Monday, July 21, 2014


Jürgen​ Leonhardt, Latin: Story of a World Language (First published 2009; translated by Kenneth Kronenberg). Cambridge, MA; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 332. ISBN 9780674058071. $29.95.

Reviewed by Antonia Ruppel, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site


The book under review here is the expanded translation of a volume that appeared in 2009 (BMCR 2010.10.04). The review will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the translation and of those elements that the author added to this new, updated version of the book. Yet to offer a brief summary, Latin: Story of a World Language outlines the changing uses of the Latin language from its first literary attestations to the present day. After an introduction and overview of the book's main themes (Chapter 1), the book is arranged chronologically. Leonhardt discusses how Latin was turned into a language that could rival literary Greek in all its uses, which developments it underwent to be employed as an administrative language in the empire, and how it was employed on an every-day basis, alongside Greek, in late antiquity (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 focusses on Europe's Latin Millennium (800-1800), beginning with the Carolingian Renaissance, continuing through the rise of (and Latin's interactions with) the vernacular languages and reaching up to the period in which fluency in spoken Latin waned even in educated circles. The author analyses in detail what it means for a language to be 'dead' and shows how this label does not apply to Latin during this time; yet like other Kultursprachen (i.e. languages whose form and use are intricately linked with (aspects of) a specific culture), Latin is to be seen as 'fixed' in many of its features. Chapter 4, World Language Without a World, centers on humanism and the role of Latin in education, scholarship and culture in the time after 1800, while Chapter 5 focusses on Latin Today, discussing how, in spite of various initiatives to keep the language alive, our dwindling knowledge of Latin – passive and active! – increasingly limits our understanding of, and access to, our past.

While sometimes, the urge of authors of non-fiction books to have those translated into other languages seems potentially motivated by their wish for self-aggrandizement, the translation of Latein: Geschichte einer Weltsprache very clearly does not fall into this category. As the 2010 BMCR review pointed out, and as this reviewer also believes, the study is of such breadth and written in such an accessible and engaging style that it clearly appeals to more than a specialist, Classicist audience which can be expected to read German. A translation that makes the book accessible to a wider public, not only in other academic disciplines but perhaps also outside academia, thus is greatly to be welcomed.

Latin: Story of a World Language is not merely a translation of the German original. While the organization of Chapters 1 and 2 closely follows that of their originals and only sometimes changes certain details (see below), the structure of Chapters 3 onwards has been significantly changed, with passages cut, added, expanded or re-arranged. The additions (again, see below for details) are excellent throughout. The re-arrangement often makes the argumentation more stringent; sometimes its purpose is not immediately obvious. The chapters receive more sub-sections than in the original, and these subsections often begin with a useful summary of what is about to be discussed. The addition of footnote numbers into the text (instead of a section of endnotes not explicitly referred to in the original) is a very welcome addition.

The author has successfully adapted and anglicized or internationalized numerous passages that in their original form were relevant and interesting mostly for a German audience. A discussion of Middle High German, for example, is replaced by one of Chaucer (p. 35); Rilke as a reference point for poetic language is replaced by Auden and Eliot (119); instead of a reference to a Latin inscription on a German town hall as an example of publicly visible Latin, we find mention of the Latin motto of a US university (289); a newly added discussion of Latin employed for official uses (scholarly, administrative, honorific) refers to and compares practices in Germany, England, the US and Hungary, among others (246-8). The author discusses the parallels in development and status of both English and Latin as world languages (esp. 150-4 in Chapter 3, but also passim), uses English examples in his discussion of how regional accents of a language may cause difficulties in communication (taking 'a Bostonian vacationing in Jamaica', 91), and furthermore makes comparisons with Spanish more than would have been helpful for his original German audience. A number of sections referring specifically to Germany (e.g. on the role of Latin there from 1890 onwards, originally forming the conclusion of Chapter 3, or a comparison between West and East Germany in Chapter 4) have been cut. In the large majority of cases, this improves the new version of the book; where the author does retain passages that refer specifically to Germany, they mostly do add to the overall argument.

Another considerable addition to the book comes in the shape of extensive Latin quotes, which furthermore are discussed and analyzed in such a way that those who do not know Latin will be able to better understand and appreciate what is being referred to in some of the more theoretical passages of the original. To give just a few examples, the duenos inscription supplements the discussion on the differences between pre-Classical and Classical Latin (52-3); passages from Cicero's De oratore and his Pro Sestio illustrate polished Classical prose style and rhythm (67-71); in later chapters, the discussion of humanist Latin is supplemented by a quote from Jephthias, a tragedy by the German Jesuit Jacobus Balde (1604-1668), that is then contrasted with almost contemporary Latin prose, an excerpt from Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (236-41). The quote from the Iguvine Tablets (43) would have profited from an exact reference (it is Ib.10).

Yet while this updated and internationalized version of Leonhardt's original study has many strengths in respect to its contents, various formal aspects are not ideal. The original is elegantly written and near-flawlessly edited; the translation in many places is neither. Formatting issues are secondary here: syllabification of German words should have been checked by someone who knows the relevant rules (e.g. Schwyz-erdütsch (31), geleh-rte (249), Thom-asschule (260)), and the constant hyphenation of 'antiquity' as 'antiq-uity' could have been avoided. The German convention of splitting up numerical text references by means of commas (e.g. 1,4,5) is only sometimes converted into its English equivalent (1.4.5); and sometimes, one would have wished for the use of hyphens to increase legibility (cf. spellings such as preeminent, nonnative, or far reaching). About halfway through, the book stops using @ or any other symbol to mark what follows as the attribution of rights to a picture; on p. 213, this leads to the following lovely caption of a photo depicting a 1672 copy of Philipp Melanchthon's 1526 Grammatica Latina: 'Nonetheless, the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century student whose book this was wrote German translations next to the verb stems. With permission of the author.' The translator's tendency to repeat words in adjacent clauses (such as 'Fulda Abbey, (…), which was based on Constantine's Old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, which was completed in 333' or 'other churches built by members of Charlemagne's inner circle also borrowed from churches from late antiquity', both p. 170) is inelegant.

More problematic are the numerous translation mistakes. Given that the text of the book was partly expanded and the information re-ordered, one sometimes cannot know whether an apparently imprecise rendering of the original German text actually was due to a change intended by the author. This review will thus focus only on those instances where there clearly is some kind of mistake. Given that the book aims at a wider audience than most monographs focusing on Latin-related issues, it will include things that may be obvious to full-blooded Classicists, but not necessarily to lay readers.

A number of names were anglicized only part-way, retaining -os at their end instead of the more common Latinized -us (Theocritos, Archilochos, Callimachos etc., but Herodotus correctly on the same page (62)), some names are kept in Latin where the English would be more common (e.g. Imperium and Imperium Romanum, Tabulae Iguvinae); 'Seneca, the oration teacher' (80) should simply be Seneca the Elder, and the Catilinarian Conspiracy should not be called the 'Catilinian revolution'. Peri hermenaias for Peri hermeneias (28), Sarsin for Sarsina (49), Theocrites instead of Theocritus (62), Theodoric for Theoderic (95) and Acadian for Accadian (or better yet, Akkadian) (279) are simply wrong; Mark Antony is once anglicized as such but once also kept in his Latin/German form as Antonius on the same page (64); Thomas von Aquin once is translated as Thomas of Aquinas (171), and once correctly as Thomas Aquinas (180). In the age of Google, anyone trying to find out more about the people and things in question would still be able to do so; yet that should not keep us from aiming for accuracy.

A variety of technical terms was also mistranslated: 'comedic poet' for comic poet (49 and passim); 'conjunctive mode' for subjunctive mood (28, and 'mode' for mood also 57), 'Greek literature of the Hellenes' for Hellenistic Greek (20), 'Attic' for Atticist/Atticizing (93), 'genus' or 'genera' for gender(s) (98, 99), 'principal forms' for principal parts (99, 102), 'middle Latin' ('Mittellatein') for mediaeval Latin (178). Stilübungen (i.e. prose composition) are translated as 'style exercises' (196, 274), 'stylistic exercises' (233), 'exercises in style' (274) and 'final German-Latin examinations' (273). On p. 147, Reflexivpronomen is translated as 'relative pronoun', and Gerundivum as 'gerund'. In the Latin passages on pp. 43 and 249, respectively, 'to' should be 'ito' and 'utuntor' should presumably be 'utantur'.

Translating from German, a language with both ability and eagerness to form compounds on the spot for pretty much any concept, is tricky. Overall, the translator has dealt with this well. The main exception to this is his handling of the words 'Wissenschaft' and 'wissenschaftlich' throughout the book, which he mostly translates as 'science' and 'scientific', respectively. In modern English usage, the arts and humanities (which mostly are what is being talked about here) are typically excluded from 'science', and the appropriate translation of 'Wissenschaft' thus is 'scholarship' or, in some contexts, 'academia'. This is a well-known problem in German-English translation, and one would have expected a professional translator to be aware of it (and indeed, on p. 245 'Naturwissenschaftler' ('natural scientist') is aptly translated as 'scientist', and on p. 254 we do find 'wissenschaftlich' rendered as 'scholarly').

Just some of the other mistranslations and unidiomatic phrasings: '… after a pause of several 'dark' centuries again during the eighth century BCE with the written epics of Homer' (25); 'Greek [instead of Koine Greek, which is discussed in the previous paragraph] was the only common literary language of Greece' (27); German 'Gerüst' does indeed also mean 'scaffolding', but is used in all non-construction contexts in the meaning of 'framework, structure, skeleton' (69, referring to the structure of a Ciceronian period); 'Cicero… wrote about linguistic problems in the margins of his rhetorical writings' (60), rendering 'am Rande', i.e. 'on the side' or perhaps 'marginally'; 'Rome during Augustinian times' (61) ('Augustan' is used correctly further down on same page); 'but then [after the 2nd century AD] philosophy again became the province of the Greeks' instead of 'of Greek', i.e. the literary language from that point on (82); 'the epics of Ennius' (for the singular 'Epos' in the original, 103). Unfortunately such mistakes, small but noticeable, abound.

In a review of an original work, extensive focus on formal details gone wrong might be seen as petty and would distract from more important things. Yet as this is a translation, as the original is so well-written and well-edited, and as the study is one whose strength is its appeal to non-specialist audiences, such sloppy translating that often obscures the meaning or intention of the original text needs to be pointed out. Latein: Geschichte einer Weltsprache is extremely worth reading; Latin: Story of a World Language – updated, significantly expanded and made more international in outlook – even more so. We hope that there will soon be a second edition in which the weaknesses of this translation will have been improved on.

1 comment:

  1. I am very happy to see such a positive response to my book. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate to comment on some of the remarks in the review concerning mistakes in the translation. As the reviewer already suggested, in all cases where the translation doesn’t correspond to the German version, the text had been rewritten in German before translation or authorized by me afterwards. I want to emphasise that Kenneth Kronenberg, the translator, helped me substantially in giving the book a more international outlook; he proposed shortening of some passages, revising others, and often helped me to find new examples and comparisons. It was (also) his idea to insert Latin examples. We had a very good and very intensive collaboration, and some of the virtues of the expanded version of the book indicated in this review are due to the translator’s efforts and initiatives no less than to mine. On the other hand, the more technical mistakes of the translation listed in the review are not only the translator’s, but also mine. Since the translator is not a classicist, I have to take full responsibility for all mistakes concerning technical termini and scholastic details. A review has to point out both the strong and the weak sides of a book, and I am very grateful to the reviewer to have done this in such a clear and precise manner. However, the reader should not get the impression that the strong sides are only due to the author, the weak sides only due to the translator. Much more than is usually the case, the English edition of the book was a joint effort. Juergen Leonhardt


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