Saturday, December 8, 2012

Levels of Translation

Meaning happens on many levels. Take the simple phrase, “It’s raining.” It seems on the face of it that the two words convey information about the atmospheric condition. And someone might well say it to convey that information. “What’s it like outside?” “It’s raining.”

But the two words might be uttered or written outside the context of a query about the weather or the meteorological segment of the local news. And that’s because I might say the words for purposes other than that of conveying information. Suppose I’m standing next to a stranger on a corner waiting for the pedestrian light to change when the sprinkles start. I might say, “It’s raining” just to break the ice and make a human connection; certainly the other fellow can see the rain for himself and doesn’t need me to inform him. If my friend goes out in the rain without an umbrella, even though he knows why he’s wet, I still might shout “It’s raining!” to mean, “Take an umbrella!” or “Are you crazy?” I might even mutter the words to myself when I get caught in a downpour just to express my dismay. And I might write “It’s raining” not to convey information about rain but to call blog readers’ attentions to the possible levels of meaning in those two English words.

I’ve just been updating my list of Latin phrases that I come across in my reading, and an aspect of their use by William James, C. S. Lewis, James Boswell, Lord Byron, and others struck me with new force: as with “It’s raining,” the full range of possible meanings of each one of these phrases covers more than just its translation. Boswell quotes Johnson saying, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,” and of course it translates as “I fear Greeks even when bearing gifts.” But did Johnson really fear Greeks? Of course not. So what is expressed, what communication takes place by the use of these words? Let’s cover Boswell first. He writes the words to tell his readers that Johnson used them previously in a letter; Boswell certainly doesn’t intend to express his own fear of gift-bearers. Johnson, on the other hand, wrote them to Boswell as a humorous comment on some marmalade Mrs. Boswell had sent him: Boswell’s wife didn’t much like Dr. Johnson at first, so he facetiously suggested that he should be wary of any attempt at poisoning. But if he could have done so by saying, “Tell your kind wife that I shall taste her marmalade in small portions at first in the event that she has tried to poison me,” why bother to quote Virgil? Using the line from the Aeneid added to the joke by magnifying a domestic squabble to epic proportions.

Finally, Johnson’s use of Latin strengthened his bond with Boswell by referring to their common education. And this is the aspect that struck me this morning: while I sometimes have to look up the meanings of some words in these Latin quotations and almost always have to look up their source, the writers that throw them around so easily knew the sources and knew that their original audiences knew the sources, because they remembered studying these quotations in school when they were kids. To them, the quotations probably didn’t sound so erudite as they do to me; this was the stuff of grammar school. I suppose that if I wrote, “I cannot tell a lie,” a reader from outside the U.S. might think I had a prodigious memory for historical detail (which I don’t), when really I’m just repeating a phrase familiar to me from grade school (and one, by the way, not particularly historical).

In any case, knowing that the translations only begin to indicate the meaning of these phrases, I offer nevertheless a quiz on some Latin phrases I encountered this year in James, Lewis, Boswell, and Byron. Can you match each phrase with its (loose) translation?

1. Beatus ille procul negotiis.
2. Bos piger!
3. Crede experto!
4. De minimis non curat lex.
5. Et sepulchri immemor struis domos.
6. Mirabiles supra me.
7. Noscitur a sociis.
8. Nunquam enim nisi navi plena tollo vectorem.
9. Omne tulit punctum, quae miscuit utile dulci.
10. Totus teres et rotundus.

a. All the loose ends are tied up.
b. Get the meaning from the context.
c. Happy is the man who stays far away from business.
d. He who says something both useful and sweet has won the debate.
e. Heedless of their graves, they build houses.
f. I never cheat on my husband unless I’m pregnant.
g. Lazy ox!
h. Take it from somebody who knows!
i. The law does not concern itself with trifles.
j. Wonders too high for my comprehension.


3-h, literally “Believe an expert!”
7-b, literally, “It [the word] is known by its associates.”
8-f, literally, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship is full.” Said by Macrobius of Julia.
9-d, literally, “He has won every point who mixes the useful and the sweet.”
10-a, literally, “Everything is smooth and round.”

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