Translate "Maxime, si tu vis, cupio contendere tecum"?
December 16, 2007 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Maxime, si tu vis, cupio contendere tecum. Need help translating this "detestable Latin hexameter" (well, that's what the 1911 Britannica called it, anyway).

I'm pretty sure it's some kind of threat from James MacPherson to Samuel Johnson over the Ossian affair, but the online translators I've tried are giving me gibberish.
posted by mediareport to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think Britannica is quoting Lord Macaulay's biography of Samuel Johnson, but that doesn't help much
posted by hattifattener at 11:25 AM on December 16, 2007

Best answer: Perhaps I'm missing some nuance, but it's simply "Maximus (or "Greatest one"), if you want, I desire to compete with you." I don't see what's "detestable" about it.
posted by Bromius at 11:46 AM on December 16, 2007

Thank you for these wonderful links, mediareport; I hadn't realized

Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me.

came from a letter to MacPherson. It's one of my favorites of Johnson's phrases, and I've even been able to use variations on it to good effect myself on a couple of occasions.

I see from that letter and another of your links that MacPherson tried his hand at translating the Iliad. I imagine he must have known the Aeneid-- perhaps he considered translating it, as well. Have you looked there to see whether your phrase might not be a more or less faithfully rendered allusion?

I think it's a pity and one of Johnson's great failings that he did not see MacPherson as a talented young writer he could have fostered (as no one fostered him, to his great cost-- and MacPherson clearly yearned for it, even tried clumsily to provoke him into it, it looks like), but I have a feeling MacPherson's one unforgivable sin was to have a natural gift for storytelling, only the lack of which bars Johnson from our Pantheon.
posted by jamjam at 12:41 PM on December 16, 2007

Using that same Google Book search, see:

Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays - Page 211
by Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay - 1862

Something about a scotchman vindicating scotch learning. Apparently it wasn't MacPherson since the threat he made to Johnson is described on the previous page.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 1:14 PM on December 16, 2007

Best answer: Bromius has it, except that maxime is not a person's name but an adverb meaning 'to the greatest extent possible.' So the line means (amping the snark quotient a bit) 'I really, really desire to contend with you. If you want to, that is.' I think it's called "detestable" because it doesn't read at all like poetry, just a cobbled-together hexameter made of very prosaic bits. A comparable pentameter in English would be, say,

I'd really like to fight you, if you want.

Not exactly Shakespeare.
posted by languagehat at 1:51 PM on December 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: maxime is not a person's name but an adverb meaning 'to the greatest extent possible.'

It's also the vocative case of Maximus, a fairly common cognomen, and I think that's how it's being used here.

No Roman would ever have uttered that sentence; it's an overly direct translation of an English sentence, formed according to rules of English grammar.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:15 PM on December 16, 2007

I respectfully disagree, unless you can show convincing evidence that someone named Maximus is involved here. It is an extremely common adverb, and Occam's razor applies.
posted by languagehat at 3:33 PM on December 16, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks y'all. It seems pretty straightforward, so I'm not sure why I was getting things like "Greatly, if you wish you force, to desire to assert tecum" from the free online translators I tried. Except that free online translators suck, maybe.

What part of the translation is "tecum," anyway?

As lucia__is__dada points out, on the page previous to the one I linked, there's a statement that Macpherson "threatened to take vengeance with a cane." I kind of figured the Scotsman who "defied him to the combat" with the Latin phrase would refer to the same episode, but I guess the Latin doesn't really decide that either way.

Something about a scotchman vindicating scotch learning.

I thought the two statements might be related because one of the ways Johnson attacked Macpherson's Ossian stuff was by snootily attacking the very idea that any Scot had ever produced something like literature, which seems to have been just as obnoxiously wrong, given the rich oral tradition, as Macpherson trying to pass off the poems as simple translations. If anyone cares, this pdf of an 1896 NYT article is pretty interesting, and Ossian showed up in the blue years ago, too.

Thanks again for the help.
posted by mediareport at 4:30 PM on December 16, 2007

What part of the translation is "tecum," anyway?

"tecum" is "with you"
posted by rmless at 5:30 PM on December 16, 2007

Languagehat, if maxime were an adverb, wouldn't the ultimate be long, thus not fitting in the hexameter?
posted by Bromius at 9:55 AM on December 17, 2007

Ooh, good point—my Latinity is rusty, so I didn't think of that. That removes Occam's razor but, I would say, leaves the question in delicate balance: on the one hand, a version that makes the meter work but addresses the verse to a mysterious Maximus, on the other a version that makes sense semantically but violates the meter. Noting that the verse was called "detestable," I still plump for my version, but meekly and with little confidence.
posted by languagehat at 2:27 PM on December 17, 2007

Best answer: Couldn't it simply be an ironic form of address? "Oh greatest one...."?
posted by Bromius at 3:26 PM on December 17, 2007

That's how I read it, Bromius; I didn't mean to suggest that MacPherson really thought Samuel Johnson's cognomen was Maximus.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:07 AM on December 18, 2007

I'd be cautious about accepting the line as genuine. Fiona Stafford, in her authoritative account of the Johnson/Macpherson quarrel, makes no mention of 'maxime, si tu vis ..' and says that Macpherson's threatening letter to Johnson (from which the line allegedly comes) 'survives only in the anecdotes of those spectators who revelled in the dispute'. (See Fiona Stafford, 'Dr Johnson and the Ruffian: new evidence in the dispute between Samuel Johnson and James Macpherson', Notes and Queries, new series, 36: 1 (March 1989), pp 70-77.)

The line seems intended to support the Johnsonian side in the dispute: i.e. it gives the impression of Macpherson as an impudent young upstart who doesn't know his Latin. (I'm with languagehat on this one: I think 'maxime' is an emphatic 'very much', and the false quantity is part of the point of the story.) Stafford shows that this isn't entirely true: Macpherson seems to have behaved with some dignity, and William Strahan (Johnson's printer), who acted as an intermediary between the two men, seems to have felt that Johnson had gone too far and that Macpherson was owed an apology.
posted by verstegan at 8:46 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm backing up maxime as, meaning "Greatest one" in the vocative. As to whether it is ironic or not I can't say. But having read a fair amount of Ovid and Virgil, Maxime used in this way is pretty common, especially when addressing the gods.
posted by vegetableagony at 1:22 PM on December 27, 2007

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