In CHAT we've been discussing the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict: a dirty little war which should never have happened.

How to express this, in Latin?

"bellum turpissimum numquam quod factum esset."

This, involving a neuter relative clause with the pluperfect passive subjunctive of "fio" = "to happen".

Is this translation correct?

2 Answers 2

  • I think turpis is a good choice to mean "repulsive, dirty, shameful". To further express the "little" part one could use its diminutive - turpiculus - but this adds the connotation of indifference and pettiness which may not be quite your intention. There are many near-synonyms like flāgitiōsus "shameful, outrageous", dēfōrmis "ugly, repulsive", sordidus "dirty, base".

    • Another way to approach translating this is to observe that "dirty little" isn't a literal expression with a clearly defined meaning, but rather a fixed idiomatic epithet expressing general disgust and condemnation. A Latin equivalent immediately presents itself: nēquam. Indeed, this (and the adverb nēquiter) is found in conjunction with turpis (turpiter) at least twice.
  • "Which should never have happened" is used in English to express a value judgement "I think it could have been avoided" or "I wish it wouldn't have happened". To express the wish in Latin you need to add utinam to your translation. To express the possibility of being avoided you'd say quod (sānē, facile etc.) vītārī poterat.

    • bellum fierī nōn oportēbat has a different interpretation, namely "there was no intention or obligation for the war to happen."

To summarise, one way to translate your sentence would be:


Turpe is fine, but turpissimum is too strong for "dirty little war." Bellum turpissimum feels like something you'd describe an outright massacre or prolonged engagement. Of course, I'm not sure "dirty little war" is strong enough to describe the Ukraine invasion, but perhaps this is a difference between American bluntness and English irony.

Besides turpe, specifically for the phrase "dirty little war," I'd also offer impudens as a choice. I'd phrase it all with the following:

Impudens est hoc bellum, quod numquam oporteat.

Compare it to Cicero:

est enim aliquid, quod non oporteat, etiam si licet: quicquid vero non licet, certe non oportet (Cic. Balb. 3.7)

I'd personally make it present tense (as I did) instead of perfect (but not pluperfect), since the war is still ongoing. I clarified as much with the est in the first clause.

  • Thank you. An excellent answer, as always. Here, "little" isn't so much a comment on the magnitude of the conflict, but it's legitimacy. Further, by implication, the "little men" who start wars whose primary motivations tend to be money, land & power. Thanks again.
    – tony
    Mar 11, 2022 at 12:03
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    impudēns means "cheeky, shameless", describing a mental attitude of throwing a challenge. Besides animate beings it can only refer to acts or attitudes by metonymy. —quod nōn oportet means "something one shouldn't do" (a generalising moral maxim). You need to supply a verb meaning "happen" and change the tense: quod nōn oportēbat fierī. But even this refers to an external obligation or necessity, while the English expression means "it could have been prevented". Mar 11, 2022 at 13:16
  • @Unbrutal_Russian In Cicero, quod no oporteat is definitely not a "generalizing moral maxim." It's a very specific moral prohibition: "It is our duty to not do that whether it's legal or not, and it's not legal, so we definitely shouldn't do it!" Calling it a "generalizing moral maxim" is not doing Cicero or the phrase justice.
    – cmw
    Mar 11, 2022 at 16:16
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    As for oporteat, I think you misunderstand. I call it a generic moral maxim in the same sense as there's a generic "you": est enim aliquid, quod non oporteat, etiam si licet means "there are things that you (one) shouldn't do even if it's allowed." This is the generalising meaning of the present tense quod oportet "what should be done" just like in quod licet (Jovī) "what is allowed." Your use of it in quod numquam oporteat is incorrect, it cannot express the objective "that shouldn't happen" because it means "something one shouldn't do" . This is why I called it a moral maxim. Mar 11, 2022 at 16:41
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    Moreover bellum quod nōn oportet is ungrammatical because (id) quod (nōn) oportet cannot be an adjectival clause but only a substantival one. It means "what should be done", not "of a kind that should be done". quod nōn oportet/licet can also be used parenthetically to qualify an entire clause, which is when it can be translated as "something, which": dulcia mea sūmpsit, quod nōn licet "she took my sweets, which isn't allowed...". But with oportet it would mean "which isn't required, isn't the plan of action". In a restrictive adjectival subjuncitve clause it makes no sense. Mar 11, 2022 at 16:50

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