The art of Latin translation is one which seems to be shrouded in mystery. It is my aim through this humble node to attempt to give some basic tips on translating Latin for the semi-layman. This is useful when nitpicking and translating school mottoes. I will undertake this task by means of a simple example.

Sentence 1

Caesar Ambiorigem necavit.

Step 1 - Find the verb.

Verbs in Latin have myriad endings and can be very difficult to find. Endings to look out for:

  • -o or -m or -i - First person singular
  • -s - Second person singular
  • -t - Third person singular
  • -mus - First person plural
  • -tis - Second person plural
  • -nt - Third person plural
And in the passive voice:
  • -r - First person singular
  • -ris - Second person singular
  • -tur - Third person singular
  • -mur - First person plural
  • -mini - Second person plural
  • -ntur - Third person plural
Using this, we can be fairly sure that necavit is the verb, and that it is active and in the third person singular. However, before we can supply a meaning, we need to know its tense (the point in time at which the action took place.) The tenses in Latin are:
  • The pluperfect - recognisable by endings in -eram, -eras, -erat etc. Meaning 'I had loved'.
  • The perfect - recognisable by endings in -i, -is, -it etc. Meaning 'I have loved' or 'I loved'.
  • The imperfect - recognisable by endings in -bam, -bas, -bat etc. Meaning 'I was loving', 'I began to love' or 'I used to love'.
  • The present - recognisable by endings in -o, -s, -t etc. Meaning 'I love'
  • The future - recognisable by endings in -bo, -bis, -bit or a vowel change from the basic present endings. (Rarer) Meaning 'I will love.'
  • The future perfect - recognisable by endings in -ero, -eris, -erit etc. Meaning 'I will have loved.'
So now we know that necavit is in the perfect. All that remains is to find its meaning. Looking in a dictionary under nec would find the verb neco. After the word would be a number 1 in brackets: (1). This tells us the verb's conjugation.

Latin Conjugations

Latin has five conjugations or 'groups' of verbs. These are numbered 1, 2, 3, 3 and a half (mixed), 4. The Romans apparently had a phobia of the number 5. The conjugations behave as follows:

First conjugation declines in the present thusly: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. It has a basic vowel of 'a'. It has principle parts: amo, amare, amavi, amatum. The principle parts tell us the form of the perfect stem (amavi) from which the perfect, pluperfect and future perfect tenses are formed.

Second conjugation desclines in the present thusly: moneo, mones, monet, monemus, monetis, monent. It has a basic vowel 'e'. Principle parts: moneo, monere, monui, monitum.

Third conjugation declines in the present thusly: rego, regis, regit, regimus, regitis, regunt. Basic vowel 'i'. In the future, changes its vowel: regam, reges, reget, regemus, regetis, regent. Principle parts: rego, regere, rexi, rectum.

Mixed or 3.5th conjugation declines in the present thusly: capio, capis, capit, capimus, capitis, capiunt. Basic vowel 'i'. Future in 'a': 'capiam'. Principle parts: capio, capere, cepi, captum.

4th conjugation declines in the present thusly: audio, audis, audit, audimus, auditis, audiunt. Future in 'a'. Principle parts: audio, audire, audivi, auditum.

This tells us that necavit comes from the first conjugation verb 'neco' meaning 'I kill'. The meaning of necavit is therefore: 'he killed' or 'he has killed'.

Step 2 - Hunt the subject

All Latin verbs contain a subject - within the word 'amo' is the word 'I'. The meaning of the verb is 'I love', not just 'love'. However, Latin frequently supplies a subject, especially for the third person. A subject is a noun in the nominative case. This can be recognised by a noun with no special ending added on to it. You look up the word for 'soldier' in the dictionary and are given a basic form. If you see that basic form in the sentence, you can have a good idea that the word is the subject. In the plural, look for 'i' or 'a' or 'es' endings. In this case, if you look up 'Ambiorigem', you are unlikely to find anyone called that. This tells us that the word has a special ending on it and is not nominative. However, Caesar has no such ending and is subject. Since there is only one verb, we can assume he is subject to that verb: 'Caesar killed' or 'Caesar has killed'.

Step 3 - Hunt the object

Objects in Latin are normally shown by the accusative case. The object of the verb is the thing which is having the verb done to it. In this case, we know it must be Ambiorigem because neco requires an object and Ambiorigem is the only word left. Nouns in the accusative can be spotted in the singular by endings in -m (or occasionally -s) and in the plural by endings in -os or -as.

Step 4 - Compile the sentence

From our analysis, we have a translation of 'Caesar has killed Ambiorix' or 'Caesar killed Ambiorix'. Now you must ask yourself some questions.

  1. Does it make sense?
  2. Which is the best alternative of the ones (if any) I have?
  3. See question 1.
Well, it looks like it makes sense. As for question 2, since this has obviously happened a long time in the past, the aorist ('Caesar killed Ambiorix') seems better. Of course, if this were quoted speech from someone at the time, 'Caesar has killed Ambiorix' would be better.

Of course there are many other elements to a Latin sentence, but these steps should stand you in good stead for a start. I suggest a copy of Kennedy's Latin Primer for the insane (or interested).

OK, let's continue this little vade mecum. Here's our next sentence.

In horto Caesaris cum Fabula ambulabam

Step 1 - Find the verb

This is fairly straightforward. Ambulabam is our verb, and applying our analysis, we can see that it is in the imperfect, first person singular. It has a key vowel of 'a', which we can see from the 'la' section before the 'bam' ending. Our meaning is therefore 'I was walking' or 'I began to walk' or 'I used to walk'.

Step 2 - Find the subject

Hmm, Caesari ends in an 'i', and Fabula ends with an 'a'. First, let's look at Fabula. Looking at Kennedy's Latin Primer, we can see that nominative plurals in -a are reserved for neuter nouns. Since Fabula is spelt with a capital letter, we can assume it is a name of a person or a place and unlikely to be neuter. Caesaris, however, is still in the running. The ways we can tell it is not the subject are twofold. First, the verb was in the first person singular, but this noun, to be nominative, would have to be in the plural (and have an alternative spelling), so cannot be subject to the verb. Second, throughout Roman history, there was only ever one Caesar at a time, so having 'Caesars' would be a challenge. We can therefore conclude that there is no additional subject to the verb and the meaning remains as 'I was walking' or 'I began to walk' or 'I used to walk'.

Step 3 - Find the object

In this case, this step is unnecessary, since the verb 'to walk' cannot take an object, unless it's a dog. Since this usage is not found in Roman literature, we can assume that there is no object.

However, there are plenty of untranslated words flying around in this sentence. While not strictly object, they do depend on the verb. Let's look at cum and in. Both of these words are prepositions. Looking them up gives us 'with' and 'in' respectively. The dictionary also tells us that both take the ablative case. Could this give us a clue as to how to translate some of these words? Yes, it could. Let us take a look at horto. The 'o' ending appears only in second declension nouns in the dative singular and ablative singular. Since we have a preposition taking the ablative right next to it, we can see that it is probably in the ablative. Knowing that is second declension, we can assume that this noun has a basic form 'hortus'. Looking up this word gives us 'garden'. Hmm, 'in the garden'. Sounds good, right? (Notice that I have supplied the definite article, 'the'. Latin does not use these words, so we can supply them.) Now let's look at 'Fabula'. We know this word cannot be subject to the verb, so we have to look at what other cases it could be. It is a fair guess that this noun, with an ending in 'a', comes from the first declension. Looking in Kennedy gives us the following endings for this declension:

Singular Nominative: -a Vocative: -a Accusative: -am Genitive: -ae Dative: -ae Ablative: -a. Plural Nom: -ae Voc: -ae Acc: -as Gen: -arum Dat: -is Abl: -is.

Since we have eliminated the Nominative, we can see that this noun must be either Vocative singular or Ablative singular. Since the Vocative case is only used to address someone (as in 'o Brother, where art thou?), we can safely say that it is ablative. Taking it with the nearest preposition, we get 'with Fabula'. Good stuff.

Now all that remains is that pesky Caesaris. It's not nominative because we have a subject, it's not vocative because we're not talking to him, it's not accusative because we have no accusative, it's not ablative because there's no preposition to make it ablative, so it's either dative or genitive. Both of these cases can exist without a preposition, so both are feasible. The genitive is used for possession: 'of Caesar'. The dative is used for the words 'to' or 'for'. Since Caesaris comes soon after horto, we may presume they are related in some way. Looking at what makes best sense, we can see that 'the garden of Caesar' or 'Caesar's garden' would be a good translation.

Step 4 - Compile the sentence

OK. Looking at this, we have 'I was walking (or used to walk, or began to walk) with Fabula in Caesar's garden.' Let's follow our steps. Does it make sense? Yes. Which is the best alternative? Again, this depends on context, but we can say that taken out of context, 'I was walking' sounds best. Does it still make sense? Yes. Right, we're done. On, my young Padawan.

Sentence 2

amo pulcherimmam ancillam quae Romae habitat.

Step 1 - Find the verb

OK, there seem to be two verbs. amo and habitat. This presents us with a problem. They don't have the same subject, (one is first person, the other is third) so they can't coexist in the same clause. This means that this sentence has more than one clause: one dependent on amo, the other on habitat.

Step 2 - Find the subject

Hmm, there doesn't seem to be a subject supplied for either. OK, we'll leave that and come back to it.

Step 3 - Find the object

Two candidates for this - ancillam and pulcherimmam. Let's look them up. ancilla is a slave-girl and looks like a good candidate to be an object. pulcherimma, however, is not to be found in the dictionary. This is because it is the superlative form of 'pulcher' - the adjective meaning beautiful. This form can be recognised by the 'imm*' suffix. This adjective obviously agrees with ancillam, so we can say that the slave-girl is most beautiful or very beautiful. Now, what is she object to? Well, habitat, meaning 'he/she/it lives', is unlikely to take an object, so we can say it is object of amo. 'I love the/a very beautiful/most beautiful slave-girl.' Sounding good.

Wait, that sounds like a sentence in itself! Could this be our first clause dependent on amo? Let's have a look at the remaining three words:

quae Romae habitat

Step 1 - Find the verb

habitat, as already discussed.

Step 2 - Find the subject

While 'he/she/it' would be legitimate here, it seems rather inadequate considering that this clause must link with the other. Let's look at this 'quae' word then. Kennedy's section on pronouns tells us that this is a pronoun meaning 'who' or 'which'. quae can be the feminine singular nominative form. 'who lives': looking good.

Step 3 - Find the object

Well, no object here really. However, Romae looks like an ablative. Well, the ablative needs a preposition normally, but not here. With towns, cities, and small islands (don't ask me what 'small' is), a preposition is not needed when you want to say 'in' or 'at'. So, 'at Rome' or 'in Rome'? Sounds good to me.

Step 4 - Compile the sentence

'I love the/a most beautiful/very beautiful slave-girl who lives in/at Rome.' Does it make sense? Yes. OK, let's pick from our alternatives. 'A' sounds better here, since there is (or was) probably more than one slave-girl in Rome. Most beautiful/Very beautiful. Well, it depends on context and your preference. I think that 'very beautiful' sounds nicer, though. The last is just basic English: 'in Rome'. Therefore: 'I love a very beautiful slave-girl who lives in Rome'. Does it still make sense? Yes. Well done.

Sentence 3

What, you thought you'd finished? No chance!

Nonne hiems, quae incendiis magnis multisque belli inter gentes omnes tertii inducatur, inhibeat orbem terrarum ne nimium calescat?

Whoa there! This is a sentence of Ciceronian length. Well, let's take a deep breath and see what we can do.

Step 1 - Hunt the verb

There appear to be 3 verbs here - inducatur, inhibeat and calescat. (Yes, I know that there are other possible verbs, but I'm cutting out the stage of looking up words to find out whether they could be verbs or not, because I reckon you're up to that by now.)

There are also quite a few commas here. I reckon we've got us another one of those clausal sentences, like the last one. Let's try to split it up.

There's that quae again. Bound to be introducing a clause. It's also preceded by a comma. Let's assume that everything between those two commas is a separate clause. Since this would, by the nature of the word 'quae', be a subordinate clause - one that cannot make much sense on its own - let's look at the rest of the sentence.

Nonne hiems inhibeat orbem terrarum ne nimium calescat?

Step 1 - Hunt the verb

God, we still have two! OK, there's either another subordinate clause or there's a conjunction. A quick scan for common Latin conjunctions (et, sed, vel, aut, etc.) yields no goods. But wait, what's this 'ne'?

Here's the trouble with Latin; however much you know, there always seems to be something else lurking around a corner waiting for you with teeth and claws and blood and such. The behemoth that you have just unearthed is the subjunctive.

The Latin subjunctive

The best description of the subjunctive I have come across is that it's the verb in away colours. Like a football team's away strip, the subjunctive is a lot more hassle than it's worth, and it would be easier for all involved if they just played topless. Nonetheless, it's here, and you need to know about it.

The present

In the present, a vowel change occurs.

Group 1's main vowel changes from 'a' to 'e': amem, ames, etc.'

Group 2 gains an 'a': 'moneam, moneas etc.'

Group 3's main vowel changes from 'e' to 'a': 'regam, reges, etc.'

Group 4 gains an 'a': 'videam, videas etc.'

The imperfect

Easy, just take the infinitive and add the normal endings (m, s, t, mus, tis, nt).

The subjunctive occurs after 'ut' and 'ne' (most of the time), in certain clauses, and in theoretical questions as the Latin form of the conditional tense.

And so we see that here we have not one, but two verbs in the subjunctive. The latter, calescat is there because of 'ne'. We can therefore translate this 3-word clause:

'so that he/she/it might not (ne) heat up (calescat) too much (nimium).'

Yes, 'ne' says a lot in two letters. English has declined since 'lest' became an old-sounding word; it fits perfectly here.

OK, so the rest of the clause looks like this:

Nonne hiems inhibeat orbem terrarum?

Looking more manageable, now isn't it? You will notice the question mark, and if I tell you that 'nonne' is a question word which expects the answer 'yes', that deals with that. It also gives us a clue to the fact that 'inhibeat' is subjunctive because this is a theoretical question.

Step 1 - Find the verb

'inhibit', mean prevent. Stop bugging me!

Step 2 - Find the subject

'hiems' appears to be a noun or adjective in its root form. The dictionary tells us that it's a noun meaning 'winter'. There isn't anything here agreeing with it, so we'll move on.

Step 3 - Find the object

Hmm. 'orbem' or 'terrarum'? Well, 'terrarum' seems to have a genitive plural ending, but 'orbem', meaning globe, looks more promising. 'Terra' means 'earth' or land. It's in the plural here, because that's the Latin idiom. Sorry.

Step 4 - Compile the clause

Surely winter would prevent the earth ('orb of the earth', literally)?

We can put that together with our mini-clause to get:

Surely winter would prevent the earth so that it might not heat up too much?

Hmm, that makes sense, sort of. Let's find out what kind of winter by looking at that quae clause.

quae incendiis magnis multisque belli inter gentes omnes tertii inducatur

Step 1 - Find the verb

'inducatur', subjunctive because of the theoretical question, meaning 'brought on', and in the passive.

Step 2 - Find the subject

'quae' is the only singular thing in the nominative here.

Step 3 - Find the object

The verb's passive, so there is no object.

Step 4 - Compile the clause

OK, we have 'which would be brought on'. We're looking for a 'by', which would be in the ablative. No shortage of those: 'incendiis magnis multisque' seems to fit the bill, and it's a package in itself, meaning 'many large fires' (specifically, the kind of fires that don't start by accident, if you know what I mean?)

We still have more, though. 'belli' seems to go with 'tertii' - 'in the 3rd war'. This sounds like Nostradamus. Take this with 'inter gentes omnes' ('between all countries'), and we appear to have 'in the third world war'.

So, we've got 'which would be brought on by many great fires in the third world war'. Well, if it's a war, they're more likely to be bombs, and they must be pretty awesome if they're going to bring on a winter. Specifically, nukes. Those Romans certainly were forward thinking.

Unfortunately, their idioms weren't as nifty as ours, and we could just say 'nuclear winter' for all of that. I think we will.

Step 4 - Compile the sentence

'Surely nuclear winter would prevent the Earth, so that it might not heat up too much?'

Hmm, the Earth heating up too much? Sounds like the Greenhouse Effect to me.

'Surely nuclear winter would stop the Greenhouse Effect?'

Or, in more natural language:

'Wouldn't nuclear winter cancel out the Greenhouse Effect?'

What a dumb question. I bet you're sorry you wasted the time to work out what it meant.

Well, that's most of what you need to know. The insane can take a look at the following sentences, dictionary firmly in hand.

  • Noli nothis permittere te terere
  • Te audire non possum. Musa sapientum fixa est in aure.
  • Sed vere, spectatores pulchri fuistis! Vos amo! Vos amo!

Adding to the previous excellent writup, here are a few more tips:

There are two basic types of Latin: Classical Latin and Medival Latin. Medival Latin encompasses Church Latin, the Latin used by the Roman Catholic Church. While these types are generally differentiable, they are stylistic forms rather than seperate dialects with a couple of differances in pronunciation.

IMHO, Medival Latin is a degenerate form of Classical Latin, simpler and less artistically satisfying. The last millennium and a half of linguistic carpetbaggers has wreaked havoc on the poetry the language once had.

Medival Latin should present few or no difficulties to a beginning student (I'm not even that anymore.) It has consistent word order, usually similar to the native tongue of the writer, and there's little ambiguity. Have fun and go for it.

Classical Latin, written by real live dead Romans, can be maddening. If you're reading Julius Caesar, prepare yourself for reams of easily translated mastubatory blathering. Catullus, the simplest of the famous poets to translate, can be absolutely filthy. I like it, but you may not. Ovid, after some practice is good but unsatisfying. Vergil is a loathsome prick who hates you and writes excellent verse.

You don't believe me, do you? He adds redundant conjunctions to add emphasis, not to the conjunctions themselves, but to the sentence himself. He moves adjectives around for silly puns. In the Aeneid, he, for instance, describe the god of the winds, Aeolus being surrounded by a mountain. He then uses two adjectives describing the mountain and puts the word "Aeolus" between them. Hardy fucking har. He is a wonderful poet, though.

With verse, you're going to have to go on context, interpolation, and bullshit fairly often. For instance, if a verb is first or second person, a subject will usually not be specified. Sometimes it won't be for third person. Adjectives will have no matching nouns sometimes, and you will have to add one. For Romans, ambiguity was a form of wordplay, and all wordplay was worshipped. The phrase SOLI SOLI SOLI Is generally translated "The only son in the sun." Nifty, no?

For notes on scansion (which is too much to write here), check out http://www.suberic.net/~marc/scansion.

The scholarly suggestions above are fine if you want to puzzle out a Latin sentence or two, or if you have a need to demonstrate your cleverness and industry to a professor. If you want to read Latin, though, they are to be shunned.

Obviously, Romans didn't "hunt the verb" first, then "hunt the subject" and so on. They simply read a bit of writing start to finish, or listened to someone speak, and discerned the meaning naturally. This is what the student of Latin should strive to be able to do. It takes practice -- many words have several possible meanings, and so must be left ambiguous in the mind until the context makes them clear -- but it is the most profitable way to approach a Latin text.

In an 1887 speech called "The Art of Reading Latin: How to Teach It", William Gardner Hale expanded on this idea to great effect. I've lost most of the speech text, but following is a sentence analyzed by Hale. (I lifted the analysis and reworked it a bit.) The scene is from Livy, of two assassins who have just put an axe into Tarquin's head. Hale proceeds one word at a time, working out the context as he goes, as the Romans did subconciously and immediately.


Tarquinium...

Form? Proper noun, accusative singular.

Meaning? It's not the accusative of duration of time, clearly, because it's a man's name. For the same reason, we can rule out extent of space, extent of action, and cognate accusative. It's also not the accusative of specification ("as regards Tarquin"), which is very rarely used in prose, and there only with a few stock phrases. It's not an accusative of exclamation, either, probably; Livy was a historian, and not prone to call out to dead people. What, then? The direct object of a verb, an appositive to the direct object, or the subject or predicate of an infinitive. We can't know any more than that yet, so we'll just keep those possibilities in mind and keep reading.

Tarquinium moribundum...

Form? Adjective, nominative singular neuter, or accusative singular masculine or neuter.

Meaning? Latin word order is free, but some conventions exist; in particular, this word most probably belongs to "Tarquinium". In our minds, then, we have a picture of the dying Tarquin, acted or acting upon.

Tarquinium moribundum cum...

Form? Preposition or conjunction.

Meaning? There's no way to tell without more context. Important to remember, of course, is that not even a Roman could know the meaning of cum here without more to go on.

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui...

Form? Relative or interrogative pronoun.

Meaning? No way to tell yet here, either. The word does resolve the meaning of cum, though, which has to be a conjunction in this context.

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui circa...

Form? Adverb.

Meaning? Modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. We'll make the decision when we can.

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui circa erant...

Form? Verb, third person plural imperfect active indicative.

Meaning? Ah, now we have some good information to go on. Qui must be a relative, because interrogatives require a subjunctive verb. Also, circa very probably modifies erant. What we have here, then, is a phrase ("qui circa erant") that we can treat as a substantive ("the bystanders", or something similar).

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui circa erant excepissent...

Form? Verb, third person plural pluperfect active subjunctive.

Meaning? Completes the cum-conjunction clause. The Romans were very fond of plucking out the most important word or phrase from a subordinate introductory sentence, too, so we can assume that Tarquinium is the direct object of excepissent. So: Tarquin is dying, and the bystanders have picked him up.

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui circa erant excepissent, illos...

Form? Demonstrative pronoun, third person plural masculine.

Meaning? Because the word is first in the clause, the people it refers to are of special prominence. Set as it is against the special position of Tarquinium in the preceding clause, and given the Roman propensity to juxtapose opposites, we can guess that the assassins are the referent. At all events, we know by its form that it can be a direct object, an appositive to a direct object, or the subject or predicate of an infinitive. Sound familiar?

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui circa erant excepissent, illos fugientes...

Form? Participle, third person plural present active, masculine or feminine, nominative or accusative.

Meaning? It very probably belongs to illos, because assassins would be apt to flee. Just in case, though, we'll allow in our minds that it might belong to some other word.

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui circa erant excepissent, illos fugientes lictores...

Form? Noun, nominative or accusative plural.

Meaning? The lictores were the king's bodyguard, so it's unlikely that they would be fleeing. For this reason, we'll guess that fugientes doesn't go with them, and that it in fact belongs to illos, as we first imagined. So illos fugientes and lictores are subject and object of a verb. (We can't know which is which, yet.)

Tarquinium moribundum cum qui circa erant excepissent, illos fugientes lictores comprehendunt.

Form? Verb, third person plural present active indicative.

Meaning? Livy was writing about past events, so this form must be a historical present. It's also the end of the sentence, and now we see everything click into place. The lictores have captured the assassins!


It's obvious that a fluent reader must have a thorough knowledge of Latin grammatical forms and syntax -- there can be a great number of possibilities to sift through for each word. Fluency takes practice, and lots of it. But the work does get easier, and eventually it becomes automatic -- just as English reading has become for all of us.

Note the vividness of the Roman word order, too: There's Tarquin. He's dying. The assassins have picked him up, and are running away. Now comes the king's bodyguard, and... they nab the bad guys!

How much more jejune a hunt-the-noun translation would have been! "When those who were nearby had picked up the dying Tarquin, the king's bodyguard captured them as they fled." Such stuff is too dull to withstand for long. It's no wonder so few people read Latin for pleasure any more.

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