Chi Luu of JSTOR Daily reminds us that “Carpe Diem,” the phrase made famous by the Robin Williams character in Dead Poet’s Society, does not actually mean “sieze the day.” A more proper translation is “plucking the day.” Here is Luu:
Meanwhile, pedantic Latin teachers have been gritting their teeth trying not to sound their barbaric yawps because (surprise!) “carpe diem” doesn’t really mean “seize the day.” As Latin scholar Maria S. Marsilio points out, “carpe diem” is a horticultural metaphor that, particularly seen in the context of the poem, is more accurately translated as “plucking the day,” evoking the plucking and gathering of ripening fruits or flowers, enjoying a moment that is rooted in the sensory experience of nature. “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may” is the famed Robert Herrick version. But let’s not be persnickety; aren’t these merely two different metaphors that mean essentially the same thing?
Well, yes and no. It’s an example of one of the more telling ways that we mistranslate metaphors from one language to another, revealing in the process our hidden assumptions about what we really value. Metaphors may map to similar meanings across languages, but their subtle differences can have a profound effect on our understanding of the world.
Read the entire piece here.