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How would you translate this famous English sentence into Latin? I don't think I've come across the Latin grammatical conventions to express this kind of causal relation between the protasis and apodosis.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.

I'll post an answer of my own, in hope of constructive criticism.

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I'd do something like this:

malum ut superet, unum hoc necesse est, cessare homines bonos.

As for a critique of your versions (since you asked):

  • You're absolutely right to avoid triumpho, for the reason that you gave.
  • For the first version specifically, and your notes about it:
    • The conclusion of the satis est clause is (ut) homines probi nihil faciant, not ut malum praevaleat. The clause ut malum praevaleat is a purpose (adverbial) clause, whereas satis est needs a noun/noun clause to define what's 'enough.' Here, it's enough that good men do nothing.
    • I believe (but could be mistaken) that praevaleo means more 'to have the upper hand' than 'to gain the upper hand,' which, I agree with you, is the sense that's required here. If this is the case, the form of vinco in your second version is preferable.
    • satis est non magis quam just doesn't work. At the very least, I think that you'd have to change non magis to something like nihil aliud and move it in front of satis (though nihil aliud satis est quam still doesn't feel quite right to me). You might even consider whether satis est needs anything of this sort at all: satis est (ut) nihil faciant homines probi works perfectly well and gains force from its directness.
  • For the second version:
    • quod might work – but to introduce the second subordinate clause (nihil faciant homines probi, the noun clause that defines what's 'enough'), not the first. That first clause really does want to be a purpose construction. (Note: I haven't checked whether there are any ancient examples of satis est + quod.)
    • I don't think you can get away with leaving out satis est here. For ellipsis to work, the left-out words have to readily supplied from context or common sense.
    • See above for non magis quam.
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As in @Brianpck's suggestion, a Roman would have been more direct, more concise. I'd have put it as Quo minus agunt boni, eo plus floret malum.

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To pile on to the suggestions so far, here is a possibility that radically alters the structure of the sentence but hopefully captures some of Latin's epigrammatic power:

Desidia bonorum, victoria malorum.

or perhaps:

In bonorum desidia, malorum victoria.

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  • This takes several steps away from the original structure and is closer to "laziness of the good means victory for the bad", but in some situations it's for the best. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 11 '17 at 16:04
  • Nice! I like the second option better as the order of phrases reflects the causal relationship. – TKR Feb 11 '17 at 19:19
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    These are my favorite so far. Unlike my feeble attempt, they actually sound like something one would come across in an ancient work – one of Seneca's tragedies, perhaps. If I had to change one thing about each, I'd reverse the order of the phrases in the first and possibly use ex_/_e instead of in in the second (but I think I see why you've chosen in). – cnread Feb 11 '17 at 21:25
  • Pile away! I especially like the radical change in structure, making strong use of Latin's grammar and vocabulary. – Ben Kovitz Feb 11 '17 at 21:27
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    @cnread Thanks! I like your suggestion for the first one and agree that ex also works well in the second. There are some cool opportunities for chiasma as well, e.g. "bonorum desidia victoria malorum" – brianpck Feb 11 '17 at 22:06
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I would like to suggest something lighter, as the suggestions so far feel a bit too heavy to my taste. The key step to me was to replace "doing nothing" with a noun. (I realize that you might see this as a non-answer, as my solution for translating your sentence structure to Latin is to not use this structure at all.) The most compact translation I could come up with is this:

Nulla re nisi ignavia proborum vincit improbum.
The evil wins only through the laziness of good men.

The instrumental ablative gives a different tone than what you were after. If this tone does not feel suitable, I suggest adding and opus est structure. I still like the nihil nisi phrase.

Nulla re nisi ignavia proborum opus est, ut vincat improbum.
Nothing but the laziness of good men is needed for evil to win.

You can adjust the translation by choosing other words. I was not sure if I should use otium, socordia, or sopor instead of ignavia. I prefer using improbum for "evil", not because it is the best translation in itself, but because it contrasts with proborum.

I originally had nullo (as an ablative of nihil or nullum), but I changed to nulla re for clarity. One could also use the ablative nihilo.

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    I can't help but read nullo as "no one" instead of "nothing," which makes it hard to see the ablative of means. Do you know if "nullum" alone can mean the same as "nihil"? – brianpck Feb 11 '17 at 15:52
  • @brianpck True, nullo looks more like nemo than nihil here. Perhaps I should have used nulla re instead. I thought I could use nullo as the ablative of nihil, but it doesn't seem to work well here. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 11 '17 at 15:57
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    Nihil/nihilum does have a regular ablative nihilo, btw. – TKR Feb 11 '17 at 18:53
  • @TKR Good point! I have only rarely come across that form, so I tend to forget it. I added a remark. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 11 '17 at 19:08
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    Changing the structure is good! A big part of learning another language is letting your thoughts form within the natural structures of that language rather than trying to map grammatical structures directly from one's own. – Ben Kovitz Feb 11 '17 at 21:18
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Ut malum praevaleat, satis est non magis quam homines probos nihil facere.

I've usually seen satis est ut in constructions where the point is to say "It is enough to do X." I really don't want to say "Doing evil is enough" or lead a listener down a grammatical garden path that suggests that. So I'm not sure about ut here. Or does ut come across ironically, amplifying the meaning, since normally it would indicate an intended result?

Here's a variation:

Quod mali vincant, non magis quam nihil faciant homines probi.

I actually think quod is wrong here, but I dug through some grammatical stuff and couldn't settle it.

I'm not sure if it's comprehensible to make a subjunctive clause the object of non magis quam, but there it is. I find quam the single most confusing word in Latin. The infinitive seems more natural to me, but that might only be because I have a lot more experience with acc+inf.

This one is a chiasmus, trying to put emphasis on the contrast between probi and mali by delaying it until the end. I'm thinking that contrasting improbi and probi would sound lame.

I'm thinking here that non magis quam is clear enough to drop satis est, and omitting the main verb even adds some bite.

I went through a lot of possibilities for a noun for "evil", and none seemed to suggest a force in the world—bad, power-seeking, destructive people in the world. After all that, I'm thinking that the adjective malum might actually fit best. Without a noun, I'm think that the adjective means "evil in the world" or, in the plural, "evil men". Hopefully it's not misread or misheard as mālum or the other senses of mali, which would make the sentence ridiculous.

Triumpho is of course another option for the first verb, but I'm thinking that in Latin it suggests the triumphal procession rather than the victory. I'm thinking that praevaleo suggests getting the edge, the upper hand, taking over—which would be perfect.

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