Silicon Chips and Seaweed: The Modern University Orator

George Herbert held the position of University Orator at Cambridge. His job was to provide Latin speeches for important academic occasions. These were in Latin, because Latin was the main language of academia at the time. There is still a University Orator, and the Orator's speeches are still in Latin, but Latin is no longer the language of university life. Raphael Lyne looks at the published orations of one of the most recent university orators, and thinks about the value they still have.

Speeches and Ceremonies

Anthony Bowen, former University Orator of Cambridge and fellow of Jesus College.

Cambridge awards thousands of degrees to people when have finished their studies. It also awards a few Honorary Degrees each year to people who have not. These are people of great distinction in many different fields, whom the university wants to honour, and with whom it wants to associate itself. A formal ceremony is held in the Senate House, and for each person there is a performance by the university orator. These speeches, all specially written in Latin, take about 3-4 minutes to deliver as a rule. Most people present follow an English translation, but a few people do their best to appreciate all the wit and thought that goes into the Latin. Even when it's not understood, lots of people find that Latin sounds grand and formal. Anthony Bowen was Orator of the University from 1993 to 2007, and has published a selection of his work in Cambridge Orations 1993-2007 (Cambridge University Press, 2008). One of the most interesting things about them is the way that the Latin language, fitted most naturally for describing the world before about 1600, and most at home a long time before that, is adapted to fit modern circumstances. Looking at how this works can tell us something, I think, about how the university brings together the old and the new.

A good example is the oration for Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, who was honoured by eight universities in a single ceremony at Buckingham Palace. There was not time for every institution to do all its usual things, so it is a little shorter than most. As always the challenge was to encapsulate why the accolade is deserved, in words that might not seem to have been designed to discuss quite these particular achievements. The speech finds ingenious but also serious ways of honouring its subject. Mandela is depicted as an epic hero in the classical style: like , the founder of Rome, he is a kind of exile. Unlike Aeneas, who left Troy and wandered the world, Mandela was an exile in his own land. There are other references to classical poetry - the phrase 'siliquas panemque secundum', translated as 'husks' (literally it means 'husks and second-class bread'), comes from . As well as exploring how Mandela might be compared to classical models, the speech also attends closely to the historical man and his special achievements. His lack of hatred, and a key word 'iucundum' (translated as 'charm') towards the end, fill out the impression of Mandela's unusual form of political heroism.

Towards the end of the speech there are some witty points that do not entirely cross between languages. The description of Mandela's colourful shirts, compared to Joseph's rainbow coat in the Bible (which links him to another hero of a captive people), tries to capture his human side. This comes after two sets of puns that work differently in English and Latin. In the latter, he is seen gathering 'algam' (seaweed) 'inter phocas' (among seals): the name of Mandela's prison, Robben Island, is Dutch in origin, and it means 'Seal Island'. And the prisoners did indeed gather seaweed. In contrast with this, he is now taking up the robe ('togas') of academia. In English there is a pun on weed - the seaweed of prison is replaced by academic 'weeds', an old word for clothes. This speech is typical of the way Bowen uses the Latin language to record and praise the achievements of great people, sometimes by noting special qualities that don't translate easily.

The university orator's Latin orations make sense within the conservative traditions that govern the conferral of honorary degrees in Cambridge.

Untranslatable Things

The challenge for the Latin language is obviously even greater when things that post-date the heyday of Latin - especially scientific discoveries - are the subject. This causes Bowen to come up with innovative solutions. Sometimes a word can just slip into Latin as if it was meant to be there. Sometimes a Latin word describing something similar will do. Sometimes a strange paraphrase is required. So the word for a silicon chip, a necessary one in an oration for Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, is 'assula', which means in Latin actually means a chip, but a wood chip, or splinter (p. 62). Physicist Nevill Mott is credited with the establishment of the 'T¼ law, called the law of variable range hopping', which helps explain the movement of electrons. In Latin this becomes 'legem... quae [that law which] T ad quartam vocatur [is called T¼]... saltandi pede uno [by jumping on one foot, i.e hopping] quousque expediat [far enough to get free]' (p. 64). As someone who knows Latin, I think I can detect self-conscious humour here as the words get a bit contorted, but I can also see a serious try at capturing modern discoveries in Latin, the language of inscriptions and monuments.

It is not only in the realm of science that the Latin language is stretched by the orator's subjects. The opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa is descended from a Maori chieftain, we hear. The Romans had no idea New Zealand existed, so there is no true Latin word for Maori; however it actually adapts well, and she becomes a descendant of 'dux Maororum' (literally, a chief of the Maoris, p. 88). The title of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (a novel by Muriel Spark, and a film starring Maggie Smith, who is the subject of the speech) becomes Aetatis Brodianae Flos - literally The Flower [flos, flower, can also mean 'prime'] of Brodie's Life [perhaps more literally, 'age']. David Hare's play Stuff Happens, which doesn't sound very Latin, becomes 'Fit Quod Fit' (literally, 'what happens, happens').

The speeches include Latin poetry as well as prose, including translations of T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare (for example in the oration for playwright Tom Stoppard, p. 82). There are original mock-heroic poems ingeniously discussing Aaron Klug's discoveries in molecular biology, including the virus that causes warts (p. 50). The oration in praise of Gurdev Singh Khush, pioneering plant scientist with a special interest in rice-growing, starts with the old rhyme wondering 'do you or I or anyone know / how oats, peas, beans, and barley grow?' (p. 44-5). The tone throughout is ceremonial and serious - these are major achievements being described. But there is also lightness, humour, and a sense that the oration is a relic of the past, to be treated with affection.

Past and Present

Bowen's orations don't just describe; they also evaluate, as far as they can, the achievement of the people being honoured. Sometimes they do this by comparing new things with old, as in the case of Edward Witten, a physicist who has done pioneering work on superstring theory (which aims to describe how particles and matter and energy come into being):

sed fila quid faciunt? uibrantur, ita ut ex uibrationibus uis tota generetur qua geruntur omnes res; qua ratione probate, quattuor illae potestates forsitan ad unam tandem redactae sint, mittaturque harmonia illa caelestis quam posuere Pythagoras Platoque.

What do the strings do? They vibrate, and from their vibrations all the energy that works the world is generated. If the theory is established, perhaps at last the four forces of modern physics will be unified in one theory, and that music of the spheres will be released which Pythagoras and Plato once imagined. (pp. 104-5)

Here the cutting edge of modern physics is compared to an ancient Greek idea - the music of the heavenly spheres. The suggestion seems neither too serious nor too humorous: it is a friendly gesture between arts and science, and between ancient and modern. Something similar happens when Bowen summarises the achievement of Elias Corey, a molecular chemist. The orator stands back and says that all the complex processes outlined by Corey remind him of bees at work (p. 22). In doing so, he is not just being descriptive and familiar; he is also tapping into a long tradition, founded in the classical world and featured in its poetry, of comparing natural phenomena, but also human societies, to bees.

There are other examples of this wish to recognise that the old and the new have things in common. Marking the achievements of Bridget Riley, one of the foremost living abstract artists, Bowen starts by describing the classical architecture of the Senate House in Cambridge, where honorary degrees are conferred (p. 70). The point is to show that all eras of art have valued the shapes and forms suggested by light. The sculptor Antony Gormley, creator of 'The Angel of the North' ('septentrionalis angelus') is credited with reviving a tradition of statue-making that goes all the way back to the Romans and Greeks (p. 30). Cambridge is an ancient university at the cutting edge of study and research. It looks back to the lessons of the past while it participates in modern life. That is a key aspiration of the university, one that lots of people try in different ways to fulfil. The orator's work is more a part of this than I'd expected when I set out to look at it.<-->

The hero of Virgil's Aeneid, the greatest Roman epic poem. It tells the story of his exile from Troy, his tragic love for the Carthaginian queen Dido, and the way he conquered Italy.
A Roman poet, and a contemporary of Virgil. He wrote several collections of short poems - Odes, Satires, Epistles (letters), and Epodes. These cover a range of topics from philosophy to politics to social life and its pleasures.

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