The automated teller machines in Vatican City show this screen when awaiting a card:

ATM screen showing a National Cash Register logo at the bottom

Could someone, quaeso, break this down word by word? There are a number of things here that I find puzzling or surprising:

  1. Why future imperative for inserito? I understand the future imperative to mainly be for things to do from now on, not for something to do right now.

  2. Does quaeso here function like English "please"? But doesn't it anthropomorphize the machine, literally meaning "I ask"? Or has quaeso taken on a non-anthropomorphizing adverbial meaning in contemporary Latin as a polite softener for when a machine addresses a human in the imperative mood?

  3. Does ratio faciunda mean bank account to operate on? Calculation to be performed? Something else?

  4. Why is cognoscas in the 2nd person? I am to insert my card so that I know which bank account to use? (Maybe the answer to this question explains the previous one.)

  5. Why does the word order emphasize rationem instead of placing cognoscas at the end of the clause?

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    Si Romae sis, circa hoc ATM, Inserito scidulam quaeso ut textūs cognoscas sensum. Deinde nobis narrabis quid sibi vult. – d_e Apr 14 at 19:16
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    Is that Comic Sans?? – Sebastian Koppehel Apr 14 at 20:38
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    @d_e Sequens consilium ingeniosum tuum, vice ad Romam proficiscendi imaginem paginae secundae interretialiter quaesivi atque infima hac pagina nuntium tristem inveni. – Ben Kovitz Apr 14 at 21:34
  • @SebastianKoppehel. It does look like it, doesn't it? Because cognitio faciundae rationis should be 'fun,' I suppose. (Or perhaps it just needs to be made less 'intimidating' – esp. when the text is in Latin?) Still, it could have been worse; they could have used the vile, ubiquitous Papyrus instead. – cnread Apr 14 at 22:07
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    @d_e Etiam nuntium bonum. – Ben Kovitz Apr 14 at 23:39

When I first saw this text it too struck me as unclear and unnatural. The first problem has since been resolved, the second however remains. Another reply mentions Foster himself translating it as 'Insert your card--scidulam--so you can access the operations allowed.' - that's certainly not an exact rendering of what the Latin says, which is instead:

"I kindly ask that you then insert your card in order to learn what approach needs to be done."

From this follow my observations that will simultaneously try to answer the questions:

  • inseritō: the future imperative is the standard form of instruction in manuals; however, I don't think it's appropriate in an immediate address:

    "The present imperative differs from the future imperative in -to, the semantic value of which is, certainly in Early Latin comedy and in legal texts, ‘non-immediate realization of the action involved’. When the present and future imperatives co-occur, the difference in immediacy becomes apparent..." (Pinkster 2015: 515)

  • scidula: σχίδα~η seems to be a variant of σχέδη already in Greek; sc(h)eda looks to be reflected by Italian sc/ɛ/da (no diphthong would mean a native Tuscan survival).
  • quaesō: I think it does anthrophomorphize the machine, and this is normal - we digital moderns anthropomorphize them all the time, and in Latin this is taken to eleven and one of the most common sources of neologisms. In this case, however, quaesō might be a little too friendly-conversational (Cicero in his letters reserves it for the most personal requests) and rogō might have been more appropriate - or in fact the even more impassionate rogāmus.
    • I disagree that if an English translation does not, this means that the original doesn't either - in many cultures animal names are employed metaphorically to refer to certain objectionable human qualities, like "an ass=donkey" for dim-witted and obstinate people, and the fact that in English "ass" refers to the buttocks while "donkey" isn't used as an insult bears no relation to the fact that calling someone осёл in Russian is clearly zoomorphising, as is incidentally су́ка "bitch" - less so in English.
  • ratiō faciunda uses ratiō in the sense "logical method, approach, way of proceding", but the use of facere seems unnatural to me, which I illustrate in the translation "to do an approach". I've found no instances of this collocation. This is the main reason the sentence is difficult to understand - since this meaning of the noun that exhibits a great variety of idiomatic uses doesn't work with a verb whose meaning is itself extremely bleached, and there's no clue as to what other meaning could have been intended.
    • I don't think it can be "transaction", because the ATM has no business telling the user which monetary transaction they need to perform - it's the other way around.
    • notice -und- instead of the more common -end- – their distribution was determined partly stylistically and partly word-by-word, and for facere in official contexts this form was indeed preferred, although this is not reflected by modern editions.
  • cōgnōscās is simply "to get to know some information", which is it's primary meaning. It promises to tell you how to proceed next.
  • The word order is the default one after a fronted faciundam, at least in written use. It exhibits what's commonly known in relation to Latin as 'hyperbaton' - a discontinuous noun phrase. In proper syntacticianese this is called 'movement', and in the case of leftwards movement 'fronting'. Here the underlying word order before fronting is cōgnōscās ratiōnem faciundam, while its presence adds a certain amount of poetic flavour.
    • I suppose the most unmarked word order is ratiōnem faciundam cōgnōscās, with phrasal stress on the second word - the fronting of one member of the noun phrase is marked already, while faciundam ratiōnem cōgnōscās is doubly so and places stress on ratiōnem - or can be an instance of right-movement of cōgnōscās, thus delaying, suspending it (accompanied by a suspended intonation and possibly a pause).

My own rendering of 'Please insert your card to receive further instructions' would be:

Insere schedulam, rogāmus, ut agendī ratiōnem accipiās.

Notice the genitive nd-noun ("gerund") instead of the nominative nd-adjective ("gerundive") - this might be what Foster was going for, but he confused the two verbs and consequently the two constructions. Paradoxically enough I feel that this is the least marked word order in this case, since agendī ratiō is a single, quasi-compound noun phrase, quite regularly so when it comes to generic-reference objective genitive expressions - indeed, (Spevak 2010: 99 & 182) concurs that "genitives with generic referents [...] are often pre-nominal" and "objective genitives coming last are semantically prominent".

As for translating 'so you can access the operations allowed', I think I'd be stretching the idiomatic resources of Latin and/or my knowledge of its financial jargon, but I think this would be sufficiently clear:

...ut certior fīās quae ratiōnēs aut negōtia cūrārī possint.


  1. Pinkster H. (2015). The Oxford Latin Syntax
  2. Spevak O. (2010). The Noun Phrase in Classical Latin Prose
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    It just occurred to me that the unnatural facere might be a calque of the ubiquitous Italian fare. It is quite likely that whoever wrote the text speaks Italian as a native language. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 17 at 13:09
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    Well, Latin itself widely employs facere as a generic support verb for nominal periphrasis: in fact it has grammaticalised it as an affix -ficāre and a base -facere (laetificāre, calfacere) while continuing the syntactic use (laetum facere to make happy). So the difference here is in degree and detail - something I would expect a celebrated writer like Foster to get right. Incidentally, I get the impression that the exaltation he received is more of a Christian tradition (like with the saints) than a true reflection of his mastery of Latin. Sounds a bit arrogant, but many will quietly agree – Unbrutal_Russian Apr 17 at 13:27
  • A few notes: (1) I've never seen rogamus used "extra-syntactically" in this way. In fact, "rogamus" only generates one hit in the Packhum corpus; (2) though there are certainly cases where the future imperative has a distinctive future force, I see no reason to think that this use of inserito is at odds with Plautus; and (3) I see the ambiguity, but not the incorrectness, of using facere. Witness Varro talking about siege technique: "sed non in omnibus locis est aggeris ratio facienda, etc." – brianpck Apr 21 at 3:13
  • Finally, I think I ought to note that Foster's mastery of Latin is hardly a product of Christian hagiography: are you aware of anyone who "quietly agrees" with your muted appraisal of his merits? – brianpck Apr 21 at 3:16
  • @brianpck & Unbrutal_Russian: Might the future imperative make sense here because, being on a screen that just sits there 24/7 as passersby pass by, the actual meaning is "when and if you decide to do it", i.e. not necessarily right now? – Ben Kovitz Apr 21 at 3:22

The source of this Latin ATM message, as confirmed is a few profiles (such as this one from the Catholic Herald and this one from The Telegraph) is the lately-deceased Reginald Foster, who was arguably one of the greatest Latin speakers of the past century.

The Vatican Diaries, pg. 196 quotes Foster's own translation:

The elevator whirred quietly to the top floor of the Apostolic Palace, and Foster led us through a warren of stuffy rooms, pausing in a hallway before an ATM machine operated by the Vatican bank. "I wrote this," he said. "Hee, hee, hee." The instructions on the screen were in Latin: "Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem." He translated: "'Insert your card--scidulam--so you can access the operations allowed.' It's baby talk, really."

My own more literal translation:

Please insert [your] card so you may find the procedure to be done.

As for your specific questions:

  • I actually don't read the future imperative as formal language (nor does Foster, based on the above quote). In fact, you will find that many (most?) imperatives in Plautus--whom Foster often imitated--use the future.
  • Quaeso can indeed be used alone to mean "please." (See these examples from Plautus.) This doesn't seem any more anthropomorphizing than the "please" in my translation above.
  • I agree with Joonas about ratio faciunda: it's a future passive participle that roughly means: "operation."
  • I see cognoscas as a more broad "discover," or (as Foster transltes it) "access," as we would say, "Scan this barcode to discover our menu options."
  • I don't see anything unnatural about the word order, and wouldn't read any special meaning into it.
  • Two questions: 1. Would a fair translation be "Please insert card for instructions"? 2. If so, would rationem at the end make sense because it's the logical "closer" of the thought: the thing you get when you insert the card? – Ben Kovitz Apr 15 at 10:06
  • Very appreciative of the link to Reginald Foster, of whom I had never heard. An interesting character! – Anger Density Apr 16 at 16:49

The message is indeed hard to parse because of the broad meanings of ratio, facere, and cognoscere. I am not sure whether there can be a very solid and authoritative answer, so I will just share my view.

  1. I think the future imperative is simply used for sollemnity. I would not understand it referring to the future but just promoting the register of the text to a higher level.

  2. Indeed, quaeso is used like the English "please". It would have been clearer to separate it by commas perhaps, but this is not an uncommon use of the word. Objects can be active. The famous Praeneste fibula says that "Manius made me for Numerius". Making objects talk like this is not a recent invention.

  3. I would read ratio as "transaction" which is just a modern preferred way to say "reckoning of money". The gerundive faciundam makes most sense to me as a future passive participle, but ascribing obligation to it would not change the message substantially. Perhaps it was intended as a future participle of fieri. At any rate, ratio faciunda seems to be something in the direction of "a transaction that is about to take place".

  4. I think the machine is asking you to acknowledge that the action is about to take place. In essence: "Insert the card to verify that you intend to carry out this transaction."

    Another option is that the machine will tell you more after you insert the card. This seems to require a different inrepretation of ratio faciunda. Whatever it stands for in this reading, the message would be: "Please insert card to know ratio faciunda." Reading it as "Please insert card to know what transaction will take place" sounds impossible, as that would imply that the transaction is somehow predetermined.

  5. I would not read much into the word order. It seems to suggest to me that the machine asks you to cognoscere that the ratio is faciunda.

All in all, I interpret the meaning to be roughly: "Please insert card to know what transaction can be done." It requires a bit of charity and puzzle solving to get there.


With respect to (3) (4),

I think it is very tempting to have congnosco to denote an active action that the user should do. So my guess it can be rendered identify or more freely on the context select.

I read ratio faciunda as method of operation (method to be done). So the user is required to insert the card so that he can select a method from several options.

But I admit I'm uneasy with this interpretation of congnosco. Maybe we can have a more natural cognosco with learn/become acquainted with the method/manner of the operation: i.e., how to use this machine.

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