The 12+12 Books of Christmas #2


There are those who think doing a PhD in the humanities is easy. It rarely is. Latin has not been fashionable language for a couple of centuries now and few people are that good at it. When I began my university studies, we had one or two courses of Latin in total. They were useful and entertaining, but not quite enough to make all of us fluent in the language. The university now has no mandatory Latin courses for students in the language departments, which is a shame. On the plus side, if you can read the classics in their original language, you may possess a very rare and marketable skill.

My chosen topic for a doctoral dissertation was the figure of the author in eighteenth-century English satire. At the early stages of my research I began to see references to Isaac Casaubon’s De Satyrica Graecorum Poesi et Romanorum Satira (1605). In fact, I began to see references to it as the most important work on satire ever. Obviously this was a book I had to read carefully. However, there was one big problem. I could not find an English translation anywhere. There was supposedly a translation into Italian, but my Italian was no better than my Latin. And both were almost nonexistent.

What to do? If I could not read one of the most important works in my field, I would not be taken seriously as a scholar. The only way to solve this problem was to learn Latin. In other words, I had to learn a new language almost from scratch in order to write my dissertation in English literature. Nothing about this was easy. I was in a hurry, but there was no magic bullet fix. Learning Latin required steady and persistent work for months and months. There are linguistic geniuses who can learn languages much faster, but I’m not one of them. I have to use brute force.

After some time, I was able to read the book. Its argument is not that complicated and it has been summarized in English and French works numerous times. There was very little gained purely in terms of argumentation and not that many people are that interested, to be honest. I did dig up one point I hope to make into a paper some day, but it does not have to be repeated here. What should be said is that I did get a feel for Casaubon’s reasoning and language from the experience of learning to read his Latin. This has made me more confident whenever I have to address people as an expert in my field.

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