“Saepe creat molles aspera spina rosas.”
This didn’t look too bad. Only six words! And I was certain I knew at least three of them.
“‘Saepe’, that is ‘always’!” I wrote ‘always’ down on the board. “Ok what next? ‘Creat’. Well that looks like ‘create’ so it’s probably ‘create’. I wrote that right next to it. “‘Always create’. Ok, this makes sense so far. What next? ‘Molles.’” I went over to my dictionary to look it up. “Ok, it’s an adjective, it means ‘tender’. Well it’s right next to ‘aspera’ so it must be modifying that.” I looked up ‘aspera’. “‘Harsh’? Another adjective? This doesn’t make sense.”
I turned to my teacher in confusion hoping she would resolve the problem. All she said was, “Stop thinking like an English speaker, this is Latin.”
I remember all the hundreds of instances where I was corrected for trying to translate Latin sentences in order from the first word to last. I remember all the instances where I tried to connect an accusative adjective with a dative noun simply because they were next to each other. I remember all the instances where I confused “saepe” with “semper.” But, in the end, after these years of high school I have finally been able to break away from those English habits and have just started to peer into the timeless poetry of the ancient Romans. From the emotional cries of Catullus, to the poetical wisdom of Horace, all the way to the technical genius of Virgil, by breaking the barriers of my English speaking habits, I have been able to start looking into an entire different world of ideas, ideas that have been abandoned in the English speaking world. The English language leaves ideas ambiguous, leaves sentences bland, and prevents us from utilizing the beautiful dactyl at all in a truly musical way. These were all things I had not noticed before taking Latin. All the hours of stress, of nervousness, and of confusion in the classroom finally brought me to realize there is something beautiful worth exploring, Latin poetry. I finally understood the point, the reason for learning all these ablative usages, for memorizing all the confusing forms of vis, for memorizing all the UNUS NAUTA words. It made sense. It was taking me beyond my normal way of thinking and stretching my mind in a manner that allowed me to grasp new ideas written by people from a completely different culture in a completely different time. By learning Latin, I have thus been able to approach problems in my Great Books class from a completely different angle. In my writing, I have been able to determine creative ways to express similar ideas. In normal conversation, I have been able to question the thoughts of others and of myself so as to become more articulate.
Even though it was difficult at first, even though it caused much stress and confusion, ultimately, Latin taught me what it means to think. A little bit of difficulty in life usually does produce greatness. As the sentence read that I struggled to translate all those years ago, “Often a harsh thorn begets gentle roses.” Latin was certainly a harsh thorn, but my new perspective and way of thinking is a gentle rose which I am more than grateful for, and, even more so, am hopeful to continue to grow.