I am translating Tacitus's Annales 1.28 and the first line is "noctem minacem et in scelus erupturam fors leniuit: ..."

When looking at other people's translation they have said "The night threatened to end in an outbreak of crime: but this was averted by a stroke of fortune." But I don't understand how they got there.

Can you explain what the grammar is doing for the line?

1 Answer 1


The subject is fors ("luck") and the object is noctem ("night"). If you just take the subject, the object and the predicate, you get:

Noctem fors lenivit.
Luck alleviated the night.

This is the core structure of the sentence. When you add that the night was minax and in scelus eruptura, you add more color to it, but there is no point in coloring in before you have the main structure in place.

Translation from Latin to English is about understanding a thought in Latin and then expressing it in English. It is irrelevant whether the subjects and objects switch roles or anything like that. What matters is the content of the story being told. It makes perfect sense to express in English the story being told here by Tacitus by making the night the subject despite it being the object in Latin.

I think the translation on Perseus is good, telling the same story in fluent English:

Noctem minacem et in scelus erupturam fors lenivit: nam luna claro repente caelo visa languescere.
"That terrible night which threatened an explosion of crime was tranquillised by a mere accident. Suddenly in a clear sky the moon's radiance seemed to die away."

(sources: Latin and English)

The goals of translations vary. If you look at those made for a general readership that doesn't know Latin, then the procedure is as I described above. If the translator is trying to describe how the Latin syntax works (e.g. to their students or grader), then the English will be clunkier and the parallels between the two languages stronger. The purpose and the audience of a translation has a huge effect on what it looks like, but typically the aim is to render the original thought in natural and idiomatic and perhaps even beautiful English.


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