During my engagement as a professional translator, I translated zoological and botanical texts from Latin to English and from English to Latin. I presented the following paper at the Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association in January 2005. It describes the status of botanical Latin up to that time as well as my own experience in this area. Since then, the botanical requirement for Latin descriptions has been dropped; but the Latin is still relevant for older descriptions.
Unfortunately, in his zeal to assert the autonomy of botanical vis-à-vis Classical Latin, Stearn wrote a stern warning about Classicists: "Professors of the Classics are particularly liable to err through ignorance of botanical tradition." (p. 156). He offers examples like the word gynoecium, used by botanists for the female parts of a flower, suggesting that a classicist would translate this as “the women’s apartment”, thus conjuring a plant worthy of Edward Lear’s humorous drawings.
Actually, Stearn himself is a sort of botanical classicist. Botanical Latin, he tells us, was fully developed and ready for standardization by the Nineteenth century. And the exemplary descriptions which he provides were written largely by nineteenth-century botanists schooled in Latin who composed those descriptions themselves. A random sampling of twentieth-century botanical journals reveals errors which are sometimes seriously detrimental to precision and clarity. We often encounter an imprecise or misleading expression even within a fairly sound description, as, for example, in this description of a Peruvian pepper plant published in the American Journal of Botany in 1952:
And in some cases, the Latin simply breaks down, as in this excerpt from the Hokkaido Orchid Society Journal, posted on the Internet (n.b.: spelling errors are in the original).
Regardless of botanists’ right to independent usage, texts like these demonstrate that Stearn’s admonition to botanists to avoid Latinists was not timely. Neither was his encouragement of an unfortunate tendency to reduce the use of the nominative and ablative to a mindlessly applied formula and exclude all finite verbs. This can make descriptions easier to write, but nearly impossible to read; imagine the nested ablatives for ‘lateral branches long and red with secondary twigs with long hairs with terminal prongs and short hairs with red to orange tips’. (In Latin, there is no word for 'with', it is only signaled by the ablative.)
But Stearn’s botanical classicism also meant less attention to positive developments under way in his own century, as I learned, e.g.,from a study of dinoflagellates.
Dinoflagellates are aquatic microbes. Their life cycle includes a motile stage equipped with two flagella—one imparts a forward motion, while the other causes the organism to whirl on its axis; hence the dinos ('whirl'). There is also a resting stage or cyst. Living dinoflagellates are usually encountered in the motile stage, whereas the cysts, preserved as fossils, are more familiar to paleontologists.
Just as in the past, economic and technical factors stimulated research on these organisms in the late twentieth century. The living forms interest marine biologists because they cause red tides. Cysts interest paleontologists because they are useful in determining the ages of rocks and the nature of ancient environments, especially in oil exploration. And knowledge of dinoflagellate morphology was greatly enhanced by the electron microscope.
That is important, because of the astonishing variety and complexity of these organisms. The body wall, called the ‘theca’, bears a characteristic arrangement of plates around two belts or grooves in which the flagella insert, known as the ‘cingulum’ and the ‘sulcus’, and around the ‘apex’ and ‘antapex’, the two ends of the organism. The pattern of plates, or “tabulation”, is the main feature identifying different motile dinoflagellates, and scientists have elaborated complex rival systems of terms and symbols to designate the plates, as well as a descriptive terminology of hundreds of newly defined terms like cingulum (lit. 'girdle'), sulcus (lit. 'groove') and theca ('shell').
Cysts form inside the theca. Sometimes the cyst is fixed in place inside the theca by processes attached to the theca. When the theca dissolves, the processes remain on the naked cyst. In the past, many fossil cysts could not always be linked with the corresponding motile form; but progress was made when it was discovered that these processes were each attached to one plate, so that they reflect the thecal tabulation.
The cysts too exhibit a variety of forms. An important feature identifying different cysts is the hole through which the next stage in the life cycle emerges. This hole always has a characteristic shape and location—and bears the grandiloquent name of ‘the archeopyle’ (lit. ‘fossil gate’). Its lid, incidentally, is the ‘operculum’ (lit. 'coverlet').
Now, this twentieth-century expansion of dinoflagellate studies proceeded along parallel lines in different disciplines. In addition to the division between paleontologists and neontologists, there was another: Dinoflagellates have different modes of feeding; some are predators; but more than half use photosynthesis. Therefore, some authors followed the rules of zoological nomenclature, while others followed the botanical rules. This is critical as regards Latin, because only the botanical code still requires that any new group be identified by a brief differential description, or ‘diagnosis’, in Latin.
As knowledge advanced and fossil cysts could be increasingly correlated with their living motile forms, eventually taxonomists had to attempt a unified classification of living and fossil dinoflagellates. A Canadian research group led by Robert Fensome did so in A Classification of living and fossil Dinoflagellates, published in 1993; and to comply with the botanical rules, they included diagnoses which I translated into Latin.
This diagnosis of the Suborder Ceratiineae exemplifies my procedure.
Here is the diagnosis of the Subfamily Helgolandinioideae, with the original English.
Before I wrote these diagnoses, the author sent me a few pages of previous Latin descriptions of dinoflagellates. There were one or two errors, and some grammatically correct items with which I would not agree, as always happens among translators. Overall, however, the Latin seemed satisfactory.
It seems apparent that the scientists who created this terminology and published these diagnoses did not heed Stearn’s advice to avoid classicists, and that the classicists whom they consulted respected and studied the botanical idiom.
The Latin requirement, as you might have guessed, is controversial. The controversy should and will be resolved by the botanists; at a meeting in 2005 they decided to keep the requirement for now, but I suspect that will not be the end of the matter. Some critics of the requirement are Third World botanists, one of whom complains in an internet chat that Asians and Africans must seek the help of ‘some clergyman or taxonomist friend’ in a Western country. It is telling that he would turn to a clergyman rather than a classicist. But the most telling circumstance for me is the hundreds of technical terms still being created from Greek and Latin on subjects like the Dinoflagellates.
I wonder whether those who complain of the inconvenience of collaborating with a Latinist are aware of what may be lost. Anyone who has experienced the delight of undergraduates when the veil is lifted from their eyes by the opening lectures of a course in scientific terminology knows what I mean. The technical vocabulary of the life sciences is larger and plays a more important role in the understanding of these sciences than is the case, for example, in physics or computer science. And if the opaque acronyms of the latter discipline or the near baby-talk of the former (‘big bang’, ‘quarks’, etc.) should begin to proliferate in botany, it will not be convenient.
John D. Dodge, “Dinoflagellate Taxonomy” in: David L. Spector, Dinoflagellates (1984)
R.A. Fensome et al., A Classification of Living and Fossil Dinoflagellates, Micropaleontology Special Publication Number 7, Hanover Pennsylvania 1993
William T. Stearn, Botanical Latin, Devon 1978
Roberto Takase, Phragmipedium chapadense Campacci & Takase, Journal of Hokkaido Orchid Society vol. 28 (2000) Supplement no. 1
T.G. Yuncker, “New Species of Peruvian and Colombian Piperaceae”, American Journal of Botany vol. 39 (1952) 633 ff.
© James Jope 2006