Five Tips for Sight Reading

For some reason, sight reading is often perceived as the most onerous part of upper-level language courses. In fact, many students aren’t exposed to it until graduate school (or never!). Today’s post is a joint endeavor between Mary, who has always had to read at sight and so I never learned to fear it, and Jackie, who started in grad school — and has scored sight competitions. Coming up: some advice to help you get through your first encounters with an unknown text.

Before getting started, what exactly do we mean by “sight reading”? There are two general definitions: either reading from a known, but not prepared, translation (with or without the help of a dictionary), or translating, under exam conditions, an unknown text. Our advice focuses on the second definition, because it’s harder and scarier. But it is definitely applicable to the first definition, too!

Tip #1: Don’t panic. It’s a sight. No one expects your translation to be perfect. No one expects you to know all the words. No one expects you to get every grammatical nuance. They expect you to get the gist of the passage (for advanced students/scores) or the grammatical backbone (for less advanced students/lower grades).

Tip #2: Read the entire passage before you try to translate. Reading through the passage will help you get into the mental space of a different language, and will prepare you for the mental work of moving between the second language and your first language.

Tip #3: Now that you’ve read through your passage, you can start to translate. Don’t try to guess the author if it’s not given to you; that’s a waste of time. Don’t try to guess the content at the beginning, because you’ll translate what you think the passage should say. Don’t make that mistake: translate what the passage says, not what you think the passage should say.

Because Tip #3 is the heart of going through a sight, I’m going to break it down into three sub-steps.

3a) For your second pass-through, focus on finding the clauses that you understand best. That usually means clauses where you know most of the vocabulary and all of the grammar. Make sure you leave yourself enough space to work on the other clauses! (It’s okay to have blank lines on the page or to insert stars, too.)

Here’s an example of what this step might look like, using a well-known passage of Vergil. I put the parts I translated in bold:

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul ‘o miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
creditis avectos hostis? aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? sic notus Ulixes?
aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi,
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.’

First there before all

Laocoon burning ran from the high arch and from afar (said) “Miserable men,

Or some mistake hides; do not believe the horse, Teucrians. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks and

3b) For your third pass-through, go back to the other sentences. Start working through the grammar only. When you know the meaning of words, you can include the meaning. When you don’t know the meaning, try to parse the word and put that information in the correct place in the sentence.

Here’s an example of what this step might look like, using the same well-known passage of Vergil:

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul ‘o miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
creditis avectos hostis? aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? sic notus Ulixes?
aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi,
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.’

First there before all with a great (abl. sing. f.) accompanying, Laocoon burning ran from the high arch and from afar (said) “Miserable men, what great insanity is this, citizens? (Masc acc. pl.) (do you believe? abl. masc. pl.?) enemies? Or do you think any gifts are lacking tricks of Greeks? Thus (masc. nom. sg.) Ulixes? Or in this wood they are hiding included Achivi or this machine is (fem. nom. sg.) into our walls, (fem. nom. sg. fut. act. pple.) homes and will come above the city, or some mistake hides; do not believe the horse, Teucrians. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks and (men) bearing gifts.”

For those of you keeping score at home, yes, there are some inelegant and even incorrect parts of this translation. See Tip #1 – I’m trying to model how someone who’s never read the Aeneid might approach this passage.

You may want to try 3b more than once if you have time.

3c) For your final pass-through, clean up the translation by trying to guess the meaning of words either as they appear from context or based on a close English derivative. This may yield some clunky translations, but again – it’s a sight.

Here’s the final example based on our passage:

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul ‘o miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
creditis avectos hostis? aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? sic notus Ulixes?
aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi,
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.’

First there before all with a great (abl. sing. f.) accompanying, Laocoon burning ran from the high arch and from afar (said) “Miserable men, what great insanity is this, citizens? Do you believe that the enemies have been (masc. acc. pl) away? Or do you think any gifts are lacking tricks of Greeks? Thus notable Ulixes? Or in this wood included Achivi are hidden or this machine is fabricated into our walls, about to inspect homes and about to come above the city, or some mistake hides; do not believe the horse, Teucrians. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks and (men) bearing gifts.”

This translation is not perfect. It’s not complete. But for a sight translation without a dictionary, it shows competence. Competence should be your minimum goal, and is measurable at different levels for different students. If a second-year Latin student could do this, it would be amazing. An advanced doctoral student at this level might cause some concern.

Tip #4: Watch your time! Different institutions have different goals and time limits for your sight exam. Depending on how much time you have, you might need to abandon some of the steps we’ve outlined.

Tip #5: Don’t be upset if you can’t translate your passage very well. A good translation at sight requires you to have a strong foundation in the vocabulary and sometimes even the specific idioms of the author (and, in Greek, you need to know the dialect). Even professional classicists sometimes struggle with unfamiliar texts! And when you don’t have a dictionary, even if you completely understand the grammar, you won’t be able to make much of the text. Translation is the ability to communicate the meaning of an ancient in your language. Imagine being on the receiving end of Caesar [verb] Vercingetorix [adjective] with [adjective, participle, noun] after [noun, having been verbed]: as a reader, you might be able to see that the translator knows the grammar, but you’ll have no idea what the sentence is trying to convey.

Final thoughts: as we’ve said before, it’s really important for you to know your forms. Once you have them down, learning vocabulary is important. Make friends with your dictionary and read widely. The more familiar you are with a wide range of texts, the less likely it is that you’ll be stumped when you’re faced with a new one.


 

~J+M.

Thanks to Gwynaeth for encouraging this post!

 

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