Saturday, July 2, 2016

Ann Patty's "Living with a Dead Language"

Ann Patty worked in New York trade publishing for more than thirty years. She was the founder and publisher of The Poseidon Press and an executive editor at Crown Publishers and Harcourt. Her first discovery as an editor was V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. Other highlights of her career include the US hardcover debuts of: George R. R. Martin, Graham Swift, Mary Gaitskill, Patrick McGrath, Clive Barker, Frank Zappa, Michael Moore, Siri Hustvedt, and Kristin Hannah. She was the editor of Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler, and Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi.

In 2008 she became a freelance editor and began studying Latin, which she continues to do.

Patty applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new memoir, Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the beginning Chapter 7, which is about the summer between years two and three of my Latin studies, so it’s a break from things Latin and Roman. Nevertheless, it opens with my engagement with words, this time in a more common way-- with Scrabble. And as you’ll see below, my learning curve in Scrabble was not unlike mine in Latin –it was a slow process, I often felt like a dolt, and sometimes I resorted to online “cheats”.
Chapter 7
Difficile est tenere quae acceperis nisi exerceas
It is difficult to retain what you have learned unless you practice it – Pliny the Younger

Class ended the first of May and, with no outside structure, no reason to leave the house, an excessively long nonfiction book to cut by two thirds, and another to rewrite, I was at my computer for hours most days, with breaks for walks and weed pulling. I didn’t even have to leave my desk to indulge in my new addiction: online Scrabble. You might think my Latin studies would have made me great, or at least, good at Scrabble, but no: I lost almost every game. I’d begun playing with accomplished Scrabblists, and soon I was ranked lower than those who had never even played. It was humiliating. One of my friends even refused to play me, because the one time she lost a game to me, I sent her rating down ten notches.
I intended to practice my Latin that summer by translating a poem every week. I had found something akin to Scrabble Cheat for translating Latin on the Perseus website, where you can type in any Latin word and it will give you a short definition and a list of possible cases. The serious scholar, however, must then click on the lexicon entry in the Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary. There the full definition of the word is given, with examples attested in the classical literature. There the word becomes more loaded with meanings and nuance. Another site, The Packard Humanities site contains all Latin literary texts written previous to 200 AD and offers not only a word search but also a concordance. I was at the time enchanted with Latin adverbs ending in im and expected that site to be another helpful cheat. Unfortunately 42,818 instances of words ending in im popped up – most of them verbs or the conjunction enim.

Latin kept popping up everywhere that summer – in periodicals, in comedy (John Oliver, Ricky Gervais), in neologisms (cisgender). It is not a dead language, but a zombie language.

After this anomalous chapter, I return to my studies: of Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Vergil, Lucretius, and Latin inscriptions. My book is a memoir of my life, viewed though the lens of my Latin studies which I began as I approached the age of sixty. I had lost my editorial job in the recession of 2008, moved to an isolated house in the country, and felt lonely, bored and lost. I hit on studying Latin as a way to revive myself, to learn something that would be more than a hobby, that might lead to a new life. As my studies progress, the grammar and the literature of Classical Latin begins to resonate with my past. My mother, who loved Latin as a girl, reappears vividly after being dead for 27 years, as does my best friend, who’s been dead even longer. I learn that every dead person is a dead language, and every memory a translation of that language. Latin brought my past alive, and also reinvented my future. I have found a new, part-time career teaching Latin to teenagers, and my studies continue, now into year six.
Visit Ann Patty's website.

--Marshal Zeringue