I was reading Luke 10:25 in the Vulgate bible, trying my best to translate as literally as possible. But I found it hard to translate the question that the expert of law (legisperitus) poses.

(Vulgate) Et ecce quidam legisperitus surrexit tentans illum, et dicens: Magister, quid faciendo vitam æternam possidebo?

Here is my translation.

And behold a certain expert of the law stood up, testing him, and saying: "Master, by doing what shall I possess eternal life?"

First off, I think it's important to correctly parse faciendo. I take it to be the ablative form of the gerund. At first I thought it might be the gerundive, but I ruled out this possibility. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Now that we've parsed faciendo, I'm a little confused by how the Douay-Rheims bible translates it. Of course, their translation sounds a lot better than mine. But I'm curious how liberal they were in translating.

(Douay-Rheims) And behold a certain lawyer stood up, tempting him, and saying, Master, what must I do to possess eternal life?

How do they get from the ablative form of the gerund, to the subjunctive-sounding "what must I do"? Is the gerund often translated this way? Or did they take liberties in doing so?

The dilemma is that, without translating the sentence liberally, it's hard to arrive at an idiomatic, English translation. The one I gave sounds awful!

How would you translate the question posed by the legisperitus? And what do you think of the Douay-Rheims translation? I appreciate any feedback.

  • 2
    Risking to repeat myself and TKR's good answer, I have to say: To translate well is not to translate words and structures one by one, but to read a story in a language, understand it, and retell it in another language.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Sep 14, 2016 at 22:21

1 Answer 1


I think you've basically answered your own question. The literal translation you give is correct but is extremely unidiomatic English; the Douay-Rheims translation preserves the sense of the Latin but expresses it in idiomatic English. There's really no other option.

Placing the main point of a question in a subordinate clause is something Latin does freely but English does not. In this case the question can be expressed as "There is some thing X by doing which I will obtain eternal life; what is that X?" A natural Latin way to say this is with a gerund in the ablative; a natural English way to say it is with an infinitival purpose clause. The Douay-Rheims translation is syntactically distant from the Latin because it has to be, but is semantically basically equivalent.

  • 2
    The original has Καὶ ἰδοὺ νομικός τις ἀνέστη ἐκπειράζων αὐτὸν καὶ λέγων διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω; Can anyone explain why the Vulgata translates the present participle ἐκπειράζων as a Latin participle, but the aorist participle ποιήσας as an Latin ablative gerund?
    – fdb
    Sep 14, 2016 at 22:00
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    @fdb Presumably because Latin lacks a perfect active participle, which would be the equivalent of the Greek aorist participle. A present participle faciens would probably be unsuitable because it would imply that the doing and the obtaining are contemporaneous.
    – TKR
    Sep 14, 2016 at 22:02
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    I see. So it's idiomatic Latin. Interesting how the same problem occurred in the Greek to Latin translation. St. Jerome had to use the ablative gerund in place of the aorist participle. Similar to how we must use a different English construction to account for the ablative gerund. (I guess this is just a feature of translating, as Joonas pointed out.)
    – ktm5124
    Sep 15, 2016 at 3:09

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