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I came across a passage that is quite difficult to understand. Unlike most passages that I ask about, it is hard for me to make an attempt.

nondum caesa suis, peregrinum ut viseret orbem,
montibus in liquidas pinus descenderat undas,
nullaque mortales praeter sua litora norant;

Charles Martin translates it like this:

As yet no pine tree on its mountaintop
had been chopped down and fitted out to ship
for foreign lands; men kept to their own shores;

I was wondering if anyone could give a word-by-word translation, to help make sense of the passage. I'll share the observations I have already made.

  • Nondum ... pinus = As yet no pine tree
  • nullaque mortales praeter sua litora norant = men knew nothing beyond their shores

The first two clauses are what trouble me ("nondum...undas"). Could anyone help me make sense of these clauses? Are there are any details or constructions that might illuminate the passage?

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Let me offer a translation attempt piece by piece. My translations are not perfectly literal, but the way I build it up should clarify what it each Latin word does. I reordered the words to make the organization clearer. It has proven quite useful to try to identify the core clause and expand little by little in both languages at the same time.

  1. Nondum pinus descenderat.
    No pine had yet gone down.
  2. Nondum pinus (de) montibus descenderat in liquidas undas.
    No pine had yet gone down from the mountains to the liquid waves.
  3. Nondum pinus caesa suis montibus descenderat in liquidas undas.
    No cut-down pine had yet gone down from its mountains to the liquid waves.
    • Alternative reading: pinus caesa (a) suis = "pine, which had been cut by the local people". In this reading suis is an agent for caesa, not an attribute of montibus.
    • Second alternative reading1: Maybe suis refers to something mentioned earlier instead of pinus, perhaps an area. I would have expected eius instead, but this could be accounted to poetic freedom. The English translation would still be "its mountains", but "it" would mean something else.
  4. Nondum pinus caesa suis montibus descenderat in liquidas undas, ut viseret peregrinum orbem.
    No cut-down pine had yet gone down from its mountains to the liquid waves, so that it would visit a foreign land.
    • More literally: orbis peregrinus = "the foreign world".

The third line is a separate remark:

  1. Et mortales nulla litora praeter sua no(ve)rant.
    And mortals did not know other shores than their own.

My translation seems to agree content-wise with Martin's, but the overall composition and choices of words are different. Here is a literal complete translation with more fluent English than in my step-by-step translation:

No pine had yet been cut down from its mountains into the water to visit foreign lands, and no mortal knew of shores other than their own.


1 I cannot judge the plausibility of this reading based on the three lines alone. I suggest including a link to a longer passage or the whole poem for further context in case it is needed.

  • Wonderful how you built up your answer. Thanks! I will take some time to digest it now. – ktm5124 May 20 '17 at 6:32
  • suis was really confusing me. For good reason. I also had a hard time figuring out that caesa modified pinus, and peregrinum modified orbem. – ktm5124 May 20 '17 at 6:37
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    @ktm5124 No wonder suis was confusing. I came up with three readings. All the readings lead to essentially the same story, though. This method of trying to identify the core clause and expanding little by little has proven quite useful. Trees are less confusing if you remember that they pretty consistently look like masculines but are feminines. If anything requires further explanation, let me know. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 20 '17 at 6:42
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    Great answer! I strongly feel that suis should be taken to agree with montibus. – Cerberus May 20 '17 at 12:47
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    I too feel that suis montibus certainly goes together. The hyperbaton here is striking and in a way iconic -- the sailing tree travels far from the mountains it belongs with, just as the adjective suis ends up far from its noun montibus. I wonder if the phrase should be taken with caesa, something like "cut away from its (native) mountains". – TKR May 20 '17 at 19:45
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Here's a rewording solutis versibus by Daniel Crespin:

Nondum abies ex montibus suis desecta descenderat in aquas fluidas, ut terras alienas adiret : et nulla littora nisi sua hominibus perspecta.

That probably clarifies a lot, especially that suis modifies montibus and that caesa modifies pinus, but here are a couple other notes.

Thomas Swinburne Carr writes:

Peregrinum—orbem, a foreign world or clime, as we speak of the "new world".

Pinus, the pine, of which ships were made. Hence, poetically, a ship.

Crespin says of orbem:

Orbem.] Pro orbis parte posuit, synechdochicè.


Here's my (beginner's) perspective on what's going on.

By interrupting the clause at caesa suis, Ovid is doing two things: (a) putting suis next to peregrinum to emphasize the contrast; and (b) creating "grammatical suspense", which emphasizes the modified nouns when you reach them.

So, here's a word-by-word translation that doesn't quite work even as poetic English, but I think maintains the sense and emphasis of the Latin:

Having not yet hewn from its native—a foreign world to survey—
mountains, a pine, and lowered it [as a ship] into the flowing waves,
mortals had not gotten to know any shores beyond their own.

I am taking the grammar to mean that the third line is the result of the first two. In the Latin, pinus is the subject of the first sentence, but clearly it's the people who are the agents of all the verbs and verbals: caesa, viseret, descenderat, and norant. The tense of descenderat is pluperfect, suggesting that it's referring to a time before something else. I take that something else to be the third line, which completes the thought—the whole sententia. The perfect and pluperfect of nosco refer literally to the process of getting to know, which is already accomplished at the time of interest—one "tense" later than the literal one.

A textbook from 1873 seems to agree:

norant] The pluperfect of this verb has the force of an imperfect.

What I think has happened is that Latin grammar is not as well suited as English to an absolute construction containing so many subclauses, so Ovid has exploited -que and the subtleties of Latin tenses to express the same meaning.

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