Translation tips

Latin Translation Tips
The translation of different sources and types of Latin will benefit greatly in accuracy by understanding the points below. The most important point to understand is that there is often no one meaning for a Latin word, it can change completely due to the context of the sentence that it is in. This ambiguity causes problems with a computer translation as, unlike a Latin scholar, the computer does not have historical and cultural experience to apply to selecting the right meaning. The second general point to bear in mind is that Latin does not use the formal Subject Verb Object word order of modern European languages so Blitz Latin rearranges the order to suit modern understanding. This can sometimes cause problems if Blitz Latin has misunderstood the meaning of the words it has rearranged. If a translation is poor sometimes switching to a literal translation can help. The large dictionary is invaluable for translating real world texts, however for simple texts of the sort often used in teaching materials better results can sometimes be obtained by selecting the Easy Latin option.

Blitz Latin has been heavily checked in recent years against the Latin texts of the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI; CD ROM #5.3), used with kind permission. These double-checked, highly accurate texts contain all known Latin up to 200 AD, and many subsequent writings to 600 AD. Thus the accuracy of Blitz Latin’s translations can be readily assessed. It has become possible to assert that Blitz Latin’s grammatical accuracy has become generally very good. This does not mean that the translations are perfect, since Latin ambiguity remains an insuperable problem for a computer program that lacks human knowledge.

Experience with the PHI texts shows that Blitz Latin handles the instructive texts pretty well, the philosophical texts less well, and the poetic and eloquent texts poorly. Broadly speaking, short sentences are handled better than long ones. One does need to ‘think Roman’ when translating ancient Latin texts. The Romans used their own slang and euphemisms. For example, a person is often described as ‘sublatus’. This means that he has died, not that he is ‘lifted’ (literal translation), still less that he is ‘elated’ (alternative adjective). Unfortunately, the only way to acquire the Roman mind-set is to read a lot of classical Latin literature!

Handling The Ambiguity of Latin
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’.
Word Order
Blitz Latin rearranges the order to suit modern understanding. This can sometimes cause problems if Blitz Latin has misunderstood the meaning of the words it has rearranged. If a translation is poor sometimes switching to a literal translation can help. The modern west-European languages can largely be translated word-for-word into English, whereas in Latin the word order shows the emphasis that the writer required. The subject, verb and object of a Latin sentence may be placed anywhere within it. Indeed, books about Latin grammar go to great lengths to instruct students in the principles of which Latin word is connected with which other Latin word. You do not find that in books of French or German grammar! Thus word-for-word translations are impossible from Latin to English. For example, in Italian we can say ‘contro i discepoli di Christo’, a phrase that can be translated word-for-word to give: ‘against the followers of Christ’ (a common theme in the early Christian literature). In Latin this becomes ‘contra Christi cultores’. You may notice that the Latin version has only three words, and their order is different from the Italian/English. Moreover, cultores can mean ‘inhabitants, cultivators, supporters’.
Medieval Spelling
Many medieval writers wrote truly awful Latin. They couldn’t spell and they invented new words. To take just one example, the word listed in Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary as ‘synemmenon’ is variously spelled as ‘synnemenon’, ‘synemenon’, ‘sinemenon’ and ‘sinemmenon’. How should Blitz Latin respond? It can no more list every alternative mis-spelling of a difficult word than can (say) a modern English dictionary. The new phonetic checker handles all the above mis-spellings. Thus users of Blitz Latin for medieval documents are certain to suffer some disappointments, although the translator is actually very good (far beyond reasonable expectation) in trying to adjust for medieval errors. Example of difficulty: the famous Magna Carta was a Latin document limiting the king’s powers, that was signed at the instigation of his powerful barons by a reluctant King John in 1215 in England. The barons are addressed repeatedly in the Magna Carta as ‘barones’. Every single (printed) Latin dictionary that you can find lists ‘barones’ as ‘blockheads/dunces’ with NO alternatives! How will you react, dear reader, if you attempt to translate the Magna Carta and encounter references to ‘the king’s loyal blockheads’ in every other sentence? It is not only medieval authors who wrote dreadful Latin. There is an irritating modern trend for children’s authors to use short Latin phrases in their books, apparently to impress their young readers. Many of these sentences make no sense at all, so naturally Blitz Latin cannot interpret them properly either. Example: ‘damnatio tuum’ [sic]. If you are a young person, please remember that the Latin in your favourite book probably makes no sense even to a human Latin expert.
Spelling and Punctuation
On the internet in 2005 a writer wished to know if anyone could provide a translation of a Latin hymn and a helpful reader provided a translation using Blitz Latin. This proved to be very inaccurate but when the reasons were examined most of the inaccuracies were explainable by poor spelling and almost no punctuation. In the original text ‘venere mue’ was supposed to be ‘veneremus’ (‘s’ and ‘e’ are close on the keyboard). The words ‘Genetoque’ and ‘antquum’ need to be replaced with ‘Genitoque’ and ‘antiquum’. There was also a problem of bizarre line spacing and the random introduction of capital letters into the text. Capitals are used by Blitz Latin as an indication of proper names. The text lacked any full stops (periods) except at the end. Verses were separated by empty lines. Therefore what the user should do to improve readibility is to make these changes to the original text: 1. Replace ALL capital letters with lower-case letters, unless they are obviously proper names such as Christus or Amen. Blitz Latin assumes all words beginning with a capital letter are proper names (except the first word of a sentence). 2. Place a full-stop (period) at the end of each verse. Otherwise, place a comma at the end of each line.
Teaching Material Translation
The huge dictionary of Blitz Latin is very beneficial when translating real Latin texts, since classical and medieval writers tended to use the whole range of their vocabularies to express themselves. The importance of having a sufficient dictionary for real, ambiguous Latin texts can scarcely be exaggerated. However, a giant vocabulary can sometimes complicate the translation of the simpler Latin texts used for teaching purposes. Teachers and students using such texts should toggle ON the menu option EDIT/EASY LATIN (or press Ctrl+L). The default is OFF. There are three effects: 1. The preferred age is immediately switched to ‘CLASSICAL LATIN’. 2. All less common words, defined as those with a frequency of ‘D’ or higher, will be deleted from consideration during translation. Note that the rarer words will still be seen when you click on a Latin word in one of the windows, or when viewing in non-translation mode (translation toggle off), or when viewing the dictionary. 3. If no common word is found in the dictionary for a Latin word, then all the less common Latin words will be considered instead. For example, ‘improbatio’ is very rare, but if you type in ‘rex habet improbationem’, ‘improbatio’ will still be translated since it is a classical word and there is no more common alternative. However, if ‘improbatio’ were a medieval word only, it would not be used either. You can over-ride the ‘Classical Latin’ age, if you wish, by changing to Age Preferred. Finally, when you have finished with this mode, don’t forget to reset ‘Preferred Age’ to your preference (default is medieval age).