I am trying to get this title from a book by Charles Bukowski translated to Latin. It goes, "What matters most is how well you walk through the fire". Google came up with different answers which I put together on the translate box until I came up with the English equivalent above. The best that Google could offer was "sit amet quam honestus te ambulate per ignem". Is this accurate or close enough at least?

The Google translation is gibberish. I could not translate it into an equally nonsensical sentence in English; perhaps someone can do it. (I can do it only in Finnish.) So no, it is not accurate nor even close enough, no matter what "close enough" means.

Let us start with the question:

How well do you walk through fire?
Quam bene ignem permeas?

One can always say per ignem ambulare, but it feels more idiomatic to pick one of the prefixed verbs for going through. These include permeare, perambulare, percedere, and pervadere — and I surely forgot something. Have a look at an online Latin dictionary of your choice to see which sounds most appropriate to you. You can always use a plain verb and then per ignem, but I would advice against ambulare — it has a sense of strolling leisurely which is probably not what you want here. The verb gradi, for example, would be more neutral.

This question in indirect form is the subject of "what matters most". (I had to ask a separate question about indirect questions as subjects. See that question for details, especially after someone other than myself has answered it.) Indirect questions come in the conjunctive mood.

The sentence we want to use this in is essentially this:

What matters most is this.
(This is most important.)
Maximi momenti est hoc.

Combining these parts together gives my translation suggestion:

What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
Maximi momenti est, quam bene ignem permees.

I would also like to suggest using a relative clause. It changes the meaning a little, but if it's tolerable, I would recommend it:

What matters most is the way in which you walk through the fire.
Maximi momenti est modus, quo ignem permeas.

I looked at the poem that the title is taken from, and I think ambulare, with its connotation of nonchalance, is actually appropriate to translate "walk". Here is a very literal translation:

Plurimum refert, quam bene per ignem ambules

(You could omit the comma, but it seems to me to fit the style of the poem.)

Exercising a little artistic license, you could say:

In hoc incendio refert ut ambules

I understand the noun ignis to just mean fire generally; incendium means a big fire, like a house fire or a whole city on fire. Literally, this second version means "In this [the] fire, it matters that you walk" (with composure, comfortably). Or:

In hoc incendio refert quomodo ambules

"In this fire, it matters how you walk." For "how well", change quomodo to quam bene.

I chose this wording to eliminate the notion of getting all the way through the fire and coming out the other side—i.e. to suggest that you're wandering around within the fire, because that's life. That's certainly not the only reasonable interpretation of Bukowski's sentence in context, though. If you want the notion of getting across to the other side, see Palizsche's answer, which uses the verb transire to convey that notion very clearly. Her answer also has a variation with perambulare, which does suggest walking around throughout rather than trying to cut through to the other side.

  • You make a good case for "perambulare". I do think there may be more a sense of life being a kind of wandering around through fire rather than crossing through fire. The poem has that sense. – user1466 May 1 '17 at 5:48

Plurimum opportet te ignem dexterius transire.

It matters most that you cross through fire rather skillfully.

Bukowski's title is long and rambling, but Latin is compact. Like Tom Cotton, I thought about how a Roman might say this rather than translating so directly from the English. I like all the translations and think it's so interesting to hear a translator's reasoning and to see there are quite a few ways to go.

Plurimum oportet seems like a reasonable way to carry the idea of "what matters most" in a Latin construction. I also like the way the paired te as subject and transire as verb are separated by ignem, such that the notion of crossing fire is suggested. Due to my desire for a Roman feel, I like dexterius transire to get at the idea that you need to walk through fire in the right way. I admit this changes the meaning a bit, but it sounds authentically Roman to me.

I liked transire better than ambulare, because "walk through fire" isn't a Roman idea. Also, I somehow started associating it with Erasmus's sweet little phrase, Bene ambula et redambula, said to someone leaving on a trip. Transire for pass through (a danger) seems a more Roman idea, though I take Ben Kovitz's point that walking is meant to convey nonchalance. Like Joonas, I took advantage that Latin can render "pass through fire" as a verb with prefix plus accusative instead of a verb plus prepositional phrase.

In transire plus the accusative, the things crossed found in Lewis and Short were campos, paludem, maria and flumen. Ignem transire seems like a reasonable usage then. The addition of an adverb or a phrase to get across the notion that how well or in what way you pass through fire is important. I chose to add the adverb dexterius Using the comparative degree rather than dextere seemed a good choice to construe with a lot of skill along with a sense of doing it in the right way or in a favorable way.

I have to give credit to Thomas a Kempis for inspiration. In De Imitatione Christi, he wrote: Oportet te bene per ignem et aquam transire, antequam in refrigerium venias. He's making reference to psalm (65-12):

inposuisti homines super caput nostrum transivimus per ignem et aquam et eduxisti nos in refrigerium.

Bukowski is nihilistic, but he is suffering in a way that feels hellish, so the Chrisitan reference feels right. I follow classical usage rather than Thomas a Kempis who uses transire and the prepositional phrase per ignem. This seems redundant to me. The Latin used in the Vulgate Bible to express the same ideas is not as close to classical usage as that of Thomas a Kempis, but is useful as a reference point.

See also Isaiah 43:2

2 cum transieris per aquas tecum ero et flumina non operient te cum ambulaveris in igne non conbureris et flamma non ardebit in te


2 When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.

Now that I've done all this work, I see that another possibility based on my process is:

Plurimum oportet te ignem dexterius perambulare.

  • 1
    Fantastic! The first approach I tried was with transire, but I gave up, not sure of what I was coming up with. I was hoping someone would show how to do it! The quotations from Thomas à Kempis and Jerome (which I'd never heard of) are excellent: they show that this is not mere "writing English in Latin". – Ben Kovitz May 1 '17 at 4:08
  • Oops -- yes, I did mean bene ambula et redambula. And perhaps not all my examples support what I'm after. Ben, thanks for your comments. I'm rusty, but enthusiastic. – user1466 May 1 '17 at 4:53

'What matters most is how well you walk through the fire'.

As it stands, that title isn't a sentence which might have been translated straight from Latin. The trick is to find idiomatic Latin that gives the same sense as the English as nearly as possible, and not literally. One way out is to make the sentence impersonal (quite normal for this kind of thing if, as I judge, the 'you' of your title is essentially non-referential) :

Primum ducitur dum bene per ignem itur. (n.b. ducitur isn't a typo for dicitur).

'Most important (it is said) (as long as) well through (the) fire it is gone.'

  • How does dum figure into the sentence? Also, do you know of a good classical sentence with primum ducitur, from which to get a feel for its ordinary usage? I'm not finding anything here. – Ben Kovitz Apr 30 '17 at 14:15
  • I've changed the last sentence to clarify the use of dum, but you may well feel that dum is redundant. Sall. Iug. 41 has . . . abundantia earum rerum, quae prima mortales ducunt, which I feel is a valid basis for primum ducitur. – Tom Cotton Apr 30 '17 at 14:56
  • Thanks. Now I get it. I especially appreciate the approach of starting in Latin and working back to English, rather than the other way around. – Ben Kovitz Apr 30 '17 at 18:00

So firstly, ambulate is either the vocative of the passive perfect participle of ambulo (I walk) or the plural imperative, neither of which you seem to mean. Your translation is, roughly:

  • sit = (he/she/it) is (subjunctive)
  • amet = (he/she/it) loves (subjunctive)
  • quam = as
  • honestus = worthy, noble, decent
  • te = you (singular accusative)
  • ambulate = either "Walk!" (imperative) or "having been traversed!" (in the sense of "You!")
  • per ignem = through the fire

This doesn't quite make sense as sit and amet haven't actually got subjects and are subjunctive for some reason; you may have plucked sit amet from Cicero's de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum? ambulate also doesn't quite fit.

In any case, here is a possible translation: cui momentum maximum est per ignem quam bene ambules. Broken down:

  • cui = that to which
  • momentum maximum = the most importance
  • est = is
  • per ignem = through the fire
  • quam bene = how well
  • ambules = you walk (hypothetical)

So in English, literally, the translation is "That to which there is most importance (i.e. that which has most importance) is how well you walk through the fire."

Hopefully this should do the trick.

  • 3
    Can you think of a classical parallel for this? It seems strange to see quam bene ambulas treated as a subject of a verb. – brianpck Apr 29 '17 at 15:01
  • I mean one could change it to "the way in which" as the other answer did, but that would change the meaning significantly... – Benedict Randall Shaw Apr 30 '17 at 11:42
  • 1
    @BenKovitz Good point - I have since fixed it. – Benedict Randall Shaw May 1 '17 at 10:10

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