Getting to the kernel

When I was at high school, I used to take part in many (many!) certamina each year. A certamen is a competition in which participants are required to translate a Latin text into their language; a jury will then evaluate the translation, and reward the most accurate and elegant among them. Dozens of certamina are organized every year in Italy, mostly addressed to high school students.

While in one of such competitions, I would always have a look at other competitors, observing how they would behave during the first minutes after we had received the text to translate. Just from that, I could tell whether they were rivals to be feared, or not.

What made the difference between a young translator who could potentially win the competition, and one who didn’t have any hope?

It was the way he (or she) approached the text.

As soon as they had received the sheet, some students would begin to frantically look up for every word in the dictionary, fearing that the (actually very long) time it was given to them to complete the version would not be enough. Well, these were the competitors I was sure I did not need to be afraid of.

Some others, though (and so did I), took some time to seat comfortably, and then began to go through the whole text once or twice. This first reading served to give them a (more or less) rough overall comprehension of what the text was saying, and some of them (the most fearsome) would not even open the dictionary before the first hour had passed. That is because they would try to use their intuition, their memory and the power of context to figure out the meaning of the few words they had not recognized at first. It was not before that that they would open the dictionary and look up for some words. Even then, that was not because they needed to know their translation in order to start working out the meaning of a sentence that looked like a disorganized mass of mysterious words. It was just to find a confirmation to their guess, or to search for a more exact and elegant translation to express a concept they had already seized.

We do not necessarily want or need to enter translating competitions from Latin, but we probably all want to be able to read a text, and understand it. I will not say it is easy, and not everyone is born with a subtle instinct for words and languages. However, intuition – which is how I call what allows us to understand what we read, even when we do not know the meaning of every word – is a muscle that we can train and develop with practice. So let’s try doing it, each time we are approaching a new Latin text.

And now, tell me: what is your personal way to approach a new text (either in Latin or in any other foreign language)?