Building a New Cultural Bridge

CA students lay a path for Latin learners in China and beyond


Building a New Cultural Bridge 2As Julius Caesar’s army advanced through Gaul in the first century B.C.E, the Romans laid down roads and bridges on the march, paving supply lines for the empire. Classics teacher Elizabeth Penland ’89 likens the two-year labor of love some of her students undertook in translating a commentary on Caesar’s Gallic War into Mandarin to that ancient engineering feat. The text was the first resource for Chinese students of Latin to be released by Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC), which publishes Latin and Greek resources free of charge for public use.

Penland believes a classical education should not just be the mark of the elite. “Anyone should be able to study Latin,” she says. With its peer-reviewed, crowd-sourced approach, DCC is leading a charge to make the classics accessible to anyone with an internet connection. And despite an international trend of declining study of the classical humanities, thousands of students in China are learning Latin and ancient Greek.

Many high schools, colleges, and universities rely on DCC commentaries, as does Penland. By aggregating generations of contextual notes, they reveal “a chain of interpretation, of teaching, and of use,” she says. “They help the text feel more like a cultural object that many people have read.”

Penland was in the right place at the right time to get the CA translation project started. While attending the Conventiculum Dickinsoniense, an annual immersive oral Latin experience hosted by Dickinson College, in 2015, she talked with DCC project director Christopher Francese, who compiled the commentary. She mentioned the talented and passionate Latin students who were entering CA’s program as native Mandarin speakers with training in ancient Chinese. He had just prioritized the translation work on Caesar, because it is core literature for the Advanced Placement exam in Latin.

Once Penland had recruited students, Adam Bailey, head of modern and classical languages, and John Drew, assistant head of school and academic dean, offered their support. It seemed the perfect project to encourage research and independent thinking. Mandarin teacher Wenjun Kuai agreed to consult with students. “Wenjun is such a generous colleague and a wonderful teacher,” Penland says. “She did so much work on the Mandarin. The students had responsibility and a voice in how the project ran. Their group work was self-directed. It was a highly collaborative process, a model of linguistic research.”

Building a New Cultural Bridge 3

Building a New Cultural Bridge 1

Nora Zhou ’17 posing as a Roman Soldier at the Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent, England, and Ken Lin ’18 and Zhou in Oxford, during a spring 2016 “Roman Britain” trip that allowed CA students to see the impact of Caesar’s invasions on the British landscape.


The work took place entirely outside of class, and the students were supervised by a Chinese research editor assigned by DCC. In the first phase, Nora Zhou ’17 and Ken Lin ’18 oversaw the translation as student project leaders. Penland assembled groups of students, pairing English-Latin and Mandarin-English speakers. Some who knew both languages met in the middle. With Zhou and Lin, Rebecca Yang ’18, Helen Wu ’18, Jessica Ding ’17, Michael Qiu ’18, Ben Zide ’18, Anna Dibble ’18, and Lysie Jones ’18 all translated, and additional students provided project support. A friendly but intense competition emerged, thanks to weekly “brownie challenges” that earned baked goods from Penland. Lin, who completed numerous translations, says, “I’m not going to lie. It really motivated me.”

“They achieved something I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the like of. “It’s astounding to me what they did on their first effort.”

–Liz Penland ’89

By summer 2016, review began, with final edits arriving in the fall. Zide worked as an editorial assistant to Zhou and Lin. “He’s a fantastic classicist and did much of the coordinating and computing work to keep the project managed and formatted consistently,” Penland says. Working feverishly to meet a January 2017 deadline, the students completed the project on the first day of the Lunar New Year of the Rooster (and coincidentally, Lin’s birthday). The entire Latin program cheered on the project team. “They achieved something I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the like of,” Penland says. “It’s astounding to me what they did on their first effort.”

Very different linguistic structures make translating between Latin, English, and Mandarin challenging. Zhou explains that both Latin and Mandarin can be quite concise, but in different ways. The Romans used concrete, detailed descriptions, whereas the Chinese rely on metaphor. English is more similar to Latin — for example, the languages share the passive voice — than to Mandarin. For Lin, immersing himself in all three languages at once revealed commonalities across cultures. “It’s very easy to see the differences, but this allowed me to make connections,” he says.

“Nora has an astonishing literary sense, with multilayered, nuanced linguistic thoughts,” Penland says. “And Ken is a rock star. He’s on fire for classics.” Zhou is now studying chemistry and classics at UCLA. Lin interned in Rome this summer with the Paideia Institute, helping to write a textbook bridging ancient China and ancient Rome. He is independently organizing Mandarin speakers to translate English classics blogs.

“They’re all great students, tenacious, willing, motivated, and respectful of each other. Scholarly work is so often isolating, but those qualities will make them really successful later,” Penland says. Now students are asking Penland if they can tackle a Virgil commentary. “They got the bug,” she says. “That’s how intellectual passion happens.”

Caesar photo by Andrew Bossi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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