This article presents an assignment designed to stir students’ curiosity about the relations between literary language and Roman society, and the powers of translation to clarify or obscure those relations. Though designed for a fourth-semester university Latin course, this assignment is equally appropriate for advanced high school students. Students are asked to choose a cluster of closely related words (e.g. liber, libertas, liberalis, and liberalitas) and to explore in depth what the entries offered by their own intermediate or pocket dictionaries do and––crucially––do not communicate about the uses of these words in Roman life and literature. The exercise heightens sensitivity to the ways meaning may be shaped in specific settings, both at the micro-level of word order and in relation to broader socio-economic and political contexts. It also helps students grasp their own role as translators in generating meanings. This work can therefore simultaneously sharpen awareness of a much larger cultural realm beyond students’ fragmentary experiences with Roman literature, and improve their technical skills in reading and translating Latin.
Close Readings in a Latin Dictionary
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