So in writing something in Latin about the state of affairs in the US, I want to quote Thomas Jefferson's 1820 letter to John Holmes in which he says, about the Missouri Compromise (which required that future states be admitted to the Union two at a time and that one be slave and one be free):

But this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.

This is what I've worked up. (I went for drama with word order rather than faithfulness to the original, which I'm okay with, unless it makes it less effective in some way.)

Cōnflāgrātiōnis vērō ut campana quæ noctū commonet, mōmentī quæstiō mē exsūscitāvit conterruitque. Nēniam statim habuī Fœderis.

I'd love any thoughts on how to improve it.

  • Thanks for asking this question. It was the first time I read this Jefferson quote, and I found it really prophetic.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 20:07
  • @ktm5124 Yeah. Alas. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 21:54

1 Answer 1


Scattered thoughts:

  • The translation looks good.
  • Quaestio is not usually a good translation for "question", but here it seems very appropriate. It is a good word for the subject of debate or discussion.
  • I think a plain momenti is not a good translation for "momentous". To me quaestio momenti sounds like "question about moment" than "a momentous question". Instead, you could use maximi momenti. But my personal preference would be a simple gravis.
  • The object of the second sentence is a little unclear. Quid neniam habuisti? I would consider something around haec campana neniam foederis cecinit. That would connect the two sentences more clearly, but it may or may not be prosaic enough.
  • Best vocabulary choices depend on the surrounding translation. Bear in mind that I don't know the bigger picture.

Based on your translation, I would suggest this version:

De conflagratione vero ut campana quae noctu commonet, haec quaestio gravissima me exsuscitavit, conterruit. Eandem campanam neniam statim audivi Foederis canere.

Your comment inspired me to see if I can eliminate campana altogether. This doesn't follow the original text as closely, but might be worth considering. Working in that direction takes me to:

Ut conflagratio nocturna, me exsuscitavit conterruitque haec quaestio gravissima, quam neniam sensi Foederis.

I originally had habui, but I think sensi is better with nenia.

Yet another idea:

Par/Similis incendio nocturno me exsuscitavit conterruitque quaestio haec gravis, Foederis deletrix.

I hope these comments and suggestions help you find a good translation.

  • Thank you! I do like grave. And how silly of me to forget the linking relative. I was thinking about using "clamor" instead of "campana," since the way I did it eliminates the sonic connection between "fire bell" and "knell," but that's more a question of taste probably than of Latinity. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 19:34
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    @JoelDerfner I'm not sure if there's a good word for "fire bell", so decided to look for a way around it. (See the added option.) It certainly allows condensing the message. Does it take us too far from the original?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 19:49
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    @JoelDerfner Changing neniam to exitium sounds good. Another option would be to replace habui with sensi; it'd go better with nenia.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 20:18
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    SO MANY OPTIONS! Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 21:53
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    @JoelDerfner Yes, the possibilities are endless. I added a third idea. It takes another step away from the original, but I quite like it.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 22:52

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