I'm a novice interested in the history of reading comprehension, and I'm trying to piece together an English translation of any or all of Erasmus's two-page letter "Qui sit modus repetendae lectionis" — a nice little guide to learning how to read from the early 1500s.

The piece is included (in the original Latin) in De conscribendis epistolis; it appears with some very minimal English translation (or paraphrase; I can't tell) on pages 223-226 of William Harrison Woodward's 1904 study Desiderius Erasmus concerning the aim and method of education.

Here is my attempt at the first paragraph. I have basically no Latin; using Wiktionary, my extremely naive pass at the first section

Quibusdam prima ac unica fere cura est statim ad verbum ediscere; quod equidem non probo, est enim tum magni laboris, tum fructus prope nullius. Quorsum enim attinet, psittaci more, verba non intellecta reddere? Commodiorem igitur viam accipe.

is as follows:

To some people the first and generally only concern is to begin immediately by memorizing the words; for my part, I don't approve of this, because it requires a great deal of work and yields basically no fruit. Why indeed stick to the manner of a parrot, yielding no comprehension of the words? It is more suitable to learn of the right way.

I don't know what "tum" is doing, and I'm not sure I've got the grammatical sense of the last two sentences right. I'm certain there's a more idiomatic translation of the final sentence.

Where have I made straight-up errors, and where have I made tolerable but sensible departures from the grammar?

  • Welcome to the site! It's always nice to see fellow mathematicians here. Would it make sense to ask three separate questions, one for each section? I think they are answerable separately and would be easier to handle one by one.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 28, 2018 at 20:18
  • @Joonas Ilmavirta: Hi Joonas, thanks! I'm happy to split up the questions if you think it'd be best, but I thought that since all come from the same source, it could be useful for translators to keep the context and flow of ideas in mind. (There are in fact 7 sections, not 3, but I've only had the time to attempt the first few.) Feb 28, 2018 at 22:26
  • 1
    I think it'd be best to split. The current question is a bit long. If each question has a link to the other two, I don't think context will be lost. It might make sense to tag them as translation-check since you already have good guesses. (These are just my opinions, though.)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 28, 2018 at 22:34
  • Great, I'll follow your advice! Feb 28, 2018 at 22:36
  • @Joonas Ilmavirta: I'm a little surprised there have been no answers. I know this isn't MSE, where a simple question would be answered in less than a minute, but can you suggest a reason for the neglect? I don't think it's that the Latin is very hard, but then I don't really know Latin. Mar 1, 2018 at 16:19

1 Answer 1


Your translation is very good, given your description of your Latin background. The tum–tum can be translated in a number of ways. Here is a fairly literal one:

…est enim tum magni laboris, tum fructus prope nullius.
…because as often as it is of much work, so often it is of almost no fruit.

It is common in Latin to say that something is of much work (magni laboris est), but it sounds archaic or weird in English. The same applies to being of little fruit. Your translations "requires a great deal of work" and "yields basically no fruit" is very idiomatic. The only missing component is the connective tum–tum. For most natural English, I would simply translate it as "but" instead of your "and". A more literal translation is a bit unwieldy, but I think "but" captures the essence of the original. (Your "and" is not wrong either. The Latin tum–tum doesn't have a clear unique interpretation here. As brianpck comments, it can be more or less the same as et–et here.)

I think you have slightly misunderstood the second sentence. I would translate quorsum attinet as "what does it reach", i.e. "what is the purpose/benefit of". The verb reddere has many possible meanings, but here I think it stands for "repeat" (lit. "to give back"). The participle intellecta means understood, so that verba non intellecta means "words which have not been understood". This leads to a new translation:

Quorsum enim attinet, psittaci more, verba non intellecta reddere?
For what does one gain by repeating like a parrot words which have not been understood?

The last sentence contains the imperative accipe, "take" or "accept" or similar. The comparative commodiorem ("more convenient") modifies the noun viam. An implicit "from me" is a possible addition (thanks brianpck):

Commodiorem igitur viam [a me] accipe.
Therefore take [from me] the more convenient way.

The overall story comes across accurately, but there were some missing details.


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