Taking the Time to Translate - Memoria Press

Latin: Time to Translate

Growing up, I loved to help my grandfather put together jigsaw puzzles. I remember how daunting it would seem when I first glanced at the thousands of tiny pieces and wondered how they would ever all fit together to form the picture on the front of the puzzle box. Yet, slowly but surely, as we sorted and arranged the various pieces, they would form a scenic landscape or a beautiful work of art. It was a satisfying feeling to finally survey the finished puzzle—all of our labor and patience paid off.

For a grammar school student, translating a sentence—either into Latin or from Latin to English—has a similar effect. Students spend hours memorizing vocabulary and grammar forms and, no doubt, there are times when those efforts feel disconnected and disjointed, like scattered puzzle pieces. Then, they are presented with an entire sentence and they must work to fit together all of the various pieces they have been learning into a coherent structure. Their hard-earned knowledge no longer looks random or isolated, but like perfect parts of a larger whole. Little by little, they are able to use this knowledge to bring order and meaning to the Latin language, and this provides them with a genuinely rewarding academic experience. So how can you maximize the moments when your students achieve such gratification in their Latin studies?

First, do not skip over recitation and review. In order for something to be retained by our memories, it must be repeated. Our Latin students will lose the knowledge they have worked so hard to gain if they are not constantly, consistently practicing it. Once a week, make it a priority to work through all of the grammar forms your students have learned. Have a system in place for students to be held accountable for all of the vocabulary they have memorized, whether through pop quizzes or regularly scheduled review quizzes. Recitation and review must be given primacy for grammar school students, even as they are increasingly challenged to translate.

Latin: Time to Translate

Second, follow an unvarying process as you go about translating with your students. This will help form the essential habits required for success. The vast majority of translation should be done with the guidance and direction of a teacher. Grammar school students need structure and simplification as they take their first steps toward the ultimate goal of translating. They need to have a consistent method implemented by you because they easily become overwhelmed and lost without leadership. I have found that the following steps work well as I have translated with my students:

    1. Place the Latin sentence on the board and read aloud. Then, have the students read along with you to promote fluency in reading Lat in. As they read, ask them to look for the sentence pattern, such as Subject + Verb + Direct Object. After ascertaining the sentence pattern, write it on the board to the side of the sentence, so that students keep it at the forefront of their minds while working through the translation.
    2. Identify all the parts of the sentence and write the corresponding label above each word. I generally ask for this in the following order: verb, subject, other nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions. Specifically
      identify how each noun functions in the sentence and label accordingly (direct object, object of the preposition, etc.). Also, be sure to put brackets or parentheses around noun/adjective phrases and prepositional phrases.
    3. Have students parse each word and give a simple translation. Parsing means they should include all of the important information about each word that will guide them to the proper translation. For example, when
      parsing a verb, the conjugation, person, number, and tense should be provided; for nouns, the declension, gender, number, and case. If they are stumped by a word, prompt them by asking for the dictionary form. Have students underline the stem and circle any tense or case endings, if necessary, to help guide them to the correct meaning. Hopefully they will start to see how all the time they spent memorizing vocabulary and grammar forms is benefiting them.
    4. Put together a final translation of the entire sentence. Some sentences have multiple arrangements that are correct, so be flexible.

Students will be tempted to gloss over many of these steps and merely rush to the final translation. However, slowing down in order to think through each word in a systematic and logical way equips students to not make careless errors. But as being meticulous is simply not natural for grammar school students, you will have to carefully train them to take their time and pay close attention to detail, and teach them to regard translation as a gradual process that is worth working toward. In our modern age we have the tendency to want quick and easy answers. Undoubtedly, this is largely due to the habits our technologies cultivate. With the press of a button or the swipe of a finger, we have grown accustomed to immediacy. As a child, working with my grandfather to put together a jigsaw puzzle served as a well-needed corrective to this inclination toward impatience.

Academically, Latin, more than any other subject, fosters a diligent and disciplined work ethic that can pull together many pieces the student has learned and connect them to form a satisfying whole. The best things in life, the most beautiful and meaningful, take time and toil. Rome was not built in a day. Translating Latin, the ancient and noble language of Rome that has formed the cornerstone of Western civilization for thousands of years, is well worth the effort and well worth the wait.


Jessica Watson has been involved in education for more than twenty years, first as a homeschool mother and currently as a teacher at Highlands Latin School. She is the author of several study guides and the instructor for many Latin instructional videos for Memoria Press.

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