate to and for my grandparents as they navigated the world outside our home gave me a similar experience…and a good reason to do so in present time. πŸ˜‰ xoM

  2. I think it’s a great idea, and share the classic books if possible, the Iliad and such. Possible to read on line? I remember once, when I was in High school a snarky teacher asked my 1950’s drafting class: “Who chased who around what three times?” He was amazed I knew the answer. I was the only one.
    It was my mother who turned me onto these books, and I enjoyed them. Maybe harder to do with all the distractions you have mentioned.

  3. I ‘studied’ Latin and Ancient Greek up to the age of 16 but I can’t say I felt proficient in either language (I failed the Greek exam, since you ask, and just scraped through the Latin). But I did discover a lifelong love of words and their archaeology and how root meanings can mutate over time, how the way we bunch words together take on new lives to impart thoughts and new meanings.

    Classic languages helped me appreciate Romance languages more, particularly French which I studied to 18 and Italian which I can follow — though stumblingly — and, as you’ve often pointed out, inform English usage, making what is usually classed a Germanic tongue more indebted to Latin and Greek than most native speakers realise.

    And — to address your concluding points — there is a logic and yet subtlety about these dead languages that points up for me how important the ‘correct’ use of one’s native tongue is. Too often when I’ve talked to teenage students using what I think of as logical and clear English they’ve looked perplexed and even irritated: “Speak English!” they’ve said, when what they mean is “use the imprecise and emotionally-laden language that we understand”. As a certain exclusive user of imprecise and emotionally-laden language might say, “So sad!”

    • Dear Chris/Salvo, you always honor me with your thought provoking comments, really thank you. However, in your opinion, is that emotional laden language expression of the “barbarized” or of the “barbarians”? I guess it would make a great difference.

      • As a former teacher I firmly try to resist regarding anybody as a barbarian; that a culture exists which denigrates anything that appears intellectually elitist does however seem barbarised, as you put it. Especially when huge swathes of working class communities in the 19th and 20th centuries acted to improve access to education through workers’ educational associations and evening classes and fought for free universal education.

        All that has been steadily dismantled and financially squeezed by those who truly regard themselves as elite — the landed, the titled and the moneyed — along with universal health and social services. That deliberate erosion of what has been hard won over many years, that’s the true barbarianism.

  4. I’ve come back to Latin after many years and have taken up Ancient Greek as well. The intellectual stimulation of mastering these languages and of being able to read the texts is a tremendous pleasure. I often wonder why people are so willing to put in so much time on something like training for a marathon but not on exercising the brain. The achievement is just as great.

    • Yes indeed, and while reading often requires acquiring the right equipment — books — there’s no special dietary regime as there is with marathon training! (And, of course, we are indebted to the classics for the modern revival of that punishing distance.)

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