Princeton’s Commencement offers reminders of the ancient Roman roots of education, from the Latin Salutatory Oration to the recognition of summa cum laude honors. It’s a legacy that also lives on in one of the University’s most anachronistic job titles: “Latin scribe,” a position typically held by a professor in the classics department. The scribe is responsible for overseeing Latin text used at Commencement — including writing translations for honorary-degree diplomas.
Classics professor emeritus Robert Kaster, who served as scribe for 18 years until his retirement last year, explained that the text on honorary diplomas is 99 percent “boilerplate.” But a space is reserved for a summary of the honoree’s specific accomplishments. It’s a single line: 84 characters, plus spaces, the words inked into place by a calligrapher.
When Kaster sat down to write these descriptions, he faced two difficulties. The first was condensing an honoree’s many accomplishments down to a third of the length of a tweet; the second, translating this crisp blurb into Latin. Often the translation required — as Kaster put it — stepping into a Roman’s shoes. “You have to think down to the core of what the English means and then think about how a Roman would have expressed the same idea,” he said.
Kaster said it’s usually easy to write for celebrities, because they often excel in “aspects of current culture that have their roots in Rome,” from athletics and politics to literature and art. To compose the Latin text for Sonia Sotomayor ’76, Kaster first wrote a description in English that praised the Supreme Court justice for “exercising her judicial wisdom to protect individual liberty and our civil society.” All these concepts, he said, “are absolutely as familiar in Latin as they are in English,” making translation relatively straightforward.
The more modern the role, the more difficult the assignment. Professor Denis Feeney, who succeeded Kaster as scribe, took on the task for this year’s six recipients. One, Ellen Ochoa, is a former astronaut — not a job description that was around in ancient Rome. Feeney came up with omne immensum navigando et rerum naturam aperiendo, or “journeying through space and opening up the world of nature.”
Kaster’s favorite description was for Muhammad Ali. The Latin text praised Ali’s ability in fluitando instar papilonis nec non et instar apis pungendo. In English: floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.