Sunday, March 9, 2008

Verse: Filioli, adhuc modicum vobiscum sum.

I've been working very hard lately on the final version of the manuscript of the Aesop's Fables book I am preparing for Bolchazy-Carducci. It will contain 80 fables selected from Barlow's seventeenth-century Latin Aesop, along with a grammar commentary. I'm actually a grammar fanatic, and I'm really enjoying the process of writing up little grammar "blurbs" for each fable.

One of the grammar blurbs that I was working on today was a note about Latin diminutives, and I thought I would comment on a verse here which features a lovely diminutive:

(John 13:33) Filioli, adhuc modicum vobiscum sum.

Instead of using the standard filius, meaning son, the text reads filioli, from the diminutive filiolus. What we are dealing with here is a diminutive that does not convey smallness in size, but rather an endearing quality, an affectionate diminutive.

The Greek read τεκνία, a diminutive form from the standard word for "child" in Greek, τέκνον.

So, in both the Greek and the Latin, a diminutive is used, expressing affection. This poses a real problem for English, which is a language with many fewer diminutive forms than either Latin or Greek. For "child" you could argue that "kid" or "kiddo" is a diminutive form, and for "son," there is the word "sonny" - but this vocabulary is probably not going to be helpful in a translation of this Bible verse.

The King James translation, following the Greek, renders this line as, "Little children, yet a little while I am with you." The phrase "little children" does not, to my ears, convey the fully affectionate nature of the diminutive, and it also creates an awkward, and misleading, resonance between "little children" and "little while." A "little time" is smallness in terms of actual size/amount, with negative connotations; in Latin, a modicum is a limited amount of time in a negative sense. The sense of "little children," however, is meant to be endearing, and not literally about small children in the physical sense at all. Having both uses of the word "little," one literal (but tending to the negative) and one metaphorical (but entirely positive) side by side in the same verse is confusing at best.

The New International Version reads, "My children, I will be with you only a little longer." I think this is probably a good option; if there is no easy way to express the diminutive, it is better not to force it. The addition of "my" is also good; in both Greek and Latin the possessive pronouns are rarely used with family terms, but this usage is absolutely regular in English. I would go so far as to add "dear" and say "My dear children..." in order to convey more fully in English the positive emotional connotations of the endearing diminutive.

The free use of diminutives is one of the distinctive uses of both Latin and Greek; I'll try to post a few most verses here in the coming weeks that show other notable examples of Latin diminutives in the Biblical text.