Latin translation tips

I’m clearing out my computer, and found a file which may as well be here.


  1. The first thing to do is to run through the sentence, identifying the verbs and anything that looks like it might be a verb (even in a strange form, like “passus” or “ascendere”).
  2. Run through a second time, looking for structures like “ut + subjunctive” and “non solum… sed etiam…” - if a verb you spotted is in an odd form, this is when you look quickly for why it’s in that form.
  3. Look for any subordinate clauses (like “dixit Caecilius, qui in horto laborabat…”)
  4. If you see an adjective-looking thing, it probably has to go with a noun.
  5. With that in mind, chunk the text, remembering that two verbs in the same chunk is unlikely unless one is something like “dixit” or “poterat”, which can modify another verb. Remember that chunks shouldn’t be too long, but lots of really short words together might not count against the length limit. Try reading out each chunk - rhythm takes time to learn to grasp, but it might help you.

Once the text is chunked:

  1. Remember that your chunking is probably wrong somewhere, but also is probably broadly right.
  2. In each chunk, if there’s a nominative and a verb then try and translate those first. Then think about what the verb “expects”; if the verb is looking for an accusative, find an accusative, while if it’s looking for a dative, find a dative. For example, “docet” = “he teaches” is looking for an accusative, while “trahet” = “he drags” is looking both for an accusative (“he drags something”) and possibly a dative (“he drags something somewhere”).
  3. If it looks like a jumble of words, identify the case of everything (in poetry, it can help if you scan the text) - this should tell you what goes with what. Don’t be too fussy about getting the right case, though - I’d be happy with “dative or ablative”, most of the time, because that’s usually clear from context - as long as you have the right case among your options!

Guessing vocab:

Try and work out what the principal parts of a verb are. The English word from a given Latin one almost always comes from the past passive participle (the fourth principal part), by adding “tion” instead of “us”: “passus” -> “passion” [a bit misleading if you don’t know about the Passion of the Christ, because it means “suffering”], “traho” -> “tractus” -> “traction”; it actually means “drag”. How to guess the principal parts is the kind of thing you learn with time, but as a general rule, “t” -> “s” (as in “patior passus”) and almost everything else goes to “ct”: “pingere pictus” from which “depiction” so “painting”, “facere factus” from which “manufaction” which isn’t really English but tells you it means “making”, etc.


  • If you see lots and lots of things in the same case, ask yourself whether they all go together, or whether there’s some reason that more things than usual should be in that case. Usually it’ll be the former, with the major exception being “que” = “and”. (eg. Caesarem Brutumque - Caesar isn’t described by the word “Brutus”, but they’re both affected by the same verb.)
  • Don’t be afraid to amend your earlier translation, if something becomes clarified by later text. Keep looking at the English you get, to make sure you’re on track; while you’re working, it’s better to leave something blank than to get it wrong, so don’t guess too early. Once you’ve gone over the whole thing, or you’ve got to a point where everything afterwards is impossible without help from earlier, then you can guess. (And, of course, leave nothing blank when you hand it in!) If you do amend the translation, score out the old one with a thin line - don’t scribble it out - because then the examiners might take pity on you if it turned out to be right the first time after all. If you make a significant amendment (you find out that Brutus is actually doing what you thought Caesar was doing, for example) then you should reread the whole translation; check that the new interpretation isn’t just impossible from what Latin has come earlier, and check whether earlier parts make more sense under the new interpretation.