Owen, Mathew - Prose Unseens for A-Level Latin

Owen, Mathew - Prose Unseens for A-Level Latin Bloomsbury Pb pp336 9781474269162 £14.99

The unseen is an essential part of Classics education: the twenty or so lines of prose or verse given to the student to translate into their first language.  It is a valued training in reasoning, language skills, decision-making and creativity.  It is given names that are often not used elsewhere: version in French, proefvertaling in Dutch, brano in Italian.  Unseen in English refers to the distinction between this language exercise and the tests given on seen texts, that is to say texts read in class at length.  It is used in this context only: “I’ve got a Latin unseen to do tonight”. The challenge of the exercise depends on the unexpected nature of the extract, where the student has to work out the context, and then translate the sense of the text into a coherent version in their first language.  Help may be given in the form of notes and explanations particularly of proper nouns which help to place the context (if the student has sufficient background knowledge for this to be effective).  Some traditions allow the student to use a dictionary during the test; others provide a list of words to be learnt beforehand with help given in the form of notes and glosses of words not on the list.  I have collections of unseens on my shelves dating back to the nineteenth century which can still be useful as sources for exercises, the format having changed so little.  Mathew Owen’s new book of unseens continues the old tradition.  It is aimed at A-Level students: those preparing the final school-leaving certificate for entrance to university.  It is therefore set at an advanced level, requiring at least five years of Latin learning and consists of passages from prose historical authors.  The passages are all between 15 and 20 lines long, and are authentic with the reference to the original text, but have been selected and adapted by the omission of difficult sections.  The texts come with a lot of back up material such as vocabulary lists, background to the history, sketches of the authors used, stylistic comments and grammatical summaries.  Part I has only passages from Livy for translation; Part II offers extracts from a variety of authors with comprehension questions attached which test the understanding of the text, with some grammar questions and short sections for translation.  The underlying theme is therefore historical: all the passages in Part II are either from historical writers or reflect some aspect of history from the fall of the republic to the empire at the time of Pliny the Younger.  Summaries of historical periods are included among the unseens to orientate those using the book, but it would take considerable time and effort to work through the whole volume systematically.  Teachers are more likely to choose selected passages which they think will work for their particular classes.  Given the high quality of the presentation and the broad extent of the selections (40 passages in each of the parts), this book is a valuable resource of Latin texts which would require minimal adaptation for those working in languages other than English in Part I.  Part II with its complex comprehension questions would require more adaptation, but overall a highly recommended addition to a Classics school resource library.



John Bulwer