Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Of Math and Latin

School resumed for us on Monday, and once again the A.P. Latin class has taken the plunge into the work of epic literature that has captivated the world for two thousand years, Vergil's Aeneid.  Before diving straight into the deep end, we dangle our toes in the water first with a couple of articles, one of which is Eric Ormsby's 2006 New York Sun review of Robert Fagles' translation.

As we were discussing the article today, we paused on Ormsby's line, "A successful translation of 'The Aeneid' must capture the supple Virgilian line without sacrificing the powerful momentum of the narrative."  We talked about the challenges of translating even a simple, three-word sentence like Puella aquam portat, which has some twenty-seven distinct translations in English.  When one takes into account the complexity of literary Latin, to say nothing of the poetry of an epic like Aeneid, it quickly becomes apparent that complete translation is impossible.

Enter Nick, a senior.  He suggested that translation is rather like an asymptote.  You don't remember that little mathematical gem?  It is a line that gets closer and closer to a curve without touching it.

He was right, of course, but what I loved was his application of mathematical understanding to literature.  It was the perfect blend of learning, the very thing we hope for in our students.  I also loved it because his introduction of mathematics into our literary discussion led to a look at one particular line of Vergil's poetry via quantum physics.*

Interestingly, if you do a Google search on the word "asymptote," you will find that the second link is to a new journal of literary translation titled Asymptote, which takes its name from the mathematical term in recognition of the fact that "a translation may never fully replicate the original."

Nick's comment was brilliant, and fortunately for me, it was not atypical of the sort of thing I hear on a regular basis from the students in room A526.  I would also suggest that my students are not unique.  Many students are capable of this kind of thought and engagement, if only they have the background and exposure to the depth and breadth of learning that is their birthright as members of the human race, a birthright that continues to be secured by schools that commit to a well-rounded education in which STEM and liberal arts walk in the unity with which they truly exist in the natural world.

*So what was that all about?  In Aeneid I.7 we find the phrase,

atque altae moenia Romae.

The adjective altae (high) properly modifies Romae (Rome), yet in sense it also connects with moenia (walls).  Because of the flexibility of Latin, the phrase indicates that both the walls are high and so is the city.  English, however, cannot quite accommodate this, and we must say either "the walls of high Rome" or "the high walls of Rome," usually opting for the former since it is grammatically accurate.  The idea of quantum superposition states that an electron exists in all possible states until a measurement is made, causing the electron to resolve into only one state.  The Latin in Vergil's line is like the electron in that it contains all the possible meanings.  Translation is like the act of measurement, forcing the attainment of only one state.

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