Beyond Translation: The Benefits and Drawbacks of English-to-Latin Composition

Photo: Arnold, Thomas Kerchever, et al. Bradley’s Arnold Latin Prose Composition. Bolchazy Carducci Publishers, 2005.

Beyond Translation: The Benefits and Drawbacks of English-to-Latin Composition

By Lily Nesvold


In an advanced Latin course my senior year of high school, my teacher gave the class an assignment that was deceptively simple: to compose four “correct” lines of dactylic hexameter, a quest which would result in an automatic “A” for the trimester. Naturally, we were all very excited about the grading scale for the task. What we failed to recognize was how difficult it would be as students who were purely focused on Latin-to-English translation for their entire study of the language to write in Latin using correct grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Unfortunately, none of us produced a perfect poem—we all had at least one or more errors in our final products. The endeavor served as an abrupt wake-up call: I realized that I neglected to address this weakness throughout my pursuit of the discipline.

Experiencing this academic shortcoming while learning Latin is not unique to just myself and my peers. Curricula across the world prioritize translation of the great works as opposed to an approach employing creative writing (as my teacher in high school encouraged) or “composition”—that is, taking an English sentence and putting it into Latin terms, a process which is not an exact science. Why, then, has this important component of deciphering classical languages been abandoned?

I got to contemplate this question last fall while taking “Latin Prose Composition” with Professor Cynthia Damon—a course that seeks to challenge the gap in curricula by having students learn the art of Latin composition. Over the semester I came to realize just how beneficial prose composition is as a tool for language acquisition, as well as how useful it would prove to be if included in the curricula of secondary schools.

One of the advantages of composition is that it makes a student a stronger translator of classical Latin, especially when sight reading difficult excerpts from ancient authors such as Virgil or Cicero. Upon first glance, these passages seem like a jumbled mess of foreign words to many students. But with the supplementing of composition, students feel more competent in attacking hard works.

This transformation arises for two reasons. First, students learn that there are multiple grammatical approaches that can be used to express the same idea. For example, one can substitute an ablative absolute for a “cum” clause, and vice versa. I, for one, did not grasp this concept until I was forced to think about it when working on compositions. Rather, I was overwhelmed by how many syntactic structures of which I had to keep track. When I found out that the intricacies of Latin were partially simplified since different constructions could more-or-less be equated in usage, I was relieved.

Second, there are complexities in Latin that I could not comprehend through pure translation. For example, I discovered there was a difference between “tantus . . . quantus” and “tālis . . . quālis”: the former indicates size or amount while the latter refers to kind or quality. Bradley’s Arnold, the textbook on which we relied in the Latin Prose Composition course, clearly elucidates the variation in usage: “Thus, in ‘the storm was such as I had never seen before,’ ‘such’ evidently means ‘so violent’ or ‘so great’; in ‘his manners were such as I had never seen,’ ‘such’ evidently means ‘of such a kind.’ In the former case we must use tantus, in the latter tālis” (Arnold 65). Because both of these correlatives are translated as “such . . . as” in English, my mind did not perceive a difference between the two.

Learning these rules for the first time was interesting, but actually putting my knowledge to the test was truly an eye-opening experience. I found myself questioning every word I wrote, let alone case and tense. For every stride forward I made with vocabulary, I fell three steps behind in syntactical errors. But it was through correcting these errors that the concepts were finally drilled into my head. After making the same mistake so many times, I would vow never to make it again and firmly commit the correct way to memory. Ultimately, I feel that I would not have the same mastery of high Latin without pose composition exercises.

It is easy to write this approach off because it has only been proven effective for advanced Latin students—as evidently novice learners couldn’t handle such a daunting chore. However, I believe that if the language is instructed in both directions and composition is instilled in pupils from the very beginning, it would reinforce their understanding and help them progress to the next stage more quickly. Of course, the level of the composition exercise would either match or fall slightly below their placement in Latin translation.

Perhaps a limitation of this means of studying Latin is that, despite its success, the process is, to be candid, extremely frustrating. Each weekly assignment—which was comprised of roughly fifteen to twenty sentences—demanded an incredible amount of brainpower, attention to detail, and patience. Not only did a singular homework require many iterations, but the entire exercise took anywhere from four to six hours to complete. I would contend however that this particular method is slightly misguided, rather than the whole practice of composition being an invalid manner of teaching.

Kristinee Trego, a scholar affiliated with Bucknell University, outlines a suggestion—one that she has perfected by experimenting in the classroom with her students—to remedy this issue. During these facetiously named “Grammar Fun Days” (GFDs), teams compete and the winners get points toward prizes, but the overall assignment is completion-based to reduce performance anxiety (Trego 72-3). Her research demonstrates that if implemented correctly, composition exercises can be both educational and enjoyable.

Professor Damon’s class was one of the most difficult ones I have taken at Penn. I’ll admit, I felt a little burned out after the course; however, once I returned to the language, it was with a renewed passion and a comprehensive understanding of syntax in both English and Latin. Before taking the course, I considered myself proficient in the Latin language—the material challenged my belief and pushed me to become a more exceptional Classicist than I ever could have imagined. Now when I read a selection of Latin, it no longer feels like a scramble to find the verb and solve the puzzle that is the sentence. Rather I am collected and determined, knowing that I possess the skills for tackling the excerpt, and the words just click.

I don’t know why prose composition isn’t commonly taught in Latin classrooms. I’d be curious as to what percentage of Latin students have had regular exposure to this method of learning (but I’m guessing the number is small). I firmly believe other students, regardless of ability, would similarly strengthen their skills if they attempted composition in any form. Nonetheless, Trego is onto something—perhaps she has finally found a method that other teachers would be willing to embrace. If so, the next question that must be addressed is how can we draw attention to Trego’s research so that school administrations across the nation are made aware of her insights. This effort would require an overhaul of current techniques used by teachers in the classroom. But based on the rising popularity of the new phenomenon of “Latin Novellas,” there is a chance it could succeed.


Works Cited

Arnold, Thomas Kerchever, et al. Bradley’s Arnold Latin Prose Composition. Bolchazy Carducci Publishers, 2005.

Trego, Kristine. “Composition, Competition, and Community: A Preliminary Study of the Use of Latin Composition in a Cooperative Learning Environment.” Teaching Classical Languages 5.2 (Spring 2014): 70-85. ISSN 2160-2220.


Lily Nesvold (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and minoring in Economics.


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