• Video

Do You Need to Be a Classicist to Understand Roman Law?

Does the language barrier prevent an English speaker from understanding the Roman Law? Professor Richard Epstein explores how conflicting translations can actually help a scholar discern meaning in a text. The translation of a single word can often have broad implications, but you don’t have to be a classicist to survey the various alternatives proposed by scholars. https://youtube.com/watch?v=p_Z2Zrq2E3k


One of the questions that you always have to worry about when you're dealing with ancient system is whether or not the entry fee that you have to pay if you don't know the local language is sufficient to block you from understanding the subject. The answer to that question is yes and no, depending on the kind of inquirer. Language has this incredible kind of reinforcement in structure that only a native speaker can start to get. So if that's what your task is, then you can't do it. On the other hand, if what your task is is to understand the fundamental relationships that exist, this is the way in which you try to do it. What you do is you take the Roman text and you put it next to the English translation and if you're peculiarly energetic you put it next to two or even three English translations and then start to see the way in which they agree or disagree with one another. All of a sudden, when you start to see the disagreements, it turns out that these are not on the really difficult constructions or linguistic terms that are used in the language; they're on the most simple terms that are imaginable and people could constantly get them wrong because they mistranslate them. Orson, who is a great Latinist, wrote a book which he called Negligence in Civil Law, and this was about the tort system. He picked that particular title, writing in 1950, because negligence was thought in English jurisprudence at the time to be the universal sovereign for all cases whether they involved aggression against strangers or harms that arose out of consensual arrangements like occupiers' liability, medical malpractice, product viability, kind of an intermediate case. But it turns out that that is just not the correct term. So you go start looking at things and the Romans are constantly using the term "culpa" in saying that somebody is negligent? No, what culpa means in English is culpable. Then the question is, "What does culpable mean in English?" Well, it means blameworthy in some sense or another. If you mistranslate a simple word, what you're doing is you're taking an implicit universalistic view which is very popular today but is not necessarily in accordance with the Roman text. So the reason you give people both the Latin and the English is you want to make sure that they see these deviations.

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