Not Lost in Translation
by Lauren Davidson
April 1, 2011
Christopher Francese, associate professor of classical languages, was one of several faculty members behind the campaign to revise Dickinson’s diploma from Latin to English.
Carpe diem. Quid pro quo. Ad nauseam. All are Latin phrases used in everyday speech and understood by most. But when an important document is entirely in Latin, even the brightest scholars puzzle over it. Through-out the long history of Dickinson College, the diploma bestowed upon graduates each year was written in Latin. But no more.
The college’s February graduates were the first to receive diplomas in English, a move championed by Christopher Francese, associate professor of classical languages. Francese has overseen the Dickinson diploma text since 1996. As part of the college’s thriving classics department, he gladly took on this charge—reviewing the documents and making any necessary changes each year, including one revision to make the Latin gender-specific so that female graduates were no longer referred to as “young men.”
Things changed in 2004 when, while revising the date of Commencement, he mistakenly inserted an extra “n” into the word “anno.” The diplomas were printed and disseminated.
“It was a costly and humiliating mistake,” Francese admits. “We received complaints from some of my own students who had been able to read it. It woke me up to the fact that there was nobody in the entire chain of the diploma process who could read it.”
To “exorcise that demon,” Francese wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he stated, “Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight.”
“I wrote the essay saying enough is enough,” he says. “It’s a difficult issue for me. I spend a great deal of time trying to promote Latin. I’m not happy about having killed a bit of it.”
But Francese feels it’s in the college’s best interest to abandon this outdated tradition, kept simply out of habit.
“One question is, what would Ben Rush do?” he muses. “We were founded by people trying to break the excessive hold of ancient languages on the curriculum and add more modern languages and sciences. I think Rush would approve.”
After the op-ed was published in May 2009, conversations began campuswide about the diploma language, and David Strand, Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, put the issue on the Oct. 4, 2010, faculty meeting agenda. One of the most vocal opponents was Andrew Rudalevige, the Walter E. Beach Chair in Political Science.
“It strikes me as a solution without any real problem,” Rudalevige explains. “If there are graduate schools having trouble reading the diploma, maybe we need to work on our grad-school placements. It’s an issue of original intent—the founders put the diploma in Latin in the first place. It’s also about what it is communicating. The point is not to give a specific message but rather to make one very simple point: You have graduated from Dickinson and you are part of a long tradition, an unbroken line, which resonates to the beginnings of higher education.”
After many faculty members presented arguments, they voted, and though divided, decided that the diplomas would be recast in English.
“It’s the symbolism of the diploma, not the language it’s in, that’s important,” Francese says. “It’s also not a sacred text, but not to be changed lightly. I hope it will remain true to the traditions of the college.”
And ensuring that it will remain true is Brenda Bretz ’95, associate provost for curriculum, who is overseeing the new diploma’s creation.
“Instead of translating the Latin directly into English, APSC [Academic Program and Standards Committee] discussed what it should say,” Bretz says. “The student members of the committee were involved in the process, communicating with their peers on Student Senate, who are also excited about the result. This was an opportunity to express what the diploma represents to our students and how it can be befitting of a distinctively Dickinson education.”
Though May graduates will receive English diplomas, the teaching of classical languages remains vital on campus, and other semblances of Latin still remain, from the designations of cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude to the college seal, which reads “Pietate et Doctrina Tuta Libertas,” meaning “Freedom is made safe through character and learning.”