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Tips on Translating Latin

The Challenge of Word Order

Intro to Latin Poetry
Introduction to Classical Genres and a List of Classical Writers

Latin Grammar Basics
The Ablative
Demonstrative Pronouns
Latin Pronouns With Macrons
How Many Latin Verb Endings Are There?

I received an email that asks a question not really covered elsewhere on this site (although there is a page on Latin vs English Word Order), so I will attempt to give a few review and new tips to help and then an exercise. The exercise page is like a worksheet that assumes you can translate, but are having specific trouble with word order. It goes from a dummy sentence to a four-line Latin verse passage and sentence that works best, in English, as at least two separate sentences. Here is the email:

"[M]y class is studying Livy at the moment... last time, we were studying Ovid, but I'm still confused about the word order and how to translate from Latin to English.

Do you have any rough guidelines on how to make translating from Latin to English easier?

I mainly get confused because of word order, so if you have any general tips on that, I would be very grateful."

Latin Word Order Is More Flexible Than English

Latin sentences tend to be longer than English ones, but they take fewer words to complete the individual thoughts. In English we break up Latin sentences into chunks that work for us and add words where we need to, especially to replace the significance of the Latin inflections. Latin uses inflection to show relationships between words. English tends not to, but we should remember English isn't completely free of inflection.

English word order isn't completely fixed and Latin word order isn't completely random.

English is an SVO Language.

SVO means that the subject comes first followed by the verb, followed by the object. In Latin, the sentence may be written this way, but is more likely to have the verb at the end of the sentence. The subject may appear at the start of the sentence. The object may be sandwiched between the two, rendering that Latin sentence SOV.

Position in the Latin sentence offers a cue to importance. First and last are highlighted spots. If the Latin changes the verb-last order, by, say, putting the verb first, that word should be emphasized. If the subject is last, in the verb's preferred spot, that indicates that the subject is emphasized in some way. It's also there because it needed to be somewhere, but its spot was taken by the verb-at-the-front. It's a judgment call whether the out of place verb or noun is more important.

In poetry Latin uses the word order that allows the poet to manage his meter.

Latin Doesn't Require a Separate Subject.

The subject of a sentence is generally a noun or pronoun. In Latin, if the subject is a pronoun, it may not be mentioned at all. Instead, it is incorporated into the ending on the verb. Latin makes ample use of pronouns, especially in its extended passages of subordinate clauses that are often best translated as separate English sentences.

Next: Example of working through the Latin word order to a good English word order.

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