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What are ablative absolutes and how are they best translated?

Ablative absolutes are a very common construction in Latin prose and verse, and a normally formed by a noun (or pronoun) together with a participle in the ablative case.

They are grammatically free from the rest of the sentence, acting as a subordinate clause.

This means they cannot refer to anything that comes later in the sentence, e.g.:

Caesare necato, mox deus factus est. With Caesar having been killed, he soon became a god.

– This is grammatically incorrect – remembering this will make unseen translations much easier.

Here are the three types of ablative absolute that you will encounter at GCSE level:

With a Perfect Passive Participle

his verbis dictis, Caesar discessit. With these words having been said, Caesar departed.

With a Present Participle

leone adveniente, agni fugerunt. With the lion approaching, the sheep fled.

Without a Participle

Scipione duce vincemus. With Scipio as leader, we shall conquer.

Although a very literal translation has been given above in order to provide the first stage of understanding ablative absolutes, markers will prefer a more natural/idiomatic translation.

The best way to translate these phrases is with ‘when’:

his verbis dictis, Caesar discedit. When these words had been said, Caesar departed.

leone adveniente, agni fugerunt. When the lion was approaching, the sheep fled.

Scipione duce vincemus. We shall conquer when Scipio is leader.

Robert Tominey T.

8 months ago

Answered by Robert , a GCSE Latin tutor with MyTutor


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