The sudden improvement of Google Translate for Latin means that it is now possible to read a good many things written in Latin, modern as well as ancient. I think that we have all picked up a critical edition of an ancient text and found that the preface is in Latin.
If we were lucky, the preface was broken down into short sections with clear subtitles, which pretty much shouted “you need to look here” for whatever it was that we wanted. This means that the author – or at least the editor – thought about how the book would be used. It means that he imagined the possible readers. For many, scholarly Latin was and is just an esperanto, and one at which most are not specially adept.
But just as often, the reader is faced with a wall of grey text, pathless and uninviting. I suspect that very few of these monuments to indifference were ever read.
I myself have a kind of “fingerprint test” for these prefaces. If the first word in them is in the accusative – something impossible in the normal languages of scholarship – then the author is showing off. It’s posturing. To the author, I learn, the convenience of the reader is less important than braying “LOOK AT ME!!!”.
It’s not necessary. My own entry to the world of scholarship was made possible by the writing habits of Dom Eligius Dekkers. When I first became interested in finding out about the manuscripts of Tertullian, I was as green as grass. I knew only English, plus whatever schoolboy languages I could vaguely remember at a distance of more than twenty years. I had to look at the praefatio of the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, and so I encountered his work.
To my amazement, I was able to understand it. Dom Dekkers had a peculiarly clear and simple style, whatever language he wrote in. I later encountered a French article by him. Again I could understand it. This was a great encouragement to proceed.
By contrast I was to find the French articles by the great Tertullianist Pierre Petitmengin far more difficult to read. This was purely down to style. I had to squint my eyes at the text and concentrate harder. Yet his text is not particularly difficult. It merely highlighted the gift that Dom Dekkers had. It is one of my regrets that I was never able to write and thank him, for he died in 1998, just as I was making these baby-steps. Requiescas in pace, domine.
Just to digress for a moment, I likewise regret that I never wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien, who died in 1973. I discovered the Lord of the Rings in a school library in 1971, as a boy, and I read it and reread it. But nobody in my family was literary, and the idea that one could write to the author never crossed my mind. I suspect that he would have been delighted, and would have written back. A few years later I was an undergraduate at his college, and marvelling to see for real the avenue of lime-trees that appeared on the cover of my very well-thumbed copy of Paul Kocher’s Master of Middle-Earth.
But let us return to the possibilities opened up by Google Translate. Those impenetrable prefaces now lie open, to some extent.
One volume that has such a preface is none other than Charles Munier’s Concilia Africae A. 325 – A. 535, also in the CCSL series and printed in 1974, from which I have been translating the canons of Hippo and Carthage 3 since last year. I’ve rather struggled to understand what Munier printed in the body of the text. But his preface was impossible to get into, and I managed without.
Once I became aware of the improvement in Google Translate, I pasted the preface into it. What came out was, as expected, very readable, if imperfect. More, I became aware of why some of that book was structured as it was.
For the last week, therefore, paragraph by paragraph, I have been preparing a rough English translation of that preface for my own use. I’ve used Google Translate and fixed up where I thought it wrong. The results are not publication quality, but more than adequate to get a handle on the book as a whole. I might post the results here when I am done: it may well save some young scholars a load of headaches.