Reading v Translation

It’s hard to move forward if you don’t know in which direction forward is.

Latin teachers and professors of the last hundred years have had divided opinions over the ultimate goal of their students. Some think that students should be able to quickly and smoothly translate at the end of two years. Others think that reading should be the final receipt. Reading and translation may seem like the same ¬†end, but in world of Classical languages they are oceans apart. The ability read Latin involves mastering the language in a way that a student can read a hundred lines at a speed comparable to a French V student reading Les Miserables. Working out a sentence one word at a time, one grammatical structure at a time, is not reading, it’s translating. Understanding is the defining characteristic of reading. A student can read a Latin sentence, and understand the ideas it is trying to express, without knowing all the vocabulary. How many times, when you read, do you mentally skip over vocabulary you don’t know, but are able to continue right on reading and understanding the full meaning of the sentence? Students in Latin 101 know what it is the have to translate those short “sententiae antiquae” from Wheelock and other textbooks which use real snippets of Latin prose from the beginning. The bits chosen may have easier vocabulary and simple constructions, but many times you end up going “huh?” after translating. It’s hard to understand the meaning in these sentences when they stand along, and you approach them one word at a time.


  1. brentbickings says:

    I came into the Latin program thinking that reading and translating were just two branches of the same thing… Boy, was I wrong! I think that this is one of the reasons that I struggled so. When I took Chinese, we didn’t begin by reading Kung-sun Lung, a fourth century BCE logician, we learned phrases like, “My name is…” “What is that?” etc. Modern languages have a pragmatic component that helped me with their mastering. Latin is essentially a dead language (although I know quite a few “Latinistas” who would disagree), but it was once alive. I wonder if mixing the venacular with the dry grammar would aid students in the retention of the language. My suggestion is that while speeding through Wheelocks, we incorporate such things as epgraphy to show the life and daily use of the language.

    Also, have you come across anything by Dorothy Sayers, the 20th Century Oxford scholar? She and many in her circle (which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) felt that education needed to return to its classical form, known as the Trivium. She wrote a booklet, the title of which is escaping me at the moment, but I believe I have it, in which she expounds her views on education, i.e. that students need to be taught how to learn, not given specicalized facts. Central to this idea is the study of Latin,. She once wrote that learning Latin made everything else in life much easier to learn. My understanding is that the inflectedd component of the language exercised the brain in such a way that assisted with problem solving. This has become huge among the Christian homeschooling movement. I once took an intensive Greek class with one of the groups that advocates this approach to learning and have contacts and resources which I’d be happy to share if you decide to pursue this line of research.