Downer Refuses to Sing for His Supper
South African lawyers, schooled in the Roman Dutch legal tradition, are fond of tossing off the odd Latin phrase in court.
But they are seldom challenged by a judge on the quality of their Latin -- as happened to prosecutor Billy Downer at the beginning of the second week of the Schabir Shaik trial.
Downer, a senior counsel and former Rhodes scholar, last week launched his presentation of the State's case with the apt opening line from the Roman poet Virgil's epic, the Aeneid: Arma virumque cano.
Downer translated this as "I tell of arms and man", but at the start of business on Monday, Judge Hillary Squires, who has already shown he has a sense of humour, asked Downer gravely whether the "cano" was not better translated as "sing".
Downer defended himself valiantly, arguing that while he was aware "sing" was the literal meaning, he was using the word poetically.
One would struggle, he said, to find "sing" in many translations.
"I'm glad to find an acquaintance with the classics in the law enforcement agencies," said Squires with a smile. "You don't want to amend?"
"I'm sticking by my guns this time," said Downer.
He also pointed out to the judge that some members of the media had last week identified Virgil as a Greek, rather than Roman.
Rhodes University classicist John Jackson told Sapa "cano" did mean sing.
"But it's as poets sing: it can be taken in a fairly loose way. Literally it (the phrase) means 'Of arms and the man I sing'."
Of "tell", he said: "It'll do, but it's a bit colourless."
With acknowledgement to Sapa.