Govi, Govisti, Govit: English-to-Latin translation in the GCSE curriculum?

Let’s start with the facts.

The facts, in this case, are the proposals given in June by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education), which included English-to-Latin translation as a part of the GCSE Latin curriculum.

Cue political fireworks? Unfortunately not.

I should clarify this. Gove’s suggested reforms did indeed meet with their fair share of criticism; however, isn’t this particular proposal something of an opportunity for political opponents? After all, some would consider this the epitome of an out-of-touch government: the inclusion of an at best esoteric and (some might add) irrelevant academic discipline in a GCSE curriculum. I disagree, and think that Gove’s suggestion is a laudable one.

In a way, it’s a shame that the political furore was absent – hence my use of “unfortunately”. Admittedly, GCSE Latin can hardly be considered a mainstream academic qualification in the grand scheme of the UK population. The debate surrounding English-to-Latin translation, however, is a valuable one. It has implications for the purpose of studying classical languages – and, beyond this, for the purpose of education as a whole.

Three years ago, my long-time interest in competitive debating saw me speaking in favour of compulsory modern language lessons in schools. My speech was, I think, fairly forgettable – certainly I have long since forgotten it, and I don’t think I said anything of particular note. However, the best speech of the day was delivered by my team-mate, who encapsulated his powerful summary speech with the memorable words, “Education is about opportunity”.

A useful starting point. If we assume that opportunity is the purpose of education, what implications does that have for the study of English-to-Latin translation?

Unfortunately for Mr Gove, “opportunity” (which, I admit, is a nebulous concept) does not seem very closely intertwined with English-to-Latin translation at GCSE level. By learning ancient languages, we can develop the facility of understanding ancient texts – and gain the opportunity to learn from the fascinating evidence and opinions expressed therein. But by learning to translate from English into Latin, we gain the opportunity to…translate from English into Latin. Indeed, the apparent futility of this academic discipline is encapsulated by the following words:

“There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.” (Mary Beard)

Surely a more direct way of learning from Latin texts would be continuing to translate from Latin to English? Indeed, studying the preface to a book on Latin Prose Composition (by J. Arbuthnot Nairn, published by Cambridge University Press 1928) actually seems to bolster this argument. Nairn claims that “as we train our minds by study of the vigour and clearness of Latin, so we train our character by the great moral ideals which are so strongly represented in the great Roman writers.” But would it not be more efficient to study the “great moral ideals” as presented by these writers, rather than imitating their language and writing style? To employ an example: a current GCSE Latin set text is Cicero’s description of Verres’ vindictive corruption from in Verrem. Do we understand Cicero’s moral outrage more clearly by attempting to emulate his language and style, or by actually reading and analysing what he says?

I am conscious that I am not doing a very good job of defending my instinctive feeling that translating from English into Latin is beneficial. However, fortunately for my instinctive feeling (and for Mr Gove’s proposals!), Nairn has more arguments to come. His very first chapter opens with the following statement:

“Latin prose composition is the best method of learning Latin…”

An assertion which forces us to consider: what does Latin prose composition bring the student that the current GCSE Latin prescription does not?

The practical use of language.

Case endings in Latin make the subject/object relationship abundantly clear. The use of participles and verbs with different moods elucidates the difference between main and subordinate clauses. This has an inevitable effect on how students use language in general – not least their first language (English, for the sake of argument). Nairn observes tactfully that “our language is often written without that precision which is the main feature of Latin”. And his words were published in 1928. What, I wonder, would Nairn say now, after the much-deplored advent of text-speak and the equally-deplored deficiency in teaching of basic English grammar?

Some might argue that learning English grammar directly would be a more effective way of improving use of the English language. English, I would counter, is by no means an easy language to learn. It is the clarity which Latin grammar brings to universal grammatical structures that makes it so valuable.

But I’m still not proving the crucial point of my argument. Why doesn’t the current GCSE Latin provide enough grammatical knowledge to encourage greater accuracy in use of English? As it stands, a Latin GCSE encourages students to learn grammar, and by its very nature gives them an instinctive grasp of it. But I don’t think this is enough. It is possible to get through the translation element of a Latin GCSE with an instinctive, implicit grasp of grammar. By contrast, an English-to-Latin translation element would force students to think consciously about grammar – and this process, I think, means that grammar is learned more quickly, and becomes a more effective accomplice to the students’ use of any language in everyday life.

If education is about opportunity, then surely the opportunity to use language more effectively is well worth adapting the educational system for? Do not consider this merely a pie-in-the-sky idealistic dream of a world in which language is used in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In the practical world, the ability to use language well opens doors. Like it or not, it makes university interviewees more convincing, job applicants more impressive, and speakers more persuasive. All this stems from greater awareness of accurate grammar. And this can be derived from spending a small percentage of the Latin GCSE learning how to translate from English into Latin.

At the very least, if more students were forced to think consciously about grammatical points such as subject/object case endings, perhaps we would see the extinction of grammatical fallacies such as “me and my friend are going to see a film”.


Beard, Mary. “Do Classics Have a Future?” 2011. Confronting the Classics. By Beard. N.p.: Profile Books, 2013. 1-14. Print.

Jones, Peter. “Found in Translation.” Spectator 22 June 2013: 16. Print.

Nairn, J. Arbuthnot. Latin Prose Composition. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1928. Print.