Saturday, February 09, 2013


Attracted to Latin

Anatole Abragam (1914-2011), Time Reversal: An Autobiography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 30-31:
From the beginning I felt attracted to Latin and I preferred what we called the version (from Latin into French) to the thème (which is the opposite). I found in the version Latine what became the foundation of my career as researcher and teacher: the need to understand and then to express clearly what I understood. I do not think I am exaggerating in saying that for me Latin was the only properly scientific apprenticeship of my secondary education, and probably the best school of intellectual self-expression.

In the fourth form, our Latin teacher, who shared these views, used to dictate a model translation to us after a test. 'You need not stick closely to the letter as long as you are faithful to the spirit', he used to tell us. 'Misunderstanding is the only danger'. I thought that he took liberties with the text which he denied to us, and he went too far at least once. It was all about the reception of Scipio Africanus by the people of Rome massed on the banks of the Tiber. 'I think we could say: "the quays were dark with people", yes, I think we shall dare to say that'. As I raised my hand in protest, he said with some annoyance: 'Don't be pedantic, Abragam, I think we may say that'. 'But, Monsieur, in the preceding phrase it said that they were all wearing white dresses: "candidas togas".'

The decisive factor which kept me away from classical studies was an impulsive move, the first of a long series, which made me give up the study of Greek when it started in the fourth form. From the first lesson I felt a violent antipathy for the Greek master, whose grimaces and tics I found unbearable. I persuaded my mother, to whom I dared not tell the truth, that Greek was a waste of time which would be better employed on more important studies.

In her time she had taken Latin but no Greek, so she believed me and went to see the Head about my transfer into a form without Greek. In the face of his unwillingness to permit it, she had to tell a lie and to allege that there were reasons related to my health. Learning of my transfer, the Greek master told me, between two grimaces, how much he regretted the departure of a pupil who appeared so apt at following his teaching.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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