The Golden Rules of Latin Translation
By Nick Oulton
17 May

One of the great milestones in Latin is learning to cope with joined up passages of Latin, especially for those who have spent term after term translating simple sentences. I remember when I was at school, I loved translating little sentences about Cotta attacking the Gauls with arrows, and Labienus fortifying the town with a rampart. But suddenly, quite out of the blue, we were faced with a PASSAGE of Latin... Agh, run for cover! Head for the hills! It can’t be done!

Well actually, learning to cope with a joined up passage of Latin is really pretty easy, once you know what you are doing. But, as with simple sentences, there are some rules to follow, and if you don’t get the rules right, you will always be indulging in glorified guesswork – and the Romans didn’t build their empire on guesswork.
So, if you are trying to help your child cope with the joys of translating Latin, and you don’t want them to be guessing all the time, here are the key steps that they need to go through, every single time they pick up their pen to translate. They are set out in the Revision Guide on page 24 if you want to see them in all their glory, but the absolute crux of the matter is set out below.
Rule 1: Look at the verb first.
If I had a quid for every time one of my pupils made a hash of a sentence simply because they hadn’t looked at the verb first, I would now be living in tax exile. Even Julius Caesar himself would keep an eye on the verb before opening his mouth and dishing out all that stuff about the Gauls. The verb tells us WHO is DOING the action in the sentence, and if you get that bit wrong, everything falls apart. Imagine the difference between the sentences ‘I ate the cheeseburger’; and, ‘The cheeseburger ate me.’ Pretty fundamentally different? Yes, and in Latin, the ending of the verb would tell us that in the first one, I was doing the eating, and in the second one, He/she/it was doing the eating. So you simply couldn’t get this the wrong way round.
But of course it is not always so obvious (after all, when did you last see a cheeseburger eat anyone?). For example, in a sentence such as:
Tandem puellam vidimus,
far too many pupils will translate this as ‘At last the girl sees’. But if they looked at the verb, and saw that it ended in –mus, they would know FOR CERTAIN that the person doing the seeing was WE, so it couldn’t possibly mean The girl sees. It does of course mean ‘At last WE see the girl.’
So if nothing else sinks in, tell them the following:
If the verb ends in –O, the person doing the verb is I
If the verb ends in –S, the person doing the verb is YOU (singular)
If the verb ends in –MUS, the person doing the verb is WE
If the verb ends in –TIS, the person doing the verb is YOU (plural)
These four little things will help them to avoid a large number of dasterly traps in the sentences they see.
Rule 2: Look for a subject
It is absurdly important that pupils only go looking for a subject IF they haven’t already found one in the rule above. If the verb ends in any of those combinations listed above, please don’t try to find one somewhere else. But if the verb ends in either –T or –NT, then we have some fun and games, because there is a choice to be made. EITHER the subject will be a noun in the nominative case, OR it will be the pronoun he/she/it or they, buried in the verb. But which?
Well, the simplest rule is that IF the verb ends in –T, have a look (normally near the front of the sentence) for a SINGULAR noun in the nominative case. It’s highly  likely to end in –US if it’s masculine or –A if it’s feminine (but don’t hold me to that!). If you find one, then that is your subject. If you don’t find one, then go back to the verb and pick up the pronoun buried in the verb, i.e. He or She (or perhaps, if we are talking about cheeseburgers, It).
If the verb ends in –NT, have a look for a PLURAL noun in the nominative case, which is highly likely to end in –I if it’s masculine or –AE if it’s feminine. If you find one, then bingo, that’s your subject. If you don’t, go back to the verb and use They as your subject.
Now I’m not saying this is absolutely fool-proof. Neuter nouns cause a bit of a headache, as do irregular ones, and of course when we heave ourselves into the 3rd declension, it all gets a bit harder. But at Level 1 of Common Entrance, the guidelines above will allow you to avoid disaster 9 times out of 10, and I think that’s quite enough to be going on with.
Rule 3: Don’t panic!
Once you have followed the two rules above, there is only one other to follow, and that is simply: Don’t panic! All the little rules your Latin teachers has taught you about adjectives agreeing with nouns, and prepositions governing nouns in the accusative or ablative, bla bla bla, all of this will fall neatly into place if you obey the first two rules. So don’t panic or go mad, don’t just cram all the other words into your sentence in a higgly piggly order. And most important of all, DON’T change what you did in the 1st two rules to try to make sense of the rest of the words in the sentence. That way disaster lies – and more than likely, will end up with a cheeseburger eating you. And we don’t want that, now do we?
Nick is author of our Latin for Common Entrance Latin series. Download a free sample and check out the range here

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