Juan Latino.

Via this University of North Carolina Library press release I learn about a remarkable individual:

A free public celebration on March 20 will mark the acquisition of a book of Latin poetry published in 1573 by Juan Latino. Scholars have described Latino as the first person of sub-Saharan African descent to publish a book of poems in a Western language. […]

Latino was born around 1518 in either Africa or Spain. He was a slave in a noble Spanish household, serving as a page to the family’s son. While accompanying the young duke to classes, Latino learned Latin and Greek. He eventually earned his freedom and became a professor of Latin grammar in Granada. He came to use the surname Latino or Latinus, reflecting his mastery of the Latin language.

Latino’s book has an especially lengthy title […] The phrases describe its three parts: epigrams, or short verses, dedicated to King Philip of Spain on the birth of Prince Ferdinand; a book of verse regarding the king and Pope Pius V; and the “Austriad,” a long poem on the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.

The Hanes Foundation gift also includes a copy of Latino’s second book, along with ten scholarly books about Latino’s life and work.

I’ve elided the bit after “lengthy title” because they cite it with a bunch of ellipses, which is a shame. Here’s the full title, in all its glory:

Ad Catholicum pariter et invictissimum Philippum dei gratia hispaniarum Regem, de foelicissima serenissimi Ferdinandi Principis navitate, epigrammatum liber.

Deque Sanctissimi Pii Quinti Romanae Ecclesiae Pontificis summi, rebus, & affectibus erga Phillipum regem Christianissimum, Liber unus.

Austrias Carmen, de Excellentissimi Domini D. Ioannis ab Austria, Caroli Quinti filii, ac Philippi invictissimi fratis, re benè gesta, in victoria mirabili eiusdem Philippi adversus perfidos Turcas parta, Ad Illustrissimum, pariter & Reverendissimum D. D. Petrum à Deza Praesidem, ac pro Philippo militiae praefectû. Per Magistrum Ioannem Latinum Garnatae studiosae adolescentiae moderatorem. Libri duo.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. It’s interesting to hear a story about a slave accompanying his master to lessons and perhaps learning more than the master did. I suspect there are some other similar stories out there.

    People criticize Mary Shelley for having Frankenstein’s monster acquire an education by overhearing children having lessons, but isn’t this something like that? She was very interested in the topic of slavery, to the point of refusing to eat sugar because in her day all sugar was produced by slaves. I wonder if she might have been influenced by some similar story.

    Juan Latino seems like a remarkable person. I don’t know how interesting his works are. It sounds like he learned the art of flattering the king, which might be a good thing in his situation, but not necessarily the best for enduring literary fame. But still he must have been trying to make his way, and done very well considering his situation.

    I wonder how much biographical information is known about him?

  2. David Marjanović says



  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    It’s interesting to hear a story about a slave accompanying his master to lessons and perhaps learning more than the master did. I suspect there are some other similar stories out there.

    One hears that about whipping boys, who got whipped whenever the rich man’s son made a mistake, with the consequence that the whipping boy learned the lesson much better than the rich man’s son did.

  4. A common theme of Georgian biographies and the OUP’s now less exorbitantly priced in paperback Women Latin Poets is a girl learning Latin through her brother’s lessons. (Not that the life of an upper-middle-class young woman is directly comparable to Latino’s.) In happy cases like Anna Maria van Schurman, the father relents and she goes on to learn Greek, Hebrew and more.

  5. Georgian biographies

    At first I thought this meant biographies of people from Georgia in Asia (presumably written in Georgian). Then I thought it meant ditto in America. Only then did I realize that it meant biographies written during the reigns of George I–IV (1714-1830), sometimes extended to the reign of William IV (1830-37).


    (No, the same ambiguity would be present in Lojban. Of course you can spell out your meaning in Lojban as in English, but compounding and proper names are two of the places where Lojban semantics are explicitly ambiguous.)

  6. I had the same triple take!

  7. Trond Engen says

    So did I.

  8. Clearly I should have written Victorian, which probably still works for Mary Lamb, if not Fanny Burney.

  9. Murasaki Shikibu apparently learnt Chinese through her brother’s lessons. From Wikipedia:

    Chinese was taught to Murasaki’s brother as preparation for a career in government, and during her childhood, living in her father’s household, she learned and became proficient in classical Chinese. In her diary she wrote, “When my brother … was a young boy learning the Chinese classics, I was in the habit of listening to him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to understand and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: ‘Just my luck,’ he would say, ‘What a pity she was not born a man!'”

  10. Man, I’ve really got to read Genji. (I’ve got both the Waley and Seidensticker versions, so I guess I’ll read them side by side, maybe a chapter at a time.)

  11. I read the Waley version in my youth. It’s a product of its time and very readable as English, although that is apparently at the expense of accuracy.

    I bought the Seidensticker version and read a small part of it but found it like much of Seidensticker’s translation: flat and monotonous. He always sounds like Seidensticker, whether translating Murasaki, Michitsuna’s Mother, Tanizaki, Kawabata, or Mishima. He uses short sentences and rather ordinary vocabulary choices. (You can tell I am no fan of Seidensticker’s.)

    The Royall Tyler translation seems to have steered somewhere between these two, and from what I’ve seen of it is a better translation. At least he reproduces the long flowing sentences and the poetry of the original.

    But there is now, of course, a new version, by Dennis Washburn.

    Ian Buruma’s article in the New Yorker, entitled The Sensualist. What makes “The Tale of Genji” so seductive is worth reading, not least because it is by Buruma.

    He does a few comparisons of the four versions. For example:

    A few samples reveal the differences. In Chapter 4, titled “Yugao,” Genji comes across a run-down house, the abode of a young woman he is about to seduce. Waley describes the entrance like this: “There was a wattled fence over which some ivy-like creeper spread its cool green leaves, and among the leaves were white flowers with petals half-unfolded like the lips of people smiling at their own thoughts.” Seidensticker: “A pleasantly green vine was climbing a board wall. The white flowers, he thought, had a rather self-satisfied look about them.” Tyler: “A bright green vine, its white flowers smiling to themselves, was clambering merrily over what looked like a board fence.” Washburn: “A pleasant-looking green vine was creeping luxuriantly up a horizontal trellis, which resembled a board fence. White flowers were blooming on the vine, looking extremely self-satisfied and apparently without a care in the world.”
    One can see why many admirers of “Genji” prefer Waley. Seidensticker can sound too cut-and-dried, while Washburn errs on the side of wordiness.

    Or this:

    Another woman—a little older—complains of Genji’s “lewd persistence.” This woman—who is commonly assumed to be Genji’s own daughter, but who was in fact born to a mistress whom Genji shared with his best friend and rival—is pursued by a man who, in Washburn’s rendering, “had initiated sexual intimacies with her.” As a result, Genji, to his deep regret, cannot stop her from marrying. Seidensticker’s Genji is just “sorry that she had done as she had.” And in Tyler’s version Genji is “annoyed and disappointed, but it was too late now.”
    Perhaps Washburn comes closest to what is really meant. Yet Seidensticker and Tyler seem to be closer in spirit to the original text. Washburn’s scholarship is certainly profound, and he tells us a great deal more in his footnotes than Seidensticker does. But in the actual text he explains a little too much. And despite his claims that he tried to “replicate the general rhythms” of Murasaki’s prose style, too many words and phrases, such as “mind-set,” “scenarios,” and “enough already,” take us too far away from Genji’s time.

  12. This is a pre-Washburn comparison of the three translations at that time, by Hiroaki Saito in The Japan Times:

    So, let us look at the passage Tanizaki quoted to make his case. It occurs at the start of the “Suma” chapter. Prince Genji, the protagonist of the story, decides to exile himself to a remote coastal village because of the troubles he has created for himself in the Capital (Kyoto). Here’s how Waley imagined Murasaki would have written in English:

    “There was Suma. It might not be such a bad place to choose. There had indeed once been some houses there; but it was now a long way to the nearest village and the coast wore a very deserted aspect. Apart from a few fishermen’s huts there was not anywhere a sign of life. This did not matter, for a thickly populated, noisy place was not at all what he wanted; but even Suma was a terribly long way from the Capital, and the prospect of being separated from all those whose society he liked best was not at all inviting. His life hitherto had been one long series of disasters. As for the future, it did not bear thinking of! Clearly the world held in store for him nothing but disappointment and vexation.”

    Elegant and smooth Waley certainly is. But he is also extravagant. How much so becomes immediately clear when you put this side by side with Seidensticker’s rendition.

    “He thought of the Suma coast. People of worth had once lived there, he was told, but now it was deserted save for the huts of fishermen, and even they were few. The alternative was worse, to go on living this public life, so to speak, with people streaming in and out of his house. Yet he would have to leave, and affairs at court would continue to be much on his mind if he did leave. This irresolution was making life difficult for his people. Unsettling thoughts of the past and the future chased one another through his mind.”

    As Tanizaki noted, Murasaki doesn’t say anything like “It (Suma) might not be such a bad place to choose,” and Seidensticker doesn’t, either. When it comes to something like “the prospect of being separated from all those whose society he liked best was not at all inviting,” the only thing the original says is “furusato obotsukanakarubeki” (“the hometown would worry him”). Even though Seidensticker’s translation of this sentence, “affairs at court would continue to be much on his mind if he did leave,” may not be too “economical of words” (his characterization of Murasaki’s style), altogether he uses a quarter less words than Waley in re-creating in English what Murasaki describes.

    Little wonder Tanizaki pointedly noted that Waley may add “seimitsu” (“precision”), but in so doing loses “anji” (“suggestiveness”).

    So, how does our third English translator, Royall Tyler, handle the same passage?

    “There was Suma, yes, but while someone had lived there long ago, he gathered that the place was now extremely isolated and that there was hardly a fisherman’s hut to be seen there — not that he can have wished to live among milling crowds. On the other hand, merely being away from the City would make him worry about home. His mind was in undignified confusion. He reflected at length on what was past and what was yet to come, and the effort brought many sorrows to mind.”

  13. Thanks, those are useful comparisons.


  1. […] Hat notes the publication of a new collection of the poems of Juan Latino, an African slave in 16th century […]

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