In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.
I had the idea to translate the beginning of John because it’s been a long week of testing. I knew that with mornings crammed full of tests the afternoon classes would be, well, slightly less productive. With the hopes of trucking through more of Lingua Latina dashed against the rocks of middle school boredom, I decided to try something totally new.
So I copied John I from the Vulgate. I introduced the ideas of Bible translations, the “language of the common people,” and I tried to make translating a few verses fun.
“Magistra, we already memorized this,” someone says unenthusiastically.
So I think on my feet.
“I know that,” I say, even though I don’t. “That’s why we’ll be doing a literal translation.”
[Cue a lesson on the ACTUAL definition of literal not the colloquial one; “I was literally floored” is almost never an acceptable sentence.]
I walk them through the first sentence, we pick it apart, we talk about what a literal translation would look like:
In beginning was Word, and Word was with God, and God was Word.
They like this, this hideous English that I’m finally allowing them to use. No longer will I demand: “But make it good English!” No longer will I say, “Listen, I know there is no sentence subject in the Latin, but there has to be one in English…”
They were finally free.
And free they were, as they concocted sentence after sentence. We filled the board at the end of class, and we talked about what the translators would have had to do to manipulate the language.
What was more important? To make it as much like Latin as possible? Or to make it mean as close to the same thing in English?
We talked about Greek and Hebrew and how translations get tainted the further away you get from the original.
And as I stood in front of the class, I was transported to a little room. I was sixteen again, and we were discovering Bible translating and the Vulgate for the first time. It was a much smaller class than I was now teaching, but I remember how it felt, that first picking apart of language.
This time it was language that mattered.
This time it wasn’t about Sextus falling into the ditch.
This time, it was about the Word.
And granted, I knew the New Testament wasn’t originally written in Latin. That didn’t make my translation of it any less cool.
It also made me wonder what moments my students will remember.
John I on the board?
My inability to keep a straight face when one of them is hilarious?
The first time they could verbalize what an ablative of agent was and how it differed from an ablative of means?
There are days when I feel defeated. There was a day this week when a loving eighth grader said to me:
“Magistra, I think teaching is aging you.”
She went on to say how young I had seemed last summer when she saw me (shopping at the mall, making unwise but beautiful purchases).
Well, I thought, of course I looked younger! I was tan! And free! And reading books by the shelf-loads! And most importantly, I wasn’t getting up at 5:45 every morning!
But instead, I just smiled and promised to wear more makeup the next day.
Teaching might be aging me, but we translated John 1:1-11, and it was beautiful.
[P.S. Did anyone notice what one of the students deemed worthy of homework?]