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  • Skye Shirley

Actus II: A Latin-Italian Translation

Updated: Apr 28, 2018

Some of you may know that I am passionate about becoming a hyper-polyglot. It's always hard to know when you hit the "polyglot" category, but since I'm now just about advanced in Italian and Latin, without being officially fluent, I find myself ravenous for more. I'd like to dust off my German, move from comprehension to production in Spanish, and crack into the world of Biblical Greek during an intensive course this summer. I'd like to add French and Hebrew one day, too. I'm fascinated by how languages connect, and the family tree of words that branch across time and landscapes to enter the conversations of people today. How many times, for example, have the words "te amo" been spoken? Or: what was the last word spoken of a now-extinct indigenous language? In how many languages does "to/too/du/tu" or a version of that utterance mean something?


My earliest memory of this inclination toward language was when I was young, and I designed a dream school for my dolls. They were "big girls," naturally, and at "school" could study whatever they wanted. I distinctly remember making them a schedule, like big girls had. Looking back, I realize that all of their classes were languages! Those dolls were learning German, French, Latin, Greek... with an occasional recess break.


Languages were what I wanted to study in school, and what I considered part of being a big girl. And I used to daydream all the time, especially in school, about flying over fields or solving mysteries. These adventures have turned into transatlantic flights and cracking dead languages, and it's not uncommon for me to catch myself brushing my teeth for longer than I need to, still hung up on a word I am trying to find the roots of.


So is it any wonder that when I find an 1781 edition of Terence's Comediae published in Milan, and with Italian on the facing pages, I'd bring it home like a plundered treasure? It was a real find...

The publication facts on the title page are in Latin, not Italian, and the whole thing smells like vanilla. A worn-out bookmark ribbon is tucked within the pages, as fragile as a pressed flower. Ever since I left behind Orberg's Latin annotation of Amphitryo, I've really been missing the Latin-Latin glosses, and learning a bit more heavily on thesauri as a result.


Although all I wanted to do was read it cover-to-cover in Italian, I determined to first try one act in Latin, and add a little metacognitive reflection to the mix, to maximize connections between these two very related languages.


So first, I read the Latin. Next, the Italian, and finally, the English. I'm glad I did it in this order, but to be honest the English felt a bit repetitive after already having encountered the story twice. I'd skip that part next time.



When I read the Italian, I noticed a few interesting tendencies:


-I wanted to speak aloud because f and s tend to look very similar in the print, and it helped me find the cadence of each sentence. That said, I see the value of recent research that suggests that the new language-learning brain can't really manage to focus on comprehension and pronunciation at the same time, because I definitely moved in and out of them. I stumbled, but I gradually got the hang of it.


-My hands started moving while I was talking, which is hilarious. No one saw except my cat, but still...


-I found myself asking the same questions about Italian as I had about Latin: To what extent does playwriting make dialogue more casual than it is in fiction or other forms? Were the elisions and abbreviations common in every day speech, or only a feature of theater?


-I learned a lot of Italian words, which I know will be much more memorable because they mirror the Latin. That said, some Italian words in this book are already antiquated or even dead.


Ones that exist today in Italian:

otium ---> l'ozio

vitium ---> il vizio

nurus ---> la nuore


The following word is rare but still alive in Italian:

placidus --> placido


Words used in the text that are extinct in Italian:

il cagione

lagrimare (today is lacrimare)


The final term surprises me because the word is spelled lacrimare in Latin, then became lagrimare, and then seems to have returned to the Latin spelling. I'd usually use piangere, but it's good to know lacrimare does exist. I wonder what the difference is, and when one is used rather than another....


-It doesn't surprise me that a text like this, over 200 years old, would have more Latin-sounding words than today's Italian. But what does surprise me is that many of these older Italian words don't end in vowels, but consonants. It makes my job of reading easier, since they look like Latin: timor', for example. But even from what I know of many Italian dialects, the vowels still end words. Sicilian will end words in -u, or Roman will drop -re from infinitives which ends nouns in vowels, so dialects still often follow the "end in a vowel" rule.


What would be really interesting is to read a modern Italian translation of Hecyra alongside this one, and Terence's original. What changes across the centuries? What stays the same? I'd expect the colloquial tone and contractions would remain, but do the jokes age well? Is this text, then, still Hecyra?


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