Lost in Translation - Memoria Press

lost in translation
Parents often ask classical educators, “What good is Latin going to do for my child? Is spending all those years on a dead language really going to educate my child?” We trip over ourselves in pointing out the many benefits of learning Latin. It trains students to think logically, to better understand grammatical concepts, and it teaches many roots of English words. But we sometimes forget to point out one of the greatest benefits of learning Latin: You get to read Latin!

Classical authors, poets, and church fathers wrote in Latin. Not only that, they were masters of Latin and spent much time thinking of the best way to convey their thoughts in Latin, not English. As every Latin student knows, reading Latin is not easy or a quick process. Since we are mortals, we must be always mindful of time, and reading a translation of Cicero’s First Catilinarian takes much less time than translating it. Anyone who has translated this magnificent speech will be able to attest that the translation does not do it justice and will be able to show you why. Translations inevitably fall short of their originals, either due to grammatical differences between the languages, double meanings that do not exist in English, ambiguities that do not exist in Latin, or irreproducible artistry in the original. Here are just a few examples.

The Subjunctive Mood

One of the hardest aspects of Latin grammar to explain is the subjunctive mood. By changing the ending of a Latin verb, you can change something definite (“I am eating”) to something indefinite (“I may eat” or “I should eat” or “I could eat,” depending on context). The subjunctive is a vibrant part of the Latin language; wishes, opinions, possibilities, desires—these are all found in the subjunctive.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was the greatest Roman orator. People went to the Forum just to hear him argue court cases. His argument on behalf of Archias is one of his most famous. Archias, a Greek poet, stood accused of not being a Roman citizen. The trouble was that the building that allegedly held the record of his honorary citizenship had burned down. Cicero claimed Archias was a Roman citizen, but that even if he weren’t, Rome should want him because he was a poet. Cicero cites Gaius Marius, a Roman general who had a poet follow him around and record his deeds. He says,

… itaque ille Marius item eximie L. Plotium dilexit cuius ingenio putabat ea quae gesserat posse celebrari.

… So too the famous Marius especially adored Lucius Plotius, by whose genius Marius thought the things that he had done would be celebrated.

When a Latin author talks about what another person thinks, feels, or perceives (such as “Marius thought”), and he uses subordinate clauses (quae gesserat), he can indicate whether the sentiment contained in the clause is his own or the person’s he is talking about. In English, these clauses are ambiguous. Consider the English, “Amber thought John, who was an idiot, had left the party.” Does Amber think John is an idiot or does the author? There is no way to tell in English. In Latin, you indicate that it is the speaker’s assertion with the indicative mood (the normal mood), and that it is the assertion of the person about whom you are speaking with the subjunctive. When Cicero uses the indicative (gesserat) instead of the expected subjunctive form (gessisset), he tells us that the deeds of Marius are not something that Marius merely imagines, but rather actual deeds that the poet records for posterity. Cicero is saying, “Poets don’t make things up—they record the great deeds of our great men so we should accept them as citizens.” The point in context is small, but it shows the way that Latin authors choose their words for maximum effect. The student who knows his Latin grammar will spot it straightaway.

St. Augustine’s Confessions

Translations can also fail to carry double meanings, or are translated in ways that make ambiguous what was clear in the Latin. Consider two different translations of a famous sentence from the opening of St. Augustine’s Confessions paired with the original Latin. Augustine says:

Tu excitas ut laudare te delectet quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.

Outler translates this as:

You have prompted him [man], that he should delight to praise you, for you have made us for Yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you. [adapted Outler translation, removed archaisms]

Pusey translates:

You awake us to delight in your praise, for You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it repose in You. [adapted Pusey translation, removed archaisms]

Notice excitas is translated differently by Outler and Pusey as “prompt” and “awake,” respectively, and that they translate requiescat as “comes to rest” and “repose.” Outler focuses on the core meaning of excito, to cause an action in something else, and similarly its opposite, requiescat, to cease motion. But Pusey also picks up on the secondary meanings that Augustine is using. Excito also means to wake up and requiescat also means to lie down for rest after a long day. Pusey and Outler have not misconstrued the Latin. With a translation, you can only choose one meaning of a word to render into English. With the Latin, you can appreciate both meanings simultaneously.

Sometimes, however, even good translators will make bad choices that obscure the original meaning rather than clarify. Both of these translators render Augustine’s ad te as “for Yourself.” “For” is an acceptable translation of ad, but “for” is not clear enough here. What Augustine is saying is that God created man for His use; man was made to complete the works that God had designed him for, namely praising Him. The English “for” fails to effectively capture this meaning.


Even the best translators cannot properly convey the artistry of the original author. Latin is a notoriously succinct language, and Latin poets are extremely economical; they can squeeze shades of meanings out of a few nuanced and powerful words. A translation can never reproduce all the creative skill of the original. A picture of the Sistine chapel will awe you, but it cannot give you a sense of the space that the painting takes up, the colors as they really are, or the thickness of the strokes. You would have to be there physically to “feel” it, and to get all the beauty out of Latin poetry, you must read it in Latin.

Take just four words of Virgil’s Latin from the Aeneid and compare it to the amount of space required to bring out the meaning in English. In Book 2, the hero Aeneas is trying to escape Troy, which is being sacked by the Greeks. As he rushes around, he encounters his fellow Trojan Panthus, and asks him for a status report. Within his short speech, Panthus tells Aeneas:

Fuimus Troes. Fuit Ilium. (2.325)

A word-for-word literal translation would read: “We were Trojans. Ilium [Troy] was.” But this is not what Virgil means. Fuit and fuimus are both perfect forms of the Latin “to be” verb, sum esse fui futurus. In the perfect tense, fui means “to have been and to not be.” What Panthus means is,”We were Trojans, but are not now. Ilium was, but is not.” David West translates it as “The Trojans are no more. Ilium has come to an end ….” This accurately conveys the meaning, but it lacks the force of the original. West has accurately captured the meaning, but neutered the potency of the Latin. To get that, you must read the Latin.

In classical educator heaven, there is a large comfy couch, a bottomless cup of strong black coffee that never gets cold, and a personal Library of Alexandria. Unfortunately, here on earth, we sometimes must settle for translations, but whenever possible, we should try to go back to the Latin. Until you do, you won’t know what you are missing!

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