Reinventing How You Read Latin

By the time you’ve finished Latin II, you should have a pretty good handle on the various constructions and forms of Latin. You should also have a good basic vocabulary, and you should know your way around the dictionary. Plugging these pieces in according to a completely mechanical process should allow you to arrive, eventually, at a workable understanding of what the passage means. You’ve probably gotten pretty good at it already. What follows may really annoy you or make you panicky and insecure. “I know how to read Latin now,” you might well say. “Why should I forget all that and do something else at this point?”

I’m of the school that believes that this process is (at least for a large number of students) the right place to start. But it’s not where you want to end. The problem is that if you never cast loose of this process, you will always be fettered by it, and you’ll always be seeing the passage through the foggy glass of kind of mental translational process. That is, even if you haven’t written one out, you’ll be thinking about it “translationally” — you will think about meaning as virtually synonymous with meaning in English.

There are a few difficulties here. The first is simple competence and speed. If you always have to go through this rigamarole, your reading of Latin will always be massively less efficient than your reading of English. And while your grasp of Latin may never become quite as good as your grasp of English, there’s no reason it should take you hours to decrypt a page of Latin when it takes you only a few minutes to read a page of English prose. Perhaps a realistic point of comparison here would be an English-language scientific journal on a subject you don’t know very well — it’s definitely going to take you longer to read it than the equivalent amount of a mystery novel, and puzzling out its problems will take some mental work. But you will have the basic structure of the sentences down: if there are gaps in your understanding, they will have to do with unfamiliar terms, or with the fact that it’s not as obvious to you as to a specialist why a given chemical reaction should take place a thousand times faster if a certain unpronouncable catalyst is added to the solution.

More important than efficiency, though, is the fact that this method will never really get you to the point where reading something in Latin is itself intrinsically more rewarding than reading a good translation. It ignores the obvious (but still often overlooked) fact that Latin is meaningful on its own terms. That is, it can convey meaning — a structured arrangement of ideas in the reader’s mind — without going through English. The great breakthrough in fluency has to do with arriving at a level of understanding of Latin that allows you to apprehend what a Latin author is saying in his or her own language. Once you’re able to do that, the world will change for you. You will see differently and know differently.

The methodology outlined here is designed to help you arrive at that point without compromising the rigor — i.e., getting it a lot more quickly while still getting it right. (Often it will mean understanding it better, too, because some of the meaning of any discourse emerges not from a specific structure but from the flow and direction of an argument, which tends to be obscured when you break it down into little bits that don’t quite reconnect.) What I’m suggesting here may initially seem laborious, but if you follow it regularly for the duration of this course, I can virtually guarantee that your approach to Latin will undergo a steady change for the better: you will not just be a more efficient Latin reader — you’ll be a far better Latin reader. If you perceive problems in following these steps, we’ll discuss the limitations of the process and how it can be altered or improved. But remember that results of this sort of thing don’t show up instantly: to start with, try to follow it even if it doesn’t seem to be producing an immediate improvement. I’d much rather you got through only part of your reading by following this method than that you complete it all by falling back on old mechanical habits.

Here’s what I want you to do:

1. Read through the passage once completely, aloud, without stopping to look anything up, puzzle anything out, or do anything else that would derail you. Move forward no matter how lost you feel. Remember that this is the way little Roman boys and girls learned Latin, and they were speaking Latin more fluently than we can before they were four. They didn’t proceed from an analytical understanding of the parts of the sentence and the parts of speech: they listened to things that they didn’t entirely understand, as they went by in real time, until the pieces fused into wholes.

2. Stop and think about it for a minute. Ask yourself what the narrative is, or what the argument is. What’s the author trying to convey to the reader? (This is not just a comfortable piece of padding — it’s important.) But don’t look back at the text.

3. Write down, in your own words and without referring to the passage, what you think it says. Don’t be bothered if this seems stupid to you. It may well be completely off base. That’s okay. There are doubtless going to be a number of places where you’re quite fuzzy. Remember that this is only one step. The goal of the process is not “getting it right” but learning a new way of getting it at all.

4. Go over the passage as a whole, making a list of words you don’t know or recall. If you can identify pieces of them, good. If you find English derivatives, note those down too. Remember that the vocabulary of any language — and this is at least as true of Latin as of English or any modern language — is a living whole. Words may in some sense come from arbitrary assignments of sounds to fragments of meaning, but those pieces of significant sounds get attached and recombined in ways that make organic sense. Hundreds of Latin verb roots show up in different forms with attached prefixes. Use this as leverage to cluster together the whole family of words based on the same root; also acquire a sense in the process of how that prefixed bit (usually a preposition) is working in a more or less regular way to alter the meaning of the root.

5. Look up the words you still don’t know. Think about the words, and consider the range of meaning that each may support. Consider how the context in which you found them may shape how we are to understand them. This is not just a one-to-one correspondence of an English meaning to a Latin one. You may not have any use for the first meaning out of six you find in the dictionary — consider them all.

6. Now go through the passage again — again without stopping — and read it with the words you have learned in mind.

7. Keeping your first copy intact, write out again what you now think the passage is saying. (If you do this in a word processor, you can copy your first version as a basis for the second, but don’t destroy or correct the first one.)

8. Now go through and produce a solid translation, looking up anything you don’t know. Consider the constructions, and note anything that still seems uncertain.

9. Formulate a grammatical question that covers any problem you’re having with the text at this point. Try to be as specific as possible: “I don’t get the sentence in line 12,” doesn’t really get you anywhere. It’s likely that you will have made some false supposition — that’s why you don’t get it, after all — but zeroing in on it as closely as you can will help the way you think about these things.

10. Post all three versions and your questions to the forum for the week.

© Copyright 2008, 2009 by Bruce A. McMenomy. Permission to download or print this material is granted to members of Scholars Online for personal study. All other use or redistribution constitutes violation of copyright.