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Translation in the AP Latin Classroom

by Charbra Adams Jestin
Avon High School
Avon, Connecticut

A "Targeted Approach"
For several years now the Reader's report on the grading of the AP Latin Literature Exam, as published in the Classical Outlook, has stressed the need for greater accuracy on "literal translation" as described in the AP Course Description. Clearly, our students are falling short of the AP expectations when it comes to literal translations.

While translation is probably the single most important skill we teach our students, it often is the most difficult to do well, and as a consequence, it is frustrating and unrewarding for students to attempt. When we assign them 30-45 minutes of nightly reading, all too often we discover the next day that the time spent was less productive than it should have been. Other than looking up every unfamiliar word in a dictionary, students at times return to class with meaningless translations. No matter how much encouragement is given them to apply the rules they have studied so diligently over the preceding two to three years, they often fail to use effectively what they have learned. Inevitably we are forced to spend a whole class period in review, puzzling out for them what they should have puzzled out for themselves the night before. Repeatedly we hear their exclamations about the greater ease in grasping the meaning when asked helpful questions. Why, I ask myself, can they not train themselves to ask those same purposeful questions?

The answer must surely be the complex and often abstruse nature of the Latin language. Translation should be the natural product of the years of language learning prior to AP. I am surprised every year, however, to find in my AP class a few students who will openly admit to not understanding what to do with all those verb forms, noun endings, and case uses they have spent so much time learning. After many years of this discouragement, I have now changed my approach to and expectations for reading and assessing translation homework assignments. Let me tell you how I proceed.

During the first semester of AP Latin Literature, when I teach Catullus, I implement my own strategy to encourage students to apply their rules of Latin grammar. I inform them ahead of time that I will be reading their homework the next day with the specific goal of finding all, for example, nominative nouns translated correctly. This is quite easy, and all students feel rewarded the next day when I read over their assignments. I progress from nominative to accusative, to ablative, to genitive, to dative cases. I may spend a day or a week on each case use, depending on the needs of the class. From nouns I quickly move to verbs, pronoun references, participles, clauses, etc. I vary my target from day to day or week to week. I can announce ahead what I will be checking for on any given day or not, if I feel the class is sufficiently prepared and/or the assignment is particularly easy. This approach allows me to do a quick review in class for each targeted point to refresh memories prior to giving out the assignment.

Given this approach, it was only natural that, when I put together a textbook for reading Ovid, I included in the back of the book the sorts of questions that I might ask the class to help students render meaning from a passage. These questions are designed to guide students to think in constructive ways about the Latin they are reading. For example, these questions point attention to grammatical subjects that may be separated by a distance from their verbs, adjectives from their nouns, and pronouns from their antecedents. They prompt students to focus on the voices of participles, accurately render ablatives absolute, and recognize indirect statements. The questions are offered along with their answers, which the truly perceptive student will not need but the slower student can still use to render a translation. When I look over homework and give it a quick assessment, I focus on one particular point raised in the Question and Answer section of the book. This helps to speed up my review of homework so I can get to the class work as soon as possible and to identify those students who are either not using the help provided them or not gleaning from it what they should. I then have a firm basis for granting full credit to those who have used the translation questions and answers accurately and a reduced grade to those who have not. It is thus made clear that the guided questions are there to help students develop their own skills in translating.

The benefit to this targeted approach is that students who need guidance and close supervision will get it. It also gives those who have somehow made it into AP Latin without a strong base yet one more opportunity to catch up and master the art of translating, if they pay attention to work assigned. Teachers can tailor this approach to the needs of any class, can stray from it if the need is not there, but also can return to it when they find students becoming careless and not applying the rules of the language as they should be. In short, I systematically look for greater accuracy and can demand it.

Charbra Adams Jestin is a teacher of Latin and Spanish, both at the AP level, at Avon High School in Avon, Connecticut. She is the author, along with Phyllis B. Katz, of Ovid: Amores

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