Tag Archives: Latin

Translating the “Dies Irae.”

Working through Wheelock’s grammar is tough.  (I’m at chapter 16!)  Naturally, I decided to liven up my Latin by reading a famous medieval dirge for the dead.  The “Dies Irae” is ascribed to Thomas of Celano, thirteenth-century author of the first hagiography of Francis of Assisi.  Think what you may, I am sure you have heard this hymn before, especially if you saw Amadeus:

Here I’d like to look over the first two stanzas of the hymn and supply some translations.  I have given up trying to keep the meter, rhyme, and meaning intact.  I figure two out of three ain’t bad!

Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla
teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus
quando iudex est venturus
cuncta stricte discussurus!

Notice that each line is in trochaic tetrameter, “Dies irae, dies illa,” with eight beats in each line.  In each stanza, all three lines rhyme: illa / favilla / Sibylla.”  Peter Walsh’s translation in his fantastic Dumbarton Oaks One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas volume is the most literal I have seen:

Day of fury, that sad day
will reduce the world to dust,
as claim David and the Sibyl.

What a trembling there will be
when the judge is to appear
all things harshly to review! (Walsh 347)

As amazing as Wash’s volume is, his translation doesn’t even try to keep the poetic elements of the hymn.  I tried my hand at keeping the rhyme.

The day, that day of fury
When the world will turn to ashes in a hurry
As David and Sibyll told us to worry.

How greatly all will be trembling,
When the judge is assembling,
The world gone to disassembling.

[Alternate translation of the second stanza:]
A great tremor will be scattering,
When the judge with his feet the earth battering,
The world gone to shattering.

Despite my best efforts, some of my wording is just awkward: “As David and Sibyll told us to worry” doesn’t capture the eschatological urgency of the original.  Sometimes the languages provide their own obstacles.  The participles that rhyme so well in Latin translate into static gerunds in English that don’t adequately capture the drama and action.

Two other translators tried to keep the rhyme:

Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!

Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
(William Josiah Irons, 1849 — link)

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.

What horror must invade the mind
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind! (link)

Irons’ is the loosest, even switching the second and third lines in the first stanza.  I like it more, despite its archaisms. The other one uses very limpid verbs (“lay,” “say”) — not appropriate for eschatology!

Still, there seems to be a certain energy in the original Latin that rhyme-oriented translations don’t capture.  So I worked on keeping the meter instead:

Day of wrath, that day when all burns
World turns ashes, God breaks, smashes,
David, Sibyll witness’d, told us.

Tremor breaks out, how great, how loud,
When the Judge is coming, sitting,
Viewing souls, soon shatters bad ones.

I love the energy of the first stanza.  The second stanza did not come out as well, especially the third line.  (Any suggestions?)  Ironically, to keep the meter of the Latin, I have to use short, one-syllabled Germanic words!

I could only find one translation that preserves both meter and rhyme.  Ambrose Bierce satirically throws meaning out the window:

Day of Satan’s painful duty!
Earth shall vanish, hot and sooty;
So says Virtue, so says Beauty.

Ah! what terror shall be shaping
When the Judge the truth’s undraping!
Cats from every bag escaping!

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  How would you translate it?

Review: “When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.”

Right now I am listening to The Sparrow, a work of theological sci-fi in which a team of Jesuits lead a mission — part evangelization, part scientific discovery — to Rakhat, a planet with intelligent life.  One of the main characters, Fr. Emilio Santos, is a linguistic genius.  Another character, an AI researcher, spends months interviewing him to understand his language-learning techniques.  Within months of contact with the people of Rakhat, Santos has become mostly fluent in their language, despite its having no relation with any human language.

410hV8nKgBL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-47,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_I am not yet at Santos’ level, but I am already learning quite a bit about language acquisition from John Gruber-Miller’s edited volume, When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.  The book features essays by classicists applying modern pedagogy research to how Greek and Latin have traditionally been taught.  Although it is written primarily for professors, it has made me think deeply about how I learn languages and what has worked and not worked for me in my education so far.  The book has been well-reviewed by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, so I won’t duplicate that, but I will focus on three chapters that were particularly illuminating for me.

Chapter Two: “Cognitive Style and Learning Strategies in Latin Instruction,” by Andrea Deagon

I would never have predicted that such an innocuously-titled chapter would give me so much insight!  Deagon delineates different learning styles and their strengths and weaknesses in the language classroom.  One of her major demarcations is the difference between comprehension and operation learners:

Comprehension learners prefer to get a feel for an entire topic before approaching details … they often look ahead and back; details fall into place last.  They learn through using a language, and are often less attuned to minor errors than operation learners.  In contrast, operation learners approach a topic methodically, preferring a step-by-step approach and building an overall picture of the topic from details.  They tend to be more rule-oriented… (29)

I am definitely more of a comprehension learner.  I look at passages as a whole, and am better at getting the sense of a Greek poem than at discerning the distinction between an aorist and perfect.  My best experiences with Greek have been when I could make connections between the language and broader questions of culture, exegesis, and literary technique.  When I took my Odyssey reading course last quarter, I had a hard time with the in-class translations, but my word analysis paper was incredibly fun.

My first-year Greek course was taught in the traditional grammar-translation method: learning grammar, then applying it to translate “textbook Greek” back into English.  As the year progressed and time became more tight, we stopped doing the passages for each chapter (in the book we used, mostly Herodotus) and diving into details about Greek culture — something that Gruber-Miller and others in this book lament as being typical.  By third quarter I was thoroughly sick of Greek, and stuck with it as a means to an end.  I had a friend in the class who seemed to be much more the operational type: he loved grammar, loved looking at its details and nuances.  Not realizing that we simply had different learning styles, I often felt stupid when working with him.

Deagon’s chapter helped me accept my learning style.  I can find ways that work for me in language, like doing word studies and reading commentaries.  I can also catch myself when I get too lazy about grammar.  Just as the operational learners might get so caught up in details that they fail to ask the big questions of meaning in the text, comprehension learners like me can fall into a habit of bullshitting our way through the technical work of translation.

Chapter Eight: “Ancient Greek in Classroom Conversation,” by Paula Saffire

One of the most helpful exercises in my Odyssey course was memorizing the first ten lines of the Odyssey.  Memorization is often scorned as “rote learning,” but I found that it gave me something concrete to hold onto.  In learning ancient languages, it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing to show for it.  If someone at a party asks me to say something in Greek or asks me to translate a sentence, I am useless.  But I can always quote “Andra moi, ennepe, Mousa…” (“Sing to me of the man, Muse…”) and feel proud of what I have done.  And every time I recall those ten lines and think through their meaning, I re-remember much about the Odyssey and Homeric Greek as well.

Since then I have tried to integrate memorization and other forms of oral learning into my Greek education.  I’m currently working on the Magnificat in Greek.  Next I hope to move onto the Lord’s Prayer.  I hope to attend Latin mass over the summer so I can internalize the sounds of that as well.  Still, I have never thought to go as far as Saffire suggests in her article.  She describes using purely conversational Greek for the first two weeks of the year, using dialogues from her own textbook.  She argues that these first two weeks make students feel comfortable with the language, enable rapid vocabulary acquisition, and make grammar acquisition move faster the rest of the year.

The number of Greek professors who make students speak ancient Greek is rather small, whether teaching Koine in biblical studies or Attic in classics.  But the few who do advocate such methods are a vocal minority.  I have definitely heard of Randall Buth, Michael Halcomb, and Daniel Streett, three New Testament scholars who advocate a “living Koine” approach.  But frankly, I’ve always been too scared to try it out.  Perhaps this summer I will order Buth’s materials or Halcomb’s Conversational Koine stuff.  Saffire concludes her essay with some success stories:

(1) Hebrew, once used only in fixed language for prayer, is now the everyday, living speech of Israel.  That was an experiment in speaking an ancient language that worked, and on a massive scale! (2) I am told that Sanskrit is still spoken in some ashrams in India. (3) Latin is still spoken in the Vatican.  I learned this in a game of Diplomacy played in Jerusalem.  While everyone else disappeared into corners to make their “top secret” plans, the two Vatican-trained priests conversed loudly and openly, secure from prying because the rapidity of their Latin made eavesdropping impossible. (179)

My Latin teacher had a similar experience – four years of conversational Latin at a Catholic high school that had recently been deconverted from a minor seminary in the 1960’s.

Chapter Nine: “Teaching Writing in Beginning Latin and Greek: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos,” by John Gruber-Miller

Gruber-Miller’s article looks at Greek and Latin composition in a new light.  Rather than discounting it as a waste of time, he argues for it as a useful pedagogical tool.

Writing in Greek is not entirely foreign to Greek pedagogy.  My Greek textbook had English sentences for Greek translation.  These were much more difficult but also much more helpful.  However, like the reading passages, we stopped doing these at some point in the second quarter.  But Gruber-Miller doesn’t think that Greek composition is only a means to the end of learning grammar.  He wants students to express their own thoughts and ideas in classical tongues.  This would be much more work than set English-to-Greek sentences, but also more rewarding in terms of student interest.  He lists several exercises that could be useful, such as making students write graffiti like the kind found at Pompeii.

Textkit.com has two old books on Greek prose composition.  I think I’ll try them out this summer as well.

Overall, I gleaned a surprising amount of insight from such an academic tome.  I would recommend it for anyone finishing their first year of Greek or Latin.  I wish there was another volume for students, to help us figure out our learning styles and give us ideas for being a more active learner in our college Greek courses and beyond.