Thursday, June 6, 2013

Latin Out Loud; or, "Declaim, Memory"


When you study classics, people often ask you if you "speak Latin" or are "fluent in Greek." It's a little hard to explain that classical languages don't really work like this—that they're mostly languages you read, and sometimes write; that "fluency" is a subjective term, and mainly refers to reading ease; that learning to speak Latin or (ancient) Greek is really hard, because you have to have people around to talk to, and good luck finding those! You might as well learn how to balance your checkbook with a quipu, or keep a day planner using the French Republican Calendar. (Okay, so I may have tried to do the latter back when I was in high school. Don't laugh. Or at least not too hard.)

But that's not to say that classicists never speak Latin. Indeed, there are a number who believe that it's the best—and even the only—way to really get to know the language. In the Renaissance, the ability to converse in Latin was the real measure of one's entrée to the international intellectual community. And Oxford, being the ancient center of learning that it is, is full of little nods to the centuries between Aquinas and Newton when this was the case.

Which brings me to the most classics-y, Oxonian thing I have done in my entire time here, a thing which happened just yesterday: Oxford's annual Classics Declamation Competition. The competition is open to any undergraduate reading for the classics degree, and it is what it sounds like: a competition of people speaking Greek/Latin. Or performing, really: every contestant prepares a passage of Greek or Latin literature, which they then present in front of a panel of judges. There are four categories: memorized Latin poetry, memorized Greek poetry, read Latin poetry + prose, and read Greek poetry + prose.

For the read categories, the judges assign passages ahead of time, which you then have several weeks to prepare; for the memorized categories, you get to choose whatever you like. I did the Greek readings and the Latin poetry by heart. My choice? A 17-line passage from book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which tells the ending of the myth of the sculptor Pygmalion. Pygmalion carved a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it. He prayed to the goddess Venus for a wife as perfect as his statue—and that's where my passage picked up, as you can see in the video (and text!) below of me practicing in my room:


Ovid: Metamorphoses 10.280-297 (Pygmalion):
ut rediit, simulacra suae petit ille puellae
incumbensque torō dedit oscula: vīsa tepēre est;
admovet ōs iterum, manibus quoque pectora temptat:
temptātum mollescit ebur positōque rigōre
subsīdit digitīs cēditque, ut Hymettia sole
cēra remollescit tractātaque pollice multās
flectitur in faciēs ipsōque fit ūtilis ūsū.
dum stupet et dubiē gaudet fallīque verētur,
rursus amans rursusque manū sua vōta retractat.
corpus erat! saliunt temptātae pollice vēnae.
tum verō Paphius plēnissima concipit hērōs
verba, quibus Venerī grātēs agat, ōraque tandem
ōre suō nōn falsa premit, dataque oscula virgo
sensit et ērubuit timidumque ad lūmina lūmen
attollens pariter cum caelō vīdit amantem.
coniugiō, quod fēcit, adest dea, iamque coactīs
cornibus in plēnum noviens lūnāribus orbem
illa Paphon genuit, dē quā tenet insula nōmen. 
My (fairly literal) translation—it's not so much a verse translation as a prose translation that keeps the line breaks in place:
When he went home, he looks for the statue of his girl,
and, leaning on his bed, he kissed it. It seemed to warm—
he brings his mouth to it again, and tests its breasts with his hands;
the tested ivory softens, and as its hardness subsides,
it sinks and gives way to his fingers—just as wax
from Mount Hymettus softens in the sun, and, drawn with a thumb,
gets molded into many shapes, and becomes useful through use itself.
Still he gapes, and cautiously rejoices, and fears he's deceived,
loving it back; and he pulls back with his hand the very thing he prayed for.
It was a body! The veins, tested by his thumb, dance.
Then our Paphian hero conceives the fullest
words with which he could thank Venus—and then, at last,
he presses her real mouth with his own, and she felt the kisses given
and reddened; and, lifting her timid eyes up to his,
she saw, along with the sky, her lover.
Venus is at the wedding that she caused, and when
the horns of the moon were forced into a full circle nine times,
the woman gave birth to Paphos, from whom the island takes its name. 
So that is what Latin sounds like as spoken by this 21st-century American. Amusingly, all the different European countries have different "systems" for pronouncing Latin—so it's actually possible to speak Latin with, say, a German or Italian accent. (In fact, some of the accents are so idiosyncratic that they're nearly unintelligible to a Latin "speaker" from a different country!) Pronunciation even differs between British and American Latinists—British Latin, like its English, has much more subtle, rounder, vowel differentiation than American Latin. (For example, they differentiate between a soft "O"—think of a British person saying the word "got"—and a long "O," as in "Coca-Cola.") 

There is even a more serious, concerted spoken Latin movement out there. A man in Norway runs a Latin radio station (pronounced, one assumes, with a Norwegian-Latin accent), and various universities run Latin-speaking programs—most notably the Paideia Institute, which is, apparently, wonderful. You can get CDs of spoken Latin, conversational Latin textbooks, and read the Harry Potter books in Latin (or Greek, for that matter). In fact, one of the Greek verse contestants in yesterday's competition read the ancient Greek translation of the Sorting Hat's song from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone—or, rather, Hareios Potēr kai hē tou Philosóphou Líthos. That translation was the undertaking of a man named Andy Wilson, who has a delightful explanation of the logistics here, along with a recording of him reading the ancient Greek translation of Lee Jordan's commentary on the first Quidditch match. His amazing explanation of the Greco-English puns he came up with to render J.K. Rowling's fanciful names warms the geekiest cockles of my heart. Though the person who performed the Sorting Hat's song did note that he made several metrical mistakes in attempting to render the whole thing into iambic tetrameter... 

Also, if you haven't seen it already: I have a new essay online! It's an in-depth reading of Richard Ford's prose style in his 1986 novel The Sportswriter. You can read it here at Open Letters Monthly. Please share if you like it! 

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