August 21, 2004

Do-it-yourself classics

An outfit called 24 Hour Translations ("a premier German and Latin translation service") offers an online "list of some of the most commonly found Latin abbreviations and phrases".

The list of abbreviations and terms of art is pretty extensive, from ab aeterno to VRI (Victoria Regina et Imperatrix). They've also included a few mottos, proverbial expressions and other often-quoted fragments, like Dominus illuminatio mea and et tu, Brute, but that aspect of the list seems radically incomplete.

But it was something else that caught my eye. They offer "Latin Translations from only $16!" and what they mean by this is that "you can order a translation of 20 words or less between English and Latin (as used by the Romans). The cost of this service is £10 GBP / $16 USD / €16 EUR, and the translation will be ready within 24 hours - we'll even include a simple guide to pronouncing the Latin phrase".

This seems pretty expensive. I guess it's within an order of magnitude of standard commercial translation rates, which tend to run in the range of US$0.10-$0.40 per word, depending on the nature, size and urgency of the job. But if all you wanted to know was what the Romans meant by quoting Hannibal to the effect that "inveniemus viam aut faciemus", you'd be paying $4.00 per word. (Since 24 Hour Translations says that "Due to problems encountered in the relocation of our office to Austria, we have had to suspend normal trading until further notice", I'll tell you for free that Hannibal meant "we will find a way, or we will make one").

One of the nice things about dead languages is that they're finite, so that in principle, translations (of the extant genuine texts) can be done by table look-up. This is more or less true as a practical fact for classical Latin -- if you're puzzled by a phrase, you can go to the Perseus web site (or better, one of its less busy mirrors), and look it up. Unfortunately, Perseus doesn't seem to offer indexing by word sequences, but only boolean combination of words, which makes it a bit harder. But still, if someone has quoted a bit of Latin at you without translation -- say "forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit" -- Perseus will locate it for you as 1.198 of the Aeneid, and will offer you the ability to look the words up individually, and puzzle out that it means something like "perhaps one day even these things will be pleasant to recall". Perseus will also offer you John Dryden's translation

An hour will come, with pleasure to relate
Your sorrows past, as benefits of Fate.

thus suggesting that Dryden was an uninspired translator as well as a culpably bad grammarian. Perseus will also inform you that Theodore Williams translated this phrase as

It well may be
some happier hour will find this memory fair.

Turning from Perseus to Google, you can learn that forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit is the motto of the Complexity, Theory and Algorithmics Group at the University of Liverpool, who suggest the translation "Perhaps, one day, even this will seem pleasant to remember", and add that the motto "indirectly links the group with the City and University of Liverpool. The City motto (Deus nobis haec otia fecit, 'God has provided this leisure for us') is also taken from Virgil (Eclogue I, l.6) and is answered in the University motto (Haec otia studia fovent; 'This leisure makes our studies flourish')."

Google will also lead you to the story of Donald MacLeod's snuffbox, and why it had olim haec meminisse iuvabit engraved on the cover.

At this point , you could go out and buy a round or two for your friends with your savings -- $48 so far -- or you could start with another phrase -- say "si volet usus / quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi", and try to build your classical capital to the level required for a good dinner and a show.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 21, 2004 11:34 AM