Sunday, May 30, 2004



Bill Vallicella tells the true story of an unfortunate philosopher who published a paper entitled Creation Ex Deus, which should of course be Creation Ex Deo. This cautionary tale is a good illustration of the saying "vox missa nescit reverti" (Horace, Ars Poetica 390), "a word, having been sent forth, does not know how to return." Creation Ex Deus, now committed to print, is destined to live on forever, in the writer's own curriculum vitae, in bibliographies, in footnotes and citations. I've heard of authors who bought up and destroyed all copies of their juvenilia, but that seems impossible in this case. If it had taken form only in the shadowy bytes of cyberspace, rather than in indelible printer's ink, the solecism might easily have been corrected. But even in cyberspace, the Google cache awaits to trap and embalm the unwary, like a tar pit.

Rushing into print can have its advantages, for example if you're a journalist and want the credit for a scoop. But it also has its obvious disadvantages -- a hasty utterance is likely to be an inaccurate or an impolitic or an unwise one. Horace recommends that, if you've written anything, you keep it locked up in your desk for nine years (Ars Poetica 388-389: "nonumque prematur in annum / membranis intus positis"). If it still pleases you after that time, then submit it for publication. Advice fatal for bloggers, as well as for junior professors who must publish or perish, but advice worth considering nonetheless.

Vallicella also answers the query of a correspondent who asks how to say "Seize the world" in Latin, with the reasonable reply "Carpe mundum," after Horace's "Carpe diem." I understand well enough what Horace meant, when I read his words in context (Ode 1.11), but I don't understand what is meant by the expression "Seize the world," because I don't know its context. Is it advice for an up-and-coming conqueror like Alexander the Great? Or does it mean something quite different, like "Embrace the beauty of God's creation"? Is "world" the earth as opposed to heaven, with a meaning like "Forget about the hereafter, live to the fullest in the midst of the world around us here and now"? We have no way of telling.

Horace's use of the word "seize" (or "pluck," as one might pick a flower) is a bold poetic locution, since one cannot literally grasp with the hand something as insubstantial as time. The only one who's got the whole world in his hand is God, as the spiritual says. In addition to "mundus," there are other possible ways to translate "world" into Latin, depending on the shade of meaning desired. Meissner's Latin Phrase Book gives, e.g., rerum universitas or mundi universitas (the universe), rerum natura or just natura (creation, nature), haec omnia quae videmus (the visible world), etc.

Translation is a tricky business, but so is speaking and writing in one's own tongue. In the introduction to his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis writes:
Prolonged thought about the words which we ordinarily use to think with can produce a momentary aphasia. I think it is to be welcomed. It is well that we should become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile, and (well used) immensely potent instruments that words are.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?