Thursday, May 12, 2016


Delicious Blunders

George G. Ramsay (1839-1921), Should Women Study the Classics? Opening Lecture at the Arts Course at Queen Margaret College, Glasgow, November 3rd, 1891 (Glasgow: James MacLehouse & Sons, 1891), pp. 21-24:
One of the chief solaces in the life of a Classical examiner is supplied by the delicious blunders of examinees; not blunders of blank ignorance, but blunders of intelligence; those which come from that sort of half-knowledge, or three-quarter knowledge, which leads a student whose imagination is unchastened by exact knowledge, once he has missed some essential point, to embark on a hopeless sea of conjecture and incongruity. The charm of such efforts lies not in the extent to which they are wrong, but in the extent to which they are right. One single error may drag in its train a whole catalogue of misapprehensions. Thus, on Friday last, I was presented with the following translation of a line in Ovid, describing a hard frost—
"Saepe sonant moti glacie pendente capilli,"
which means—
'Often, if you shake your hair, the icicles which hang to it will rustle.'

The translation given was—
'The goats frequently get on to a glacier, and when it starts to slip away they send forth their voices.'

In this translation one single letter, e read for i [i.e. capelli for capilli], has put the translator on to slippery ground; the slip once made, he started off, and descended in an avalanche of error.

Another, with more science, but less Latin, rendered the passage:—'At the same time from the overshadowing height the wild glaciers roar.'

A favourite student of mine, now a distinguished man of letters, once translated four Latin words thus—
'A beautiful woman must obviously be well dressed.'
The sentiment was irreproachable; but not so obvious was its connection with the original, which means—
'When a man goes out to battle he should leave his wife behind him.'
And yet the translator had some correct knowledge about each of the four words of the original passage (bella plane accinctis obeunda, Tac. Ann. IV.34). He was right in supposing that bella may sometimes mean 'a beautiful woman'; that plane, means 'obviously'; that obeunda indicates necessity; and that accinctis has something to do with dress. But not seizing the construction, not catching the drift of the thought, he failed to produce what Persius calls 'a short half-ounce of right' in the whole.

More remarkable still is a translation quoted to me a few weeks ago by an English headmaster. Juvenal is describing a dinner-party given by a Roman grandee, who feeds on sumptuous fare himself, while he has bad food and bad drink served to his poor dependants at the foot of the table:—
'Vilibus ancipites fungi ponentur amicis,
Boletus domino; sed quales Claudius edit
Ante illum uxoris, post quem nil amplius edit.'
The meaning is—
'Before the poor dependants will be placed toadstools of dubious quality; before mine host, a lordly mushroom, of the sort that the Emperor Claudius ate, before that one administered to him by his wife, after which he ate nothing more,' in allusion to the fact that the Emperor Claudius was poisoned by his wife, Agrippina, who chose his favourite dish of mushrooms as the vehicle for the poison. This was thus translated:—

'Let those who are in doubt be permitted to discharge their worthless friends; let Boletus (the word for 'mushroom,' which, standing first in the line, has a capital letter) do the same to his master; but then that was before Claudius ate his wife, after which he ate nothing more at all.' The exquisite beauty of this translation is that the writer knew the meaning of every word taken separately, except Boletus; he has made sense; and yet there is not one single word (excluding the five last words) in which he has not made an egregious blunder, evincing a fundamental ignorance of the language. Yet, in fact, he knew just as much Latin as those worthy compatriots of ours know of French, who go blurting out their Anglo-Frankish lingo about the streets of Paris, quite pleased with themselves because they are understood by the waiters who have made a special study of that dialect.

In Latin or Greek you must be absolutely right, or you are not right at all; you must know the meaning, the construction, the position in the sentence, of every word—and every one of these things implies a separate intellectual act—or you cannot give the sense of the original; no half-knowledge, no breezy catching of the general sense, is of the slightest avail, for the passage says to you in its every word, 'You must know me not at all, or know me all in all.' The man or woman who has mastered Latin or Greek knows language scientifically, and every other language theoretically is at their mercy.
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