Not for Classicists: Ann Patty’s Living with a Dead Language

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I am militantly outspoken.  And that’s why I seldom request review copies.

But I could not resist a review copy of a new book with the title Living With a Dead Language:  My Romance with Latin. I am a classicist and former Latin teacher.

Unfortunately, this account of a former editor’s study of Latin is riddled with errors.  (I  pray someone caught them before the publication date,  June 14.).

I felt my blood pressure go up as I read this poorly-edited book (there are more Latin errors than I used to see on my average students’ exams) and finally flung it aside.  Should I write about it or ignore it?  This is not a review but a heads-up:  you would be more likely to want to read Latin if you read Vigil’s Aeneid, a stunning epic poem, or Gilbert Highet’s beautifully-written, scholarly Poets in a Landscape, an eloquent book about the relationship of Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal to the Italian landscape.

So what is the point of this new Latin memoir?  The author, Ann Patty, an editor who discovered the best-selling writer V. C. Andrews (whom I haven’t read) and acquired the rights for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi  (which I have read), was a savvy figure in her field:  she even had her own imprint.   After she was forced to retire (she says 100 people were laid off in a single day)  the days seemed very long.  So she decided to audit Latin classes at Vassar and Bard.

It’s an interesting concept for a book:  it’s a pity it’s so poorly executed.  Well, Patty enjoyed Latin, though at first she wasn’t very good at it.  She got a 6 out of 10 on her first quiz and an 85 on her first test.  When a student offered a tip that flashcards were the key to learning a language,  the willful Patty bought index cards but devised her own system. And I gathered that is typical of Patty.

Always being a thrifty sort, I did not make them, as Camilla did, one word per card, Latin on one side, English on the to her, but rather squashed three words with translations on each card.  I left the back blank, figuring I would need it later.

Such inefficiency!  Tsk, tsk.  The point is to look at the English side of the card, say the Latin to yourself and/or write it down, then check the answer and spelling on the flip side. Later, you repeat the cards with Latin to English.

But that is nought compared to the errors in her exegesis of Latin grammar.

I’ll spare you a course in Latin, but just a few things:

Patty does not understand what is meant by the “mood” of a Latin verb.  She says there are three.  No,  there are four.

The four moods of the Latin verb (a verb is a word that describes an action or state of being) are:

1. the indicative –  states a fact.  EXAMPLE:  “She runs, she praises, she sings, she dances, etc.”

2. the subjunctive:  states a possibility.  EX.: “He may run, might run, would run, etc.”

3. the infinitive:  states the action of the verb without a subject. EX.: “To run, to praise, to sing, to dance, etc.”

4. the imperative:  a command.  EX.: “Run!” “Sing!”  “Dance!”

Patty claims there are only three Latin verb moods, but then hedges her bets with five add-ons:  she identifies  “indicative, subjunctive, imperative, plus the infinitive, participle, gerund, gerundive, and supine.” The last four are not verbs or moods of verbs:  the  participle and gerundive are verbal adjectives, and the gerund and supine are nouns.

All right, that’s enough grammar for you guys today!  But the editors needed a classicist to  proofread it.  She does say in the acknowledgements that “the Latin teacher Curtis Dozier: saved the  book from being a a mess of errors,”  but it is unclear whether he read the book, because she  also refers to him as summum magistrum (accusative case) rather than summus magister (the correct nominative case).

I don’t know whether she’s more naive or pompous.  Bits of autobiography are mixed haphazardly into the narrative.  Her observations on Roman literature are so pedestrian I was embarrassed.  I am shocked (yes, I’m a schoolmarm) that she uses SparkNotes to help her with Catullus.  And her tedious sections on etymology need editing, though I gather this is what interests her.

In short, this book needed much more work.  David Denby’s stunning Great Books, an account of his return to Columbia to study literary and philosophical masterpieces in core humanities classes, would have been a good model.

If any of you read it, please let me know what you think.  Perhaps if you don’t know Latin…?

10 thoughts on “Not for Classicists: Ann Patty’s Living with a Dead Language

  1. This is all Latin to me… 🙂
    But reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s comment “we were young, we knew everything and what we didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing…” I have good command of a couple of languages and I go through the roof when I read what some translators produce and get published in our proof-reader/editor-less times… It’s a disgrace when the authors (I have met a couple…) have no knowledge of the language their books are translated into and can’t tell what a highly praised and award winning translator concocted… I’ve seen some outrageous jobs!!

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    • Yes, Latinists should not read this book! I don’t know what’s going on in publishing, but I’ve never seen so many errors in any book. An occasional mistake, yes, but not like this! Are they really not proofreading and editing? She wasn’t qualified to write this book.

      Translators have a tough job: that said, it’s very difficult to translate Latin into English and, with a few exceptions, it’s a pretty rocky road! No one should EVER read Cicero in translation!

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  2. You lost me at “discovered V.C. Andrews.” A person of poor taste then. V.C. Andrews’ first book (I read it for work; haven’t read the others) was a mess, riddled with sloppy English, and about juvenile incest. Now I suppose it would seem like nothing, but it was a pretty disgusting shocker in its day.

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    • Yes, I thought Andrews was trash! Never wanted to read it. Well, I want to like any book about Latin but this one needed a lot of help (unless they corrected the proofs–let’s hope!).

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  3. Wow! Sounds like a total mess! I was going to say I couldn’t believe she got away with this, but actually I can – there’s so little proofing and editing in many books nowadays and I’m always coming across minor mistakes. These, however, seem major – I never made it past one year of Latin at school but I’d have to be a lot more learned and competent to ever want to risk writing a book about the language!

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    • It’s very unfortunate! I want to see Latin promoted. This IS an uncorrected proof, but when they start giving them to reviewers I would think they’re pretty much done with it. I do really hope they caught the mistakes: but there were dozens!

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  4. My Latin is very little, consisting of two years in high school under the control of Miss Williams, a teacher the like of which they don’t make any more. A word was completely correct or it was not accepted, no compromises or half-truths allowed. She knew that there were topics on the State Latin test which were not covered in our curriculum by the time of the test date. She fingered several of her most promising students and said, “You will come in half an hour early on Mondays and Wednesday and learn the ablative absolute.” We never questioned that we had to come. Each year she had a student or two who made it into the top 10 in the State of Ohio.

    What I learned from Miss Williams is that if you work at something purposefully you can get it not just close to right, but exactly right.

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    • Oh, I love your story of Miss Williams! Ms. Mirabile here had to be more tolerant, but it is true that I was a strict drill sergeant of grammar. And she’s right: the grammar is either right or wrong, though the syntax is more flexible. My students especially enjoyed Latin poetry, partly because they knew their grammar so thoroughly they could parse every line. There can be no translation without the ability to identify the tense, voice, and mood of the verb, case and number of the noun, and grammatical constructions like the ablative absolute! (Miss Williams would have rolled her eyes at this book, and my professors would be rolling in the grave!)

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  5. I find myself agreeing somewhat reluctantly with you as I don’t like being seen as a pedant, to some a defining characteristic of classicists. BUT this is a published book which the author and her publisher are making money from and as you note some of the errors are really inexcusable. One that caught my pernickety eye was the statement that the fourth principal part of the verb ‘amo’ , ‘amatus’ is the perfect passive infinitive (to be loved) – not in my grammar texts. Some serious confusion here. ‘Amatus’ to my knowledge is the perfect passive participle – ‘having been loved’ , ‘amatus esse’ – the perfect passive infinitive – to have been loved, and ‘amari’, the present passive infinitive, ‘to be loved’. Had the text been proofread by any competent Latin teacher, even someone with intermediate level Latin, this mistake would (and should) have been detected. My own view for what it is worth is that Latin is best tackled by an early introduction to the original texts (especially the Aeneid) in interlinear form with the grammar texts supplementing that endeavour. Trying to master all the grammar and syntax first tends to burn out lots of students before they have a chance to be enchanted by the language.

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    • Yes, this was such a disappointment! I love pop books on serious subjects, and had hoped to enjoy it. But she didn’t have the qualifications to write such a book–which the editor should have caught.

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