Latin For You

Teaching and translating ancient Latin since 1986

How to Read "Real" Latin

When students make the shift from "modern" Latin, written at a introductory or intermediate level, to ancient Latin, they run into a huge cyclopean wall.  This is the page designed to help you climb that wall and read the Latin the original speakers wrote.

First of all, don't beat yourself up or get discouraged by the difficulty of 'original' Latin written by an ancient Roman.  It supposed to be hard (as Tom Hanks' character says in A League of Their Own).  Think about it.  Imagine after your 3 years of French (if you're Canadian) or 3 years of Spanish (if you're American) you're asked to read a Quebec government communique or Don Quixote by Cervantes.  You'd have no chance.  And yet you have get the pleasure of doing just that in Latin.  If you read Pliny, you're likely reading his official letters to the Emperor Trajan about governmental business while Pliny was governor of Bithynia.  "I have been examining the government accounts and I believe that we need a forensic auditor to recuperate unnecessary expenditures."  And when you read Virgil, as you are sure to, you're tackling one of the giants of literature who spent 10 years packing meaning into every syllable of the Aeneid.

Below you'll find some help, which will grow over time.  Bona Fortuna!!

The first 7 lines of Virgil's Aeneid

The first 7 lines of Virgil's Aeneid shows us a number of the reasons why ancient Latin is so evilly difficult after reading the exercises in Wheelock or the stories in the Cambridge Latin Course.  Let's analyze the passage and see what we find.  Fasten your seatbelts, we're in for a bumpy read.  A fuller commentary can be found under Aeneid I annotated.

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,  5
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.

I sing of weapons and a man, who, a refugee by fate, first came from the shores of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian beaches; he was much tossed on lands and the sea by the violence of the gods above and because of the never-forgetting anger of nasty Juno; he also suffered many things in war, while he was establishing a city and bringing gods to Latium, whence the Latin race, the Alban fathers and the walls of lofty Rome.

Now, what is there in this Latin gobbet that makes it so much more difficult?  Let's count!

1.)  Latin dictionaries regularly have old and out-dated translations.  Arma is translated as 'arms' instead of a more current term like 'weapons'.

2.)  In English we either sing a song or we sing about something.  We don`t tend to sing a subject, but that how the Latin reads - I sing weapons and a man.

3.)  We expect the first word in a relative clause to be the relative, but qui is the second word it its clause.

4.)  When we read Latin, we come to expect words which are closely related to be side by side (e.g., adjectives are beside the nouns they describe).  But LATIN DOESN`T GO BY WORD ORDER!!!  So the following words on not side by side: Troiae & oris, Lavinia & litora, saevae & Iunonis, memorem & iram, altae & Romae.

5.)  Come to think of it, we are taught to expect a certain word order: subject - indirect object - direct object - verb.  Adjectives immediately follow their nouns.  So we don`t learn that endings rule the world so much as we learn a different word order, which we then start to rely on.  But ancient Latin doesn`t follow a rule of word order.  What do you think endings are for!  So we suddenly get Laviniaque venit litora.  Here the verb buts in between a noun and its adjective!

6.)  Prepositions are more optional than we have been taught.  So `to Italy` and `to the beaches` is just Italiam and litora without ad.

7.)  It`s not just grammar that is tougher.  We are also reading high literature.  The typical ancient Roman author was writing a lofty, arty work, rather than simply and in a straight-forward way.  That leads to all kinds of literary devices, most of which make for great reading, but tough translating.

7a.)  alto is deep.  Here it is used to represent the deep blue sea.  It makes sense when it is paired with lands (terris), but it is still rather 'poetic'.

7b.)  superum looks like the accusative singular (masculine or neuter) of superus - it aint.  It is, in fact, the syncopated (as a syllable has been dropped) form of the genitive plural superorumAnd its literal meaning, those above, is applied to the gods.

7c.)  The passage ends with a transferred epithet.  That's when the poet takes an adjective which naturally describes one noun and switches to another nearby noun.  There are two transferred epithets in this passage.  Technically it is Juno who never forgets, not her anger.  By describing her anger as memorem, Virgil gives her anger a personality and a life of its own.  Also, we would expect to read 'the lofty walls of Rome', but Virgil describes Rome as lofty.  Now I love the effect.  We all know walls are high, so taking away its adjective doesn't really hurt it.  But to describe Rome as lofty brings an image to mind the high and mighty city of a high and mighty empire.  Great stuff! - but it doesn't make it any easier to translate.

8.)  Even after we have translated the language and turned Latin into English, we still have to translate the culture.  Believe it or not, the Romans didn't think the same way we do and they had their own history and legends.  So there are references that need explaining, because they're not ours:

8a.)  Lavinia was the daughter of King Latinus and became the bride of Aeneas, thus serving as a concrete connection of the Latins and the Trojans.

8b.)  Latium was the area surrounding Rome.

8c.)  Albani is a reference to Alba Longa the city which the descendants of Aeneas ruled down to the time of Romulus and Remus.

8d.)  patres has a double meaning.  The Alban fathers are the ancestors of the Romans.  But patres was also a term used to describe the Roman senators (patres conscripti = conscript fathers).

And I haven't even gone into a discussion of translating the culture.  If you know the details of the story, you have a huge advantage over someone who is still learning the history and legends of Rome.  It helps make sense of the passage to know who or what Lavinia, Juno and Alba are.

So noli desperare.  Remember that endings rule the world and word order doesn't.  Figure out what goes where in the sentence, build your skeleton and then you can take out your dictionary and start fleshing the thing out.  And remember this - the Romans weren't genetically smarter than we are.  If they could read it, so can we!

Better Latin Translations - Audax simus!

I may get in trouble from Latin teachers and English purists, but let's be honest, some translations are much better than others.  My own standard is to make the English translation sound like something that a contemporary English speaker would actually say.  If you look at a fairly simple term like amor patriae, you can come up with several options.  The standard one is "love of country", the literal one is "love of the fatherland".  My favourite is "patriotism".

Here are a few more of my favourite English renderings of Latin words and phrases (and, yes, many are featured in the Cambridge Latin Course).  This will be a work in progress with regular additions.  The expressions are listed alphabetically for convenient use.



 concilium capere to get an idea
 parva statua figurine
 eheu! ayah! (the Chinese exclamation is perfect here)
 spectaculum edere to put on a show, to produce a show
 flocci non facere to not give a damn (or 'to not give a rat's ass)
 hercle! OMG!
 laudare to compliment
 nonne nonne cenam tuam edidisti?  Haven't you eaten your dinner?
 num num ante cenam edis?  Are you eating before dinner?
 polyspaston tower crane
 tenere to take possession (describing owning a  building that has just been bought as in Clemens tabernam novam tenere cupiebat. = 'Clemens wanted to take possession of his new shop'
 opus project
 mensor project manager
 strepitus racket
 spectatores audience
 periculum trouble
 fabulam agere perform a play
 redemptor contractor, developer
 magister fabrorum foreman

You can also be mischievous and have some fun with your translations (and some people have done just that).




 habeas corpus Have his Carcass Dorothy Parker
 tuum est Your Thing Exists Max Nelson
 Via Sacra Holy Street JCA
 Pater noster qui es in caelis Our Father who is in the sky Dr. Fred Casler
 aurea mediocritas the golden mediocrity JCA


More to come . . .