Terse Roman Meets Verbose Anglophone Translator

This is a nice example of the relative economy of the Latin and English languages:

…nostris viribus opprimendos. –Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 16.12.31

“…doomed as they are to be overwhelmed by our might.” –John Rolfe’s Loeb translation


Latin: 3 words; English: 10.

It is not that John Rolfe’s translation is poor; it’s actually quite good. Nor is it that Latin is merely more economical than English in its use of individual words, but also in the crafting of whole sentences, which Latin by nature requires the speaker to do in their entirety before he begins to articulate them, hence the potency of Ammianus’ three words, whereas the Anglophone can outstrip his thoughts with his speech, surprising even himself in a burst of inarticulate particles with which he bewilders his audience or, more likely, trains them to pay less and less attention to his words until they tune him out completely.

My wife and I noticed this a couple of years ago. She had picked me up from the University of Kentucky, where I had attended a spoken Latin conventiculum—a week-long program in which about 80 participants from all over the world lived together speaking no language but Latin. We were driving home, the kids sleeping after lunch in the backseat in the early afternoon heat, and our conversation was entirely in Latin for the first two hours. Eventually, we started to talk about the benefits—with which I had been living for the last eight days—of being forced to complete a thought before beginning to speak it. Fewer wasted words. With greater economy of expression, we found that we could train our interlocutor to expect each word to have a purpose, and therefore to pay closer attention to it.

This is precisely the opposite of what I am doing right now: writing quickly so as to get back to work, just to get the point down, brushing with quick strokes and a broad brush, sweeping some spaces more than once and others not at all.

Ammianus’s Latin is able to say in three words what Rolfe’s English needs 10 to say because Ammianus’s Latin fits into an integrated whole. If those three words had been discovered on a papyrus fragment, they would be unintelligible (like a certain recently “discovered” highly-touted papyrus fragment). But in the sentence as a whole they fit together like a dome.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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