Comprehension Matters: Rethinking Translation in Latin Reading Courses
There are better ways to facilitate and assess comprehension than sitting in a circle reciting stilted English.
I once inherited a group of students who had claimed they had only survived Latin I and II because of EcceRomaniTranslations.com. I was skeptical at first, but soon realized this was no exaggeration. With many schools adopting 1:1 technology initiatives or Bring Your Own Device policies, students have access to resources that can quickly become a crutch. Before the Internet, lazy preparation for class consisted of going to the library, finding the correct Loeb edition, and reading the English. Now, students can “prepare” a passage by printing off an English translation, or simply pulling up the translation on their device during class.
Academic integrity aside, translation assignments and assessments can still be problematic. Even if students prepare a translation by themselves, in classrooms where the primary focus is producing an English version of a Latin text, students are more focused on English than Latin. Some students even resort to memorizing English translations as to preparation for exams. The result is that students have very little meaningful engagement with Latin texts and fail to develop reading skills.
How can you tell if this is a problem in your classroom?
- Can students can earn perfect scores on translations of texts they have seen but cannot navigate an unseen text?
- What percentage of class time and homework time do to students spend writing out English translations and sharing them aloud?
- When students struggle to understand, do they ask questions about the text or do they ask you to repeat an English translation or clarify a meaning of a sentence?
- How do students prepare for exams?
- Are students reading Latin that is too difficult based on their level and experience?
- How do your students’ view the purpose of translation in your classroom?
Dr. Emily Wilson, whose translation of The Odyssey has been called a “cultural landmark,” weighed on on this topic, noting that students of all levels in Classics classrooms “use ‘translation’ in an instrumentalist way, as if to solve the puzzle of the text without noticing what the text itself is doing on its own terms — which is honestly a complete waste of everyone’s time.”
A good first step is to encourage students not to write out English translations while they are still trying to understand the text. To that end, students can make notations about syntax, word order, diction, and other elements so that they can read the text independently. Second, ban the question “What does ________ mean?” Instead work with students to pinpoint the source of their confusion so that they can learn to focus on the Latin text.
While this strategy helps shift the focus to the Latin, it still treats the text as a puzzle instead of a literary work with which students can engage. Introducing a wider variety of activities and assessments in the classroom can help improve comprehension, provide accurate information on student progress, and facilitate deeper, more meaningful engagement with the text.
If translation has been the main way students demonstrate understanding, here are a few alternatives:
- Captions for images. Students can either draw or find images on the Internet and then caption the images using Latin from the text. I’ve received captioning assignments comprised entirely of memes and vines.
- Movies with subtitles. Students can create a silent movie based on the text and provide subtitles using the words of the Latin author. Both the movies and the captioned images can be presented and shared in class as a review resource.
- Scavenger hunt. Provide students a list of sentences from the text for them to find and document. There are a lot of variations to this assignment. Students can be in groups and recreate scenes themselves, or you can give half of the class scenarios to act out and have the other group identify, a mobile charades of sorts.
- Image matching. Provide images and have students match them to the corresponding section of text.
- Simple summaries. Instead of asking for a translation, have students provide a summary of the text in simple Latin. The Gradus ad Parnassum is a great tool for helping students build their vocabulary so they can summarize texts using different vocabulary instead of just simplifying the syntax.
- Conversations about the text in Latin. After students have a simple summary, ask questions about the text in Latin. Providing sentence stems can help make this activity less daunting if your students are not used to communicating in Latin.
- Short essays with Latin support. Have students write short reflections in their composition books using Latin from the text to support their answers. Students can also simply summarize the text in English and write Latin — from single words to small phrases — that relates to their version.
- Substitutions in the text. Students can demonstrate an understanding of syntax and morphology by replacing elements of the text (e.g. verbs, direct objects, infinitives in indirect statements). Instructions should be specific so that students know what to change.
- Latin composition “in the style of.” Students write a composition of a modern topic in the style of the author. Teachers can provide model sentences and examples for support.
These strategies can help students develop greater comprehension and fluency in reading more effectively than the exercise of writing out an English translation and then sharing it in class or on an exam. There is still a place for translation in the Latin classroom, however. In the second part of this series, I will take a look at ways to make translation an intentional and deliberate part of the curriculum.
Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in Virginia where she lives with her husband, children, and muppet-like dogs. She has published many collections of Latin mottoes online,has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter, and is available to write, speak, or rabble-rouse.