Handling ambiguity


Every user of Blitz Latin should be aware of the great difficulty of translating Latin, relative to its derived west-European successor languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. An inflected language is always prone to ambiguities in translation. Written Latin is a concise, inflected and over-loaded language, where a single word may have several meanings depending on context. Thus it differs significantly from the verbose modern European languages. It is remarkable how many words can be construed as a verb or a noun; and how many as a noun or an adjective. Consequently Latin words are frequently ambiguous, so that an automatic translator often has to make difficult decisions about which of several alternative meanings are intended. Moreover, even when the grammatical types can be distinguished, the word may have several different meanings separated by custom (unknown to the translator) or by pronunciation (also inaccessible to Blitz Latin).
A further difficulty is that Latin does not have a word for ‘the’ or for ‘a’. Thus in general it is not possible to distinguish between ‘the king’ and ‘a king’. Modern inflected languages, such as German, greatly reduce the ambiguity of the inflection by combination of the word with an inflected article (‘the’ or ‘a’). This was a problem also for the ancient Romans, most of whom would speak in Vulgate Latin (a spoken version of Latin with many added prepositions to aid clarity) or even in Greek.
Here is an example of the problem with over-loaded meanings: ‘rex est contentus’. The word ‘contentus’ can be an adjective, meaning ‘content’, or the past participle of the verbs contendere (‘stretch’) or ‘continere’ (‘secure’). The Latin phrase can therefore be translated as ‘the king is content/stretched/secured’. Which is correct? I have no idea (without much more information which might or might not be present in the original Latin text), and neither does Blitz Latin.

Therefore accurate translation frequently requires general knowledge or even actual knowledge of Roman history, which obviously Blitz Latin does not possess. Sometimes the knowledge is unavailable even to a modern expert in Latin. A celebrated example is the emperor Nero’s reported last words, qualis artifex pereo, which have been expertly translated as ‘What an artistic way to die’, ‘Dead. And so great an artist’ and ‘What an artist dies with me’. (Try out Blitz Latin’s translation of the same words.) Presumably contemporary Romans had some way of distinguishing the alternatives by common usage, which has now been lost. Even worse is the common short phrase ‘liber primus’, which can mean ‘The First Book’ or ‘The Free Leading-man’.

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