How to translate complex Latin sentences?

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In the GCSE Latin language papers you will inevitably come across some sentences that require a bit more attention and care to render an appropriate translation. Although these sentences may appear intimidating at first, fear not, there are a few simple ways of making these sentences more straightforward to translate.

Let’s take a look at an example sentence, work through a translation together, then have a look at my simple checklist of rules that will help you navigate any Latin sentence.

Here is a sample sentence from Latin language paper A402, January 2013:

postea, ubi Phocion ad urbem revocatus est, cives in forum convenerunt ad ducem clarum conspiciendum.

My translation of this would be:

Afterwards, when Phocion was called back to the city, the citizens assembled in the forum in order to catch sight of the famous leader.

So how did I get there?

First of all, I looked at the punctuation to divide up the sentence into smaller, more manageable chunks. Why? Well, Latin does not actually use punctuation; any commas, semi-colons or full stops have been added by the examiners to make things easier for you. Take advantage of their help! You will have noticed the two commas around “ubi Phocion ad urbem revocatus est”. If this is the case, then they are drawing your attention to the fact that they want you to translate this a separate clause. So do so!

Now that we’ve divided our sentence up into the main clause and the sub-clause, the second thing to do is to analyse the verb. Let’s start with the main clause, “postea… cives in forum convenerunt ad ducem clarum conspiciendum.” The most important part of a Latin sentence is the verb and when we come across one, we need to ask a few basic questions:

1)What does it mean?

2)How does it function grammatically? (person, number, tense, voice, mood)

3)Who is the subject of the verb (who is doing the action)?

4)Is there an object to the verb? (though this will not always be the case)

The verb in the main clause is convenerunt. Meaning: to assemble, gather, convene. Grammatically it is a third person plural perfect indicative active verb ( which translates as “they assembled, gathered, convened”). So what does this tell us about the subject? It must be a plural noun (or pronoun). What options do we have? Only cives; so we can replace “they” with “the citizens”. What is the object? As convenio is an intransitive verb (it doesn’t take a direct object) , we need to think about prepositional phrases that might follow on from it: in forum clearly can’t apply to any other verb so we have so far: “The citizens gathered in the forum”.    

The third step we need to take is to identify constructions. One that stands out here is “ad ducem clarum conspiciendum.” What do we know about ad + gerund? It is a purpose construction which can be translated as “in order to”. Once we’ve worked out that conspiciendum comes from conspicio meaning “to catch sight of”, we can write “in order to catch sight of…” Then we just need to work out what the object is; ducem clarum are the only two words remaining and once we’ve worked out that clarum is an accusative adjective, it becomes clear that they agree. So we can finish off this construction and write “in order to catch sight of the famous leader”.

What have we got left? Just postea, which we can translate straightforwardly as “afterwards” and put at the beginning of our sentence, and the sub clauseubi Phocion ad urbem revocatus est”. Again we start with the verb “revocatus est”, work out what it means and what it is grammatically (a third person singular perfect indicative passive verb from the verb revoco – to call back) giving us the translation “he was called back”. Then identify the subject Phocion (this name is given to you in the vocab list below the translation).  With this done, we can determine the general construction: ubi + indicative = when; and then fill in the extra information to reach the translation of, “when Phocion was called back to the city”.    

So there we go; we’ve now translated the whole sentence. Here are the basic rules we can apply for all Latin sentences:

1)Look at the punctuation

2)Analyse the verbs

3)Identify any other constructions

4)Start with the main clause

5)Then translate the sub clause

Here are a couple more useful tips which I didn’t cover while translating this individual sentence, but will help you to translate any Latin language paper:

6)Put a little dot above every word  you have already translated ( you automatically lose a mark if you miss a word)

7)Read the summary of the story at the top

8)Read the list of words they give you (including the genitive form and principal parts- they will help you!)

I hope this has helped you: apply these rules next time you tackle a Latin translation- you’ll be surprised how straightforward it is!

Felix O. 13 plus  Religious Studies tutor, A Level Religious Studies ...

About the author

is an online GCSE Latin tutor with MyTutor studying at Exeter University

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