March 17, 2009

Agnos lupi vorant

In English: The wolves devour the lambs.

This proverb is based on the metaphorical opposition between the wolf and the lamb: the (rapacious, powerful, ruthless) wolves devour the (innocent, meek, powerless) lambs. Because the image of the wolf and the image of the lamb are so powerfully expressive and unambiguous, the proverb is able to speak to us in code, giving us a maxim we can apply to the human world at large. The word "wolf" has even given us a verb of its own in English: to "wolf" your food means to eat it in haste, to gobble or devour it.

What is worth nothing about the Latin phrase Agnos lupi vorant is not so much the words themselves (which are used in a very familiar metaphor), but the word order. In particular, we should note that the the word agnos is in the first position. This gives the word a special emphasis in the sentence. The other emphatic position in the sentence is the final word, vorant. So, by means of the word order, the Latin chooses to give special emphasis to the words agnos and vorant, with the least emphasis being given to the word lupi.

When it comes to the English translation, we are really in trouble as a result, since in English word order is not a matter of style, but a matter of grammar. The subject comes first in an English sentence, and is then followed by the verb which is followed by the object: S-V-O. So, in English we translate the statement, "The wolves eat the lambs," giving the first position the wolves, the word which was least emphatic in the Latin word order.

So, as always in translating, you are faced with a real dilemma. Do you just stick to the grammar? There is no grammar of Latin word order (only style), but in English there is a strict grammar of word order, and the only grammaticaly sentence you can make with these words is, "The wolves devour the lambs." If you wanted to convey the style of the Latin word order, you'd have to use a round-about expression, something like: "It's the lambs whom the wolves devour." Such a long and complicated sentence puts the lambs before the subject and the verb, but the length and complexity of the resulting sentence has not created a stylistic difference that is far removed from the simplicity of the Latin.

As always, then, my recommendation is just not to translate into English. Enjoy the Latin on its own terms for its own sake! Latin puts the word agnos first, as if to say in English, "Oh my gosh: the LAMBS...! The wolves are devouring the lambs." Latin also puts some emphasis on vorant, being in the final position, as if to say in English: "Oh my gosh: the LAMBS...! The wolves are devouring the lambs - not just eating them, DEVOURING them." This is a paraphrase which manages to suggest in English what the Latin is able to convey through the word order. Of course, it would not qualify as a translation for the purposes of an AP Latin exam - but it is what you need to have in mind if you want to have a sense in English of just what the Latin sentence is saying, and how it is choosing to say it.

So, thinking about those poor little lambs, being devoured in the emphatic first position, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1071. Agnos lupi vorant.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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