How are your Latin English Translation Skills?

Salve! fellow German translators

Talking about Latin English translation may seem a bit off-message on this German translation website – but believe me, it’s not!

If you read the quality German press - a great way to improve your translation skills! - you'll quickly notice that Latin words and phrases are fairly commonly used.

I suspect this reflects the fact that, in contrast to most of the Anglo-Saxon world, in German-speaking countries Latin is still widely taught in schools. Basic Latin is also a requirement for students wishing to study subjects such as Law and Medicine at university.

Brush up your Latin!

I almost fell off my chair in surprise recently when a friend at a dinner party (very sweet but not particularly noted for her linguistic prowess) suddenly threw the Latin term Advocatus diaboli (Devil’s advocate) into a sentence.

No one flinched. I’ve never had that happen in England!

Do I translate Latin phrases into English?

Before taking my German translation exams, I do remember asking my tutor what to do about translating Latin phrases, even when translating for “an educated audience”.

Should I translate Latin terms into English, or leave them, in italics?

He suggested it would probably be advisable to translate the Latin into English for all but the most common Latin phrases, to ensure they would be understood.

Sad. But probably sensible.

So the following is a Latin English translation table of some of the most common Latin phrases I’ve picked up from reading quality German newspapers such as Die Zeit, or the FAZ.

You’ll immediately see that some terms are so familiar that it's easy to forget they aren’t actually English (per capita, per se).

My list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it will prove useful when these terms crop up in a German translation or two!

Commonly Used Latin English Translations

A priori From that which comes before
a.m. ante meridiem Before midday
AD (Anno domini) In the year of our Lord
Ad acta To the archives, i.e. consider the matter as closed
Ad hoc Improvised – made up for a particular purpose
Ad infinitum To infinity
Ad nauseum To the point of making one sick
Alea iacta est The die is cast
Antebellum Before the war
Bona fide In good faith
Carpe diem Seize the day
Casus belli A reason for war
Caveat emptor Let the buyer beware
Circa (c.) Approximately
Corpus delicti The body of a crime
Cui bono? For whose benefit?
Cum laude With praise
De facto In reality/of the fact
De iure According to law
Deus ex machina "A God out of a machine"
A contrived or artifical solution
Divide et impera Divide and rule / divide and conquer
Errare humanum est To err is human
Et cetera (etc.) And the rest
Ex ante before the event, beforehand
Ex cathedra "from the chair" i.e. with authority
Ex post facto after the event, retrospectively
Fecit (fec.) Made by
Id est (i.e.) That is to say
In absentia "In the absence"
In camera "In the chamber", i.e. in secret
In loco parentis In the place of a parent
In situ In position
Inter alia Among other things
Ipso facto By that very fact
Mea culpa My fault
Modus operandi (M.O.) Mode of operation
Mutatis mutandis The necessary changes having been
Nolens volens Whether one likes it or not
Nomen ist omen The name is a sign / true to its name
Non sequitur It does not follow
Nulli secundus Second to none
Ora et labora Pray and work
Panem et circenses Bread and circuses. Food and games
to keep the people happy
p.m. (post meridiem) After midday
Per annum (p.a.) Annually
Per ardua ad astra Through adversity to the stars, official motto of the British Royal Air Force
Per centum Per hundred
Per diem Per day (daily allowance)
Per se By itself/in itself
Postscriptum (PS) "After writing"
Prima facie At first sight, on the face of it
Primus inter pares First among equals
Pro bono (publica) For the public good (work undertaken free of charge)
Pro forma As a matter of formality
Pro rata In proportion to the value
Quod erat demonstrandum (QED) "That which was to have been demonstrated"
i.e. proof is complete
Quasi As if
Quid pro quo Something for something (an equal exchange)
Salve Hello
Sic Thus,just so
Sine nobilitas Without nobility (SNOB)
Sotto voce In a soft voice
Status quo The current state of being
Tabula rasa A clean slate
Tempus fugit Time flees
Verba volant,scripta manent Spoken words fly away, written words remain
Vice versa In reverse order
Vox populi The voice of the people

For a more extensive list of Latin phrases, I recommend this online Latin English translation dictionary, especially if you need to translate gems such as: Heu! Tintinnuntius meus sonat! (Darn! There goes my beeper!) or Me transmitte sursum, caledoni! (Beam me up, Scotty!).

And, as a last comment on Latin English translation, a quote from the Roman poet Horace. I most like the following translation of this quote,  by André Lefevere:

Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere fidus, interpres
(Do not worry about rendering word for word, faithful interpreter, but translate sense for sense.)

How appropriate.


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Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?

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