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June 2024 Talk

The Cambridge Orator  -  Anthony Bowen

Anthony was the Cambridge Orator from 1993 until 2007 and gave us a fascinating talk about his role in one of the more obscure posts in University Education.

It is the task of the Orator ‘to write addresses for presentation to the Sovereign and formal letters for presentation to other universities and institutions’ and to ‘present to the Chancellor and University persons on whom the titles of honorary degrees are bestowed”. These are people of great distinction in different fields, whom the university wants to honour.

 

The Office of Orator, a statutory role, dates back to the early 16th century and interestingly although the University (along with Oxford) predates Henry VIII’s Reformation they were largely untouched by Henry despite their strong papal connections.

 

Degrees are bestowed in the Senate House, and for each person there is a “performance” by the orator. Orations describe and evaluate, as far as they can, the achievement of those being honoured. Among the persons for which Anthony wrote orations were Nelson Mandela, Betty Boothroyd, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine.

 

The orations are short speeches, all specially written in Latin, with English translations available. However, those following the translation can fail to appreciate all crafting, wit and thought that goes into the Latin.

 

Anthony recalled that one of the most interesting things is the way the Latin language, fitted most naturally for describing the world before about 1600, is adapted to fit modern circumstances especially scientific discoveries. Sometimes a Latin word describing something similar will do. Sometimes a paraphrase is required. The oration for Gordon Moore, the inventor of the silicon chip, required the use of the Latin word 'assula' which actually means chip, but in fact a wooden chip, or splinter.

 

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