On not translating

I read with interest today a Twitter thread that started with the following:

Go on over to Twitter for the whole of it, as well as the interesting comments it generated. What interested me was less the question of laptop bans, and more what she reported from her experience of having TAed in an intermediate Greek class in which laptops were allowed: “it quickly became clear that almost all of the students were typing out/finding English translations and reading these out-loud in class rather than engaging directly with the Greek (sometimes not even bringing or looking at their Greek texts to class!)”

I encountered the same quite startling portrait of an ancient language class in Ann Patty’s Living With a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin. This is in many ways a pretty charming book, but several of the college Latin classes she described featured students simply reading off, sometimes from their phones, English translations of the assigned texts. I was gobsmacked. Patty started studying Latin in 2008, so the classroom experiences she describes happened within the decade, as I assume @vergilophile’s did too.

This got me wondering how many professors of intermediate (or even advanced!?) Latin or Greek are still using this pedagogy, of going around the room and having students translate the text into English. I certainly was taught this way when I was an undergraduate long ago in the early 80s. But I don’t teach that way now. I’m going to lay out here what I do, and how I got here; I would very much welcome comments on what other people are doing and why. I think this is a crucial area in which our field doesn’t really have enough honest discussion.

I had grown uncomfortable with this class routine quite early on in my career, and had started experimenting with some supplemental activities, when my colleague (Chico Zimmerman, who was hired the year before me at Carleton) decided to enroll in the introductory German sequence. Faculty and staff here are allowed to take courses, although we rarely have time to, and Chico wanted to brush up on his German.

His experience learning a modern language (and mine, some years later when I started learning Modern Greek), and our discussions about it, catalyzed a transformation that we were both ready for. We started reading around in the SLA (second language acquisition) and cognitive science literature. Neither of us was really convinced that Latin or Greek could be taught exactly the same way modern languages are, but to both of us it seemed bizarre that the goal of any given class preparation and meeting would be to translate a text into English. What intermediate modern language class operated like that? Surely the goal, difficult as it was, should be to read with understanding and appreciation the target language. Yet the emphasis placed on “translation” seemed to throw up an obstacle toward that goal: students would understand that getting to the English was what mattered, not reading the Latin or Greek.

Both of us, separately and in collaboration, have worked to develop alternate models over the years since. Central to our practice is being explicit with students that the fundamental learning goal we are all aiming for is reading, understanding, and appreciating the language, not translating it. In class we generally have the students work through a given passage in pairs or groups. After that we do a number of things: ask for paraphrases of the content in English; work through the syntax: what are the component parts of a given sentence? Parsing is key (why is that verb subjunctive? what sort of dative is that?). Sometimes we’ll break the sentence up and put the Greek or Latin words in English word order, like this; if you start with

Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.

you turn it into

ἥδε is the ἀπόδεξις of the ἱστορίης of Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος, [which exists] so that μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων may γένηται ἐξίτηλα because of τῷ χρόνῳ, nor may μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά ἔργα, both the ones ἀποδεχθέντα by the Ἕλλησι and by the βαρβάροισι, γένηται ἀκλεᾶ,  both with respect to ἄλλα and δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.

Obviously there are some ways in which this is like putting the passage into English. But it avoids the pernicious notion that there is a one-for-one way of making Greek words into English ones, and opens up more interesting discussion of the semantic range of a given word or construction.

There are many many other ways to do this. In comments, @vergilophile mentioned projecting the Latin/Greek text on a screen and then working with students to mark it up (connecting nouns and adjectives, or subordinate and main verbs, etc): this is a great activity. I’ve also experimented with distributing electronic copies of the text, and having students play around with re-formatting them (breaking up a sentence and indenting or color-coding clauses) to reveal the syntactical structure.

High school students with really good Latin (less often Greek) come to us accustomed to writing out English translations of the assignments. So we take time in class or in the office to talk through our goals, and help them find strategies for transitioning from this method to something that helps them engage more directly with the language in class. Reading ancient languages is hard! and if I look at a passage of, say, Thucydides that I haven’t read for a while, I still do, to some extent, put it into English in my head. But then I make myself read it through again, and again, and again, until I feel that I’m really reading the Greek without the intermediate English-ing. Our students can do that too. How do you help yours get there?

PS This reminds me of a wonderful post from Sententiae Antiquae, quoting C.S. Lewis on getting to this goal. I always share this with my Greek students: https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2017/08/20/learning-to-think-in-greek/


The Replicant Theogony: Reproduction as a First World Problem in Blade Runner 2049

Special Guest Post by Ken MayerOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

image credit: DNA strand by Peter Artymiuk (CC – BY) https://wellcomecollection.org/works/hg26huwq

The Greeks and many other peoples told tales of how humans and gods came into being, or Theogonies. What sort of theogony might a first world society create, when many are free from agricultural toil and have an excess of food? When nonetheless they see the limits of consumer culture and overpopulation? When scientists control reproduction, reconstruct limbs, and seem on the verge of custom-designing human bodies or even of engineering immortality itself? When reproductive rights–including contraception–are divisive flash points in the center of political discourse? Such a society might well invent a myth much like Blade Runner 2049. As in Hesiod’s Theogony, reproduction, both artificial and natural, is central to the film.


[Spoiler alert: reading further will dramatically lower your first-time enjoyment of the film]


Hesiod’s Theogony tells of the generations of gods fighting their offspring until Zeus came out on top. Part of Zeus’s winning strategy was to set humans apart from the gods. No longer would they live forever free of care and toil. Instead Zeus gave them Pandora, reproduction, and death. Among the gods, Zeus controlled reproduction so that no one more powerful than him could emerge, but he punted the gods’ problems to humans, whose lives became brutish, short, and wracked with pain, work, and offspring that would ultimately outlive and usurp their roles.


Similarly, the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish has humans created as part of Marduk’s consolidation of power. They are created from the blood of the defeated god Qingu to do the work of the gods, so the gods may rest. For peace to exist among the gods, teeming, suffering humans are loosed on the world. In Genesis also, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are cursed with pain, working the soil for food, and reproduction, in the form of painful childbirth.


These myths and other similar ones are born out of societies emerging in the first few hundred generations of subsistence agriculture, when most people worked hard soil in the sweat of their brows to perhaps fend off starvation. A dim memory of an idyllic hunter gatherer past beckoned, but the farmers could out-reproduce the hunters most years when their progeny did not overwhelm their agricultural production. These myths account for the human condition, circa 2000 BCE.


What about circa 2000 CE, when wealthy elites live like gods, and embark on god-like feats of creation? The mythology of Blade Runner does not hinge upon the differences between men and the gods who created them, but between men and their creations.


In the original 1982 Blade Runner, scientists had created replicants—artificially manufactured pseudo-humans—stronger than humans in order to work in harsh environments in other parts of the solar system, and were forbidden to come back to Earth. Much as mythological gods had created mortal humans to work the fields, humans made replicants and cast them out of the Earth and kept them separate from their creators. The main protagonist was Deckard, charged with the task of terminating rogue replicants who had secretly returned to Earth.

In the 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049, a newer generation of replicants has been allowed to dwell among men on Earth. The main protagonist is K, a replicant whose job is to hunt down illegal or malfunctioning fellow replicants. He eventually discovers the trail of an astonishing and unheard of event—a replicant that reproduced about twenty years ago. As in the modern telling of Pandora, reproduction enters the story in the form of a box, buried full of a woman’s bones with evidence of a difficult and ultimately fatal childbirth.


K’s human superior, Lt. Joshi, sees this birth as a gamechanger, something that undermines an order and division as fundamental as Zeus’s separation of mankind from the gods at Mekone. Joshi points out that replicant reproduction “breaks the world!” For her, “the world is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.” So Joshi gives K the mission of finding the missing replicant, the only one on Earth born from (replicant) woman. Along the way, plenty of clues lead K to conclude that he himself is that unique replicant child.


On first view, a Classics-informed audience member is bound to interpret K as following the path of every detective from Oedipus to Chinatown to Angel Heart. He is solving a riddle that amounts to a quest to find out the truth about himself, namely in this case that K—ostensibly a manufactured replicant—was born from woman.


Levi-Strauss’s take on Oedipus was that the myth mediated between two strong Greek expressions of identity: the claim that we (a tribe, a city, an ethnicity) rose up from the land in autochthony vs. the claim that we emigrated from somewhere else. Levi-Strauss’s famous claims may shed little light on the Oedipus myth itself, but he has correctly identified two persistent patterns in Greek and other mythologies. The “Blood and Soil” cries in Charlottesville testify to their unfortunate persistence in the US today. Are we natives sprung from the soil or does our strength/identity as US citizens lie in coming from elsewhere? In the film, the question seems to be”Can or Shall replicants be made or born?,” but, as in Hesiod’s Theogony, the issue—and the struggle—is really about who will control the means to reproduction. Modern society’s anxieties are about corporate, factory creations. Are we, our attitudes, and our progeny the labors of small-batch, artisanal mom-and-pop operations? Or are our experiences and attitudes generated by large, faceless corporate entities?


One could wish that the replicant factory were more faceless. The theme of reproduction is further foregrouded with a scene in Niander Wallace’s replicant factory, where a nude Pandora-like replicant gasps her first breath fully formed, adult, and barren. The villainous and half-machine Wallace is passionately and only interested in this replicant’s reproductive ability. When it is found wanting, he kills her in a repulsively unhuman and inhumane manner.


Meanwhile, K’s quest leads him to the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas, introduced with Ozymandian sets of vast and trunkless legs of giant nude showgirls standing in the desert. The ever-present, sexualized female imagery, such these statues as well as the hologram billboards, perhaps points to the persistent theme of reproduction. Reproduction is probably not the first way one would understand them. Clearly, the filmmakers want to have it both ways: they exploit women as consumable sex objects and also critique the process as hollow and unreal. Do our desires stem from our biology or from clever manipulation by the corporate gatekeepers of our information streams? The commodification of sex here ties into the new locus of anxiety about reproduction: how corporate and commercialized it has become.


The first signs of life among the stone statues and ruins, are several humming bee hives. Bee hives are also a strong pointer to reproductive issues, not only in their modern role as pollinators and “the birds and the bees”, but also as an ancient symbol of a new creation. In Vergil’s Fourth Georgic, probably the most famous bee passage in ancient poetry, a goddess of fertility instructs how to self-generate bees from a cow corpse.


In the film, Las Vegas is where a tribe of escaped worker bees (replicants) dwells, who guard the secret of the replicant child. In the child rest their hopes of a new era of replicant reproduction. They hope to no longer spring fully formed from a factory run by the twisted counsels of dark demiurge Niander Wallace, but rather they dream of a future of natural reproduction.


The rogue replicants reveal that K is not the child he is seeking, but rather a woman, Ana Stelline, who works as a shaper of false memories for replicants such as K. Ana Stelline and her DNA represent the replicants’ only hope of reproductive power, and the memories she creates and implants inspire hope in replicants such as K. Fittingly, for the Hope in a Pandora creation narrative, Ana Stelline is apparently trapped in a box.


The ambiguity up to this point in the film about whether the child is male or female adds a spin to the audience’s journey of interpretation. For example, on first viewing, some scenes fail the Bechdel Test: Joshi and Luv are talking about the child, i.e. K, the male lead, so the scene fails the test. But the real child turns out to be another woman, so in retrospect the scene passes the test. The film ends with K apparently accepting his lesser place in the scheme of things, dying so that Ana Stelline can live and further replicant reproduction. Although the film’s narrative is strongly centered on K’s experience, it ends by him—symbolically at least—ceding the center space to a woman, born from woman. Unlike the misogynist vision of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, where Apollo and Athena vouch for the notion that women are mere vessels for reproduction, the gods of Blade Runner 2049 care far more for the death of a woman than the death of a man.


The original Blade Runner explored the fears of new technology, present since the Industrial Age and mapped into modern myth since Frankenstein. It also expressed Philip K. Dick’s concerns with the limits of perception and the boundaries of humanity. By adding and foregrounding issues of reproduction, Blade Runner 2049 becomes a myth worthy of our millenium.

Perseus: winged sandals or petrification?

In my quest to be a better user of Classics Twitter, today I responded to a poll on whether faculty should encourage or discourage their students to use electronic dictionaries. I immediately tried and failed (as it turns out if you reply to a text notification it only shows up on Twitter as a reply to yourself! live and learn) to create a thread on this topic, as I have given it quite a lot of thought.

Since this is an area that I can’t do in 140 characters, even in a string of them, I figured I’d come back to the blog (which has been on hiatus this year while I’m on sabbatical and working on other projects).

First: I would say that in my general embrace of all things metacognitive, I have for some years now asked (upper-level) students to do a little of their own research: a week of Perseus use and a week of physical lexicon use, with some checking to see how well they retain vocabulary and how quickly they read in each case. What has become clear, as you could probably have predicted, is that a) they read more slowly with a real (what’s the term for this? physical? IRL? analog?) dictionary, but b) they retain more successfully the vocabulary they look up the hard way. (This was confirmed for me recently in a really interesting TCL piece language learning and memory which you should read if you haven’t; check out p. 118) So I have come down to just having a meta-discussion with my students about this: sometimes it is beneficial to go more slowly; sometimes you want to read quickly. You need to choose the appropriate mode for your goals.

However: I have a dream. What if there were some kind of browser gateway though which you entered Perseus, which would track all the words you clicked on in a given session… then, at the end of that session, it would generate a little quiz for you. Maybe it would choose, say, five words at random from those you’d looked up. Maybe, if it were a little more sophisticated, it would choose the words most likely to recur in the text you’re reading, and quiz you on those. Or maybe it would use high-frequency lists like the Dickinson College Commentaries core vocabulary lists. Even better: the next day, when you started in to read some more of that text, it would start by giving you a little quiz on what you had looked up the last time. It’s well-researched that testing is a good way to consolidate knowledge: why can’t we leverage that, along with the data that must be recoverable on what words students click on, to make Perseus into the learning machine it could be?

I have spoken to some computer scientists at my institution about building such a thing: they all think it would be perfectly doable. None of them has yet had time to do it, though. If I succeed in goading them into it, I will report back here. And if any of you have the skills or connections to make my dream a reality — please let me know!

Update: There’s now a great blog post from Hannah Čulík-Baird (@opietasanimi) who first posted the Twitter poll on dictionaries — lots more interesting responses to the question!

CJ 111.1: the one about slaves and masters


Christopher Bungard: “Negotiating Mastery: Staging Status in Pseudolus” 67-81

tl;dr an argument for the effectiveness of staging slave-master scenes for getting students to reflect upon Roman social dynamics

undergraduates could certainly read/understand this, although like all the articles in this volume it is aimed explicitly at teachers

stakes: again as with other articles in this issue, this one adds to the new body of research on how performance illuminates texts, as well as how it can function pedagogically

This piece, like the preceding one, describes the way in which performance of Roman Comedy can focus attention on wider issues of status relations in Roman society. As with many of the articles in this issue, Bungard uses the Ballio scene from the Pseudolus as his test-case, and shows how performance of this scene can contrast the dynamic between Ballio and his slaves with the relation between Pseudolus and Calidorus, on view as they comment upon what they are hearing from Ballio.

At this point in the journal the arguments for the benefits of performance are familiar, but the article engages usefully with work on slaves in Roman comedy (especially McCarthy’s 2000 work Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy and Parker’s 1989 TAPA article on torture jokes) as well as Richlin’s suggestive article on assigning roles in a Roman Civilization course (CJ 108 347-61).

The 2012 NEH Summer Institute performance of the scene Bungard describes (you can watch it here) made the decision to play up Ballio’s cruelty toward his slaves so as to elevate him as a blocking figure and increase the satisfaction felt at Pseudolus’ victory over him at the end of the play. Your mileage may vary on how effective you think this decision was, or on the suggested responses to it from the different status-groups in the audience, but in any case highlighting this decision and watching it play out can helpfully force students to confront the prevalence of threats against slaves on the comic stage. Presumably these were funny, but why? How (i.e. other NEH groups chose to make Ballio’s slaves mock or undermine him rather than cower in fear: is this a more or less effective way to milk the comedy)? To whom? And what does that imply about the society that staged these comedies?

CJ 111.1: the one about mute characters


CJ 111.1 Sophie Klein, “When actions speak louder than words: mute characters in Roman Comedy” 53-66

tl;dr version: focusing student attention on non-speaking characters on stage can illuminate the tone/effect of a scene and shed valuable light on more marginal status groups

as with all of the articles in this volume, undergraduates could easily understand/benefit from the piece, but it is aimed explicitly at teachers

stakes: a fuller and more nuanced understanding of how comedy worked on the stage and in its society

The first time I was ever involved in a full staging of an ancient drama, one of the most unexpected things I learned was the power of non-speaking characters on stage. Once you’re reminded of this it seems totally obvious, but as you read a play script your focus is always on the lines you’re reading, so anyone on stage without lines requires an act of imagination to visualize. But of course they will immediately present themselves in any performance, and can have enormous influence on the way the audience perceives the action. It is this insight that Klein develops in this article.

Starting with a general sketch of the benefits of attending to these figures especially when reading Roman comedy, Klein’s article presents three separate levels of focus, with suggested classroom activities for each. First is simply the task of locating mute characters: this can require careful reading, down to noting plural imperatives in Latin. Klein suggests giving students reading the texts in English copies with the stage directions, usually added by translators, redacted, and having them locate mute characters and suggest blocking for them.

This exercise is taken up and expanded in the third section on dramaturgy, where she discusses the tonal shifts that mute characters can effect depending on the ways in which they respond to speaking characters. In the Ballio scene of the Pseudolus, for instance, our reaction to Ballio will be radically different if his slaves are genuinely terrified of his threats rather than mocking him behind his back. Thus in a continuation of the initial classroom activity, Klein suggests having students actually stage the scenes they had blocked, to get a sense of the range of effects possible.

While mute characters and their effects are a core aspect of staging any drama, those in Roman comedy tend to come from lower status groups: slaves, prostitutes, cooks, etc. Thus these figures offer a good opportunity to consider power relations generally in these works, and to think about responses from the different status groups represented in the diverse audiences of the comedies. The central section of the article helpfully points teachers and their students toward good references on these topics and suggests possible assignments to help think through how far the figures on stage actively subvert or reinforce normative social roles.

Again, as with the other articles in this volume, there are nice video examples available from the 2012 NEH Summer Institute collection — a great resource for teachers and students going forward.

CJ 111.1 the one about music: updated!


CJ 111.1 37-51 T.H.M. Geller-Goad and Timothy Moore, “Using Music in Performing Roman Comedy”

tl;dr version: an account of the range of ways participants incorporated music into the performances that came out of the 2012 Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance, with suggestions for using these in classes

as with the other articles in this volume, undergraduates could certainly read and benefit from them, but they are explicitly aimed at teachers

stakes: a compelling argument for attending to a crucial but oft-overlooked component of Roman comedy

Here as in the other articles in this volume the authors introduce us to one aspect of what was involved in the performances that came out of the 2012 summer institute (available here, in case you haven’t read the other posts in this series: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmBs1K1ruw2i48CmDku1HrQ/videos). This time the focus is on music, and the article lays out five increasingly complicated ways of incorporating music into a class on Roman Comedy. Each of these is helpfully illustrated by one of the performance videos, so if you’re too nervous to actually try getting your own students to sing in class, you can at least show them the exuberant performance of others!

The middle technique in the list, a capella singing to the rhythm of the meter, is one I was familiar with from an APA (aka SCS) presentation by Timothy Moore a couple of years ago. He had the audience sing /chant some of the Latin, attending less to pitch than rhythm, so as to get some sense of the effects of these complex sequences of long and short syllables. Me, I love meter, and as a college student used to memorize chunks of Vergil just to hear the subtly shifting rhythms of the hexameters. I invariably force my students to read hexameters or elegiac couplets in meter, and they (well, most of them) come to appreciate the effects as well. But I still have a rough time with the bewildering range of what even an iambic senarius can sound like, let alone the more complicated polymetrics, and I have to confess that I spend much less class time on this in a comedy class than I do with other Latin poetry.

I have tried Moore’s method of singing/chanting the meters in classes, though, and can attest that it’s illuminating, and gives students a great sense of what they’re missing without the music of the originals. The video of the Bacchides that illustrates this technique adds actual melody to the rhythms, and this makes a great demonstration for students of what the possibilities are simply of “translating” the rhythms of the Latin into song.

Moore and Geller-Goad also discuss two methods somewhat simpler than this: a rap-style performance with only rhythmical accompaniment, and spoken lines with incidental music in the background; each of these is also illustrated with a video and suggestions for use in classes. If you’re more ambitious rather than less you can go on to two further suggestions for accompanied singing: first, using a repeated melody under a stichic passage (i.e. repeated lines in the same meter); then actual accompanied singing of the more complicated meters of the cantica.

These last two methods clearly would require more of students than a single-day classroom exercise, but could be amazing learning opportunities for musically-inclined students. Even if you can’t imagine ever actually having your students do any of this, though, the illustrative videos area treasure-trove for the classroom. I will certainly be making heavy use of them in future.

UPDATE: I actually did this in class today. I’m teaching the Casina at the moment, and we sang some of the opening canticum (Cleostrata and Myrrhina) and then the beginning of Pardalisca’s mad scene. Fun! Bottom line is, however, that anapests will sound like Bohemian Rhapsody: compare: sine amet, sine quod lubet id faciat, quando tibi nil domi delicuomst with Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? Anyway thanks to Mr.’s Moore and Geller-Goad for the tips.

CJ 111.1: the one about masks


Michael Lippman: “Embodying the Mask: Exploring Ancient Roman Comedy through Mask and Movement”

tl;dr version: experimenting with masks can shed new light on the effect of Roman comedy in performance, and can be a useful activity in the classroom

again, undergraduates might be really interested in some of this, although it is clearly geared toward teachers

stakes: adds to the new body of research on how performance illuminates texts, as well as how it can function pedagogically

In this very useful piece Lippman discusses work with masks during the 2012 NEH Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance, and makes a strong case for their utility in teaching these texts. (I should admit that I started the article already convinced — again, I have worked with students on mask construction and performance — so perhaps I should say that it reinforced, rather than produced, conviction. But still.)

Lippman opens by outlining the barriers to working with masks (e.g. they are not usually part of students’ experience with theater; they are associated in our culture with the frightening/threatening rather than with the comic; etc) but points out that we expect students to cross boundaries linguistically, and see benefits from this kind of stretching of perspectives. Experimentation with masks is simply stretching of a different kind.

While the piece acknowledges the contention around the use of masks in the Roman tradition especially, there is still a good deal of both ancient and comparative material to draw on that facilitates mask work in the classroom. The article lays this out very helpfully, pointing to resources concerning movement and gesture as well as related traditions like commedia dell’arte.

Lippman recounts the experience of the institute participants in a mask workshop led by C.W. Marshall, and then his own group’s work on the use of commedia masks and concepts in their production of the Ballio scene from the Pseudolus. It is clear that mask work brings out elements of the text that are often invisible to students on a first read. The effects of combining stylized body movements with the character types must have produced its own complex but legible set of indicators to the audience about how to react to a given figure.

The final section of the piece lays out a set of classroom activities around the use of masks that many of us can use to bring this material to our students. So try this at home, as he suggests! And post some pictures!

CJ 111.1: the one about translation


CJ 111.1: Erin K. Moodie, “License to Thrill: Linguistic Accuracy in Translations of Roman Comedy”

The first of the articles laying out the process and results of the 2012 NEH summer institute on the performance of Roman Comedy focuses on issues of translation. Moodie starts by listing the issues faced by anyone setting out to translate Plautus for the stage — that is, seeking to “translate” comic effect rather than literal grammatical constructions. From reproducing verbal effects such as alliteration, rhyme, or word-play of other types, through figuring out what to do with slang and topical references, to grappling with Roman comedy’s use of distasteful subjects like slavery, abuse, sexual exploitation, making the texts work in a new linguistic cultural context presents a wide array of challenges.

Moodie’s group, tasked with presenting a performance of the Ballio birthday scene near the beginning of the Pseudolus, decided to base their translation on the commedia dell’arte tradition for “tone and inspirpation.” The second part of her article outlines the principles they followed: making the (threatened) violence in the scene cartoonish and light-hearted, focusing on incorporating English word-play, alliteration, rhyme and double-entendres for the Latin, and (as Plautus himself did) freely omitting, expanding or re-arranging the text for maximum comic effect.

In practice this meant replacing Roman cultural references with American ones, finding equivalent significant names for the prostitutes, and adding “witty metatheatrical commentary” (although the reference to Plautine textual criticism felt to me a little like a stretch here). Moodie illustrates each of these with sections of the final translation, many of which are really very clever. I especially liked rendering pernam callum glandium sumen facito in aqua iaceant (166) with “See to it that my finest Spam, jerky, bologna, Twinkies, Velveeta, Cheez-its, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, and Ho-hos are placed precisely on the presidential platter.”

Moodie’s final section reflects on the pedagogical promise of having students engage a process like this, and lays out some possible assignments. As I said in my last post, this is already a regular requirement in a couple of my classes, and as I’m having students do it at this very moment, I’ve given them this article for inspiration. I may post the results of their efforts here if they let me!

CJ 111.1: Performance of Roman Comedy Issue!!


Housekeeping note: My plan going into this article blogging project was to go through different journals, and having (finally) just finished with CJ 110.4, I was going to move along to Arethusa or AJP. However the new issue of CJ showed up and turned out to be devoted to the performance of Roman Comedy, and since this term I’m teaching a performance-oriented course on Roman Comedy I thought I’d selfishly just go ahead and do this one now. So get ready for more CJ blogging — regular spread will resume soon, I promise.

“The 2012 NEH Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance: Genesis and Reflections” by Sharon L. James, Timothy Moore and Meredith Safran, CJ 111.1 1-9

tl;dr: This is the introductory essay, explaining the goals and outcomes of the institute, and sketching some preliminary conclusions about the values of performance for understanding a range of issues in Roman Comedy. If you want to cut to the chase, you can see video of the performances that came out of the Institute here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmBs1K1ruw2i48CmDku1HrQ/videos

undergraduates could certainly read this; I’m going to recommend this and most of the articles in the issue to my current class, and require the next one (on translation). I’ll post updates on how that goes.

stakes: another forceful argument for performance as pedagogy — not the first by any means, but the more of this we get in our field the better, I think.

Anyone who has read much Roman Comedy, or taught it, or had it assigned for a class, will know all of the impediments to appreciating it. I should say up front that I’ve published on Plautus, and am currently working on Terence, and even my own sweet husband refuses to read my stuff because he hates the material with such an entrenched fervor. Besides the sense it’s hard to avoid that the texts just aren’t that funny (“why would you produce the Menaechmi,” a colleague in theater once remarked to me, “when you could do Comedy of Errors?”), there’s the whole rape-as-plot-device thing, or threaten-the-slaves-with-torture thing, neither of which on first sight strike us as true knee-slappers.

It was precisely these problems that motivated the 2012 NEH summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance. This initial essay in the journal sets out the structure of the institute and discusses briefly some of the insights that came out of the exercise of putting a selection of scenes from Roman Comedy (mainly Plautus) on stage. Mornings the 25 participants discussed aspects of performance in a traditional seminar environment: e.g. space, masks and movement, music, women and rape, slavery and ethnicity, metatheater, etc. An all-star cast of Classicists was on hand to guide these discussions (besides the organizers, who authored this introduction, Amy Richlin, C.W. Marshall, Sander Goldberg, Mary-Kay Gamel, Niall Slater, and Northfield’s own Anne Groton!). Afternoons the participants worked in groups of 5 first to all produce versions of one scene from the Pseudolus, and then (in different groups of 5), to each produce a different scene from a different Plautus play or Terence’s Eunuchus. I’ve given the link to videos of these performances above — clicking through to even a couple minutes of this material gives you a good idea of the range of strategies the groups tested.

The authors list an impressive number of insights gained from the process; as a long-time advocate for the pedagogical use of performance in drama classes I wasn’t surprised by any of them, but it’s great to have these amplified for an audience of classicists! Most interesting to me was the discussion around the effects of performance (primarily physical action and silent characters’ antics, but also music and dance) on scenes where the words alone may be disturbing or violent.

But there are many other insights suggested in this opening essay, and I’m looking forward to reading through the essays that fill them in.

The one about Claudian: CJ 110.4


“Love or War? Erotic and Martial Poetics in Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae” Ruth Parkes (CJ 110.4 471-492)

tl;dr version: an extended interest in the relation between love and violence underlies this poem and darkens its potentially lighter aspects.

undergrads might well be interested in this topic, and the article is a nice example of one sort of methodology current in the field, but I’m not sure how many undergrads regularly encounter Claudian.

stakes: I guess expanding on the ways we think about this poem, or perhaps just getting it onto people’s radar?

This is a fairly straightforward and interesting account of intertextual effects in Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae, a poem I have to admit to never having read. (Was it on my PhD reading list? I kind of think not!) The first half of the article establishes Claudian’s (from here I’ll call the poem DRP) interest in generic play (epic v elegiac); the “epic” poems of both Ovid and Statius consciously examine at what points erotic and martial elements are appropriate. Claudian’s persistent reference to these two poems sets up his own investigation of this theme. Parkes concludes that DRP is appropriately referred to as “alternative epic” blending as it does elements of traditional epic with the amorous genres of elegy and epithalamium. This section of the article is a straightforward exemplar of this kind of work, and overall it makes a pretty convincing argument. I find myself increasingly hungry for more statistical evidence in this kind of project, however. I heard a fascinating paper at last year’s CAMWS meeting by Neil Bernstein of Ohio University, in which he used data generated by the Tesserae website from SUNY Buffalo to think about rates of re-use of phrases of early poets in later Latin hexameters. This kind of evidence would go a long way toward strengthening arguments about what words are and are not “epic” as opposed to “elegiac.”

The second half of the piece shows how the story itself investigates the similarities and differences between love and violence (symbolic as well as literal). Thus, for example, Parkes shows that the union between Dis and Proserpina can be interpreted as at once an abduction (force) and a legitimate marriage (love). Money quote: “Claudian is interested in bringing love and force together, on the level of action, genre and symbolism.” The final paragraph implies that the significance of this is to darken what might potentially be lighter (elegiac/epithalamic) aspects of the myth. Interesting stuff.