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Classical Studies Students Shine at National Greek and Latin Translation Competitions

Translation is a difficult but rewarding task. These students showed their exceptional understanding of ancient language and culture in Greek and Latin translation contests.

This June, three BYU Classical studies students placed in the annual Maurine Dallas Watkins Greek and Latin Translation contest, which is run by the Eta Sigma Phi Honorary Society for Classical Studies at St. Olaf College. Two of those same students also received the Edward Phinney Book Prize for receiving a perfect score on the College Greek Exam. These competitions involve advanced undergraduate Classics students from around the nation competing in translation and language skills.

At the Maurine Dallas Watkins contest, Michael Kerr took first overall in Intermediate Greek, Jackson Abhau took second overall in Koine Greek, and Madeleine Staples took third overall in Intermediate Latin. Kerr also won the Phinney prize in 2020, and Staples took home the same prize this year.

Both exams are difficult. They require students to choose the best or most accurate translation from among several options, or to craft a translation that beats the competition.

These students’ success is backed by a long tradition of BYU Classical studies students performing well in national competitions, even when going up against schools with prestigious Classical Studies programs such as Baylor University and Hillsdale College.

Ancient Greek and Latin students and scholars thrive off of the challenge of translation. Staples explains that “Preparing for translation is learning about ancient history and ancient cultures. Understanding the way they wrote and understanding how they wrote can help explain the writing itself.”

Kerr adds, “It works my brain. I love how it feels, to think about these things.”

Many people refer to Ancient Greek and Latin as “dead” languages, but in the Classical Studies program, they prefer the term “immortal.” It’s competitions like these that help remind people of the vitality of these languages and the importance of translating ancient texts.

Professor Roger Macfarlane (Comparative Arts & Letters) notes, “The essence of the humanities is looking at the world through the eyes of other people; if they shared their observations, we ought to be able to take advantage of them.” He continued, “I'd like to believe that [ancient texts and expressions are] worth exploring and retaining and learning from even now. So, we're busy doing that here in our department.”