How to work on a Latin passage without translating it

magnifying glass


The most important thing to remember, when you’re faced with an unfamiliar Latin passage, is to ignore the Latin. Counter-intuitive? Well, yes. But I’ve seen a lot of accomplished Latinists flounder, for want of a bit of common sense. So here are three things to consider before you start to write.



  1. Capital letters are clues. The first thing you should do is look for the capital letters. Those will tell you the people and the places involved in the story. That’s a huge clue – and if you recognise the names, you can indulge in a bit of guesswork about what is happening in the story. If you take this a step further, by looking at the ending of those names, you’ll also have a sense of who is doing what to whom.



  1. Punctuation is there to help you. Divide the passage up by punctuation, particularly full stops, colons and semi-colons. The punctuation has been put there to show you where the grammatical breaks are: so ignore it at your peril! Mark the full stops and colons with a line: grammatical structures cannot pass through that line, so you know that each one is a separate unit, often with a subject, an object and a verb. Punctuation marks like exclamation marks and question marks are especially useful: as well as being sentence breaks they’ll tell you if something exciting is happening, or if questions are being asked and answered, giving you a sense of the tone of the passage.



  1. Watch out for the first-sentence hurdle. Don’t ever jump straight into the first sentence without looking around first. Mistranslating the first sentence can put you on the wrong track entirely – and it’s very easy to do because you have no context for the first sentence. The first sentence (or the second, if the first is remarkably simple) is where most of the big mistakes happen, so be alert for that.



It’s important to get into these common-sense habits – even if the passage in front of you has lots of notes to help you, in which case you may feel that you don’t need a translation strategy. If this approach becomes second nature it will make a big difference to your performance in the exam, when you won’t have helpful notes or reference books. That’s the time when you’ll really need an approach which gives you an overview of the passage before you start to translate. Exam panic leads to some truly bizarre translations from those who take every word as it comes!


Cora Beth Knowles