I know that translating texts from Latin is the traditional way to learn the language (and for many people the main goal), but I think that being able to translate a piece of text, however complicated it is, does not necessarily mean that one may construct phrases just as one constructs everyday phrases in the native language.

I don't know if it would be a good idea to follow an inverse translation method. This would consist of the following:

To get a text that is not extremely complicated and translate it into Latin, and look for the missing words in a dictionary. I think that if the goal is to handle everyday language, then a text with everyday language would be fine, because using literature or poetry may be extremely difficult. It would be like if one wanted to learn German by reading Faust of Goethe.

However, if one wants to be able to construct rather than to read or translate (from Latin), a main problem is that if one wants to write a text about modern topics, the vocabulary proves to be insufficient. Frequently it is because the missing word is something that simply did not exist in the past, and it is hard to find a translation for it. Even if there is Vicipaedia or Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis, there are things for which there is no convention in order to have an official New Latin word.

Is there something that can be done or should I resign?

  • I think translating is mandatory with Latin, to understand the specific grammar of Latin, and comparing it with our native language. You can learn other languages by immersion, without translating anything ever, but not Latin.
    – Quidam
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 2:32

3 Answers 3


To learn a language properly, I would argue that it is necessary to read texts in that language. If you only ever translate from your native language to the new language, your view is too limited. Every language has features you would hardly think of if you only translated to that language.

It is not enough to produce (be it speaking or writing), but you must also consume (hearing and reading). That is the only way to become idiomatic and learn what options the new language has available. For example, Latin can do a number of things flexibly with participles or the accusativus cum infinitivo. By far the best way to see the potential of Latin syntax and vocabulary is to read Latin and figure out how things work.

I think careful reading is necessary to obtain any kind of fluency and flexibility beyond very basic sentence structure. But it doesn't have to be as complicated as possible; the simplified classical texts found in textbooks are excellent, while poetry might feel unnecessarily complex if you are not a fan. Translation is a good tool for that, as it forces you to think of every detail. If you can read thoroughly without translating, I see no issue.

Your proposed inverse translation is useful and can reduce the need for direct translation, but it does not eliminate the need to carefully read Latin produced by someone else.

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    That argument is very reasonable. Therefore, this method would be a kind of supplement. There are useful simplified texts where it is possible to find a good amount of vocabulary. The only drawback (and it also applies to original texts) is that one is constraint to the vocabulary contained in the texts, and if a word, for example, 'computer' is not there, you won't find it unless you look for it. Concerning words of modern objects, it is sometimes difficult to find them because there are not many texts about those topics, and I think that there are not even conventions for certain things. Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 4:32
  • As for words like computer conventions aren't universal even in modern languages. Take Spanish ordenador, computador, computadora, yet for these neologisms most users of the language have chosen between a couple of translations that are commonly accepted.
    – Rafael
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 16:50

When learning/teaching a foreign language, reading, writing, listening and speaking -even if they have a lot in common, i.e., the language itself- are considered different skills. That's the reason why, for example, the TOEFL is structured the way it is.

Opportunities to listen to native or fluent Latin speakers are (depending on what you call fluent) rather scarce to say the least. Thus, the effort is usually focused in reading and writing. For reading, and at the same time learning grammar and vocabulary (which is part of what is common to all four skills), translating from the rich corpus of available texts written by native speakers is one good option, but not the only one. Of course, translating from Latin, as you note, does not cover well the writing part.

To improve writing, the method you propose is used in real life, but you need either someone more skilled than you to check your writing, or a text in Latin to compare to. (In the later case, you loose some freedom, since you probably have access to only one correct answer, and the beauty of language may offer more than one.)

As for alternative methods for learning (other than translating texts) that have actually been used by living people, I can think of two:

  • Immersion. Not available to most people nowadays (if at all,) but I've met a couple of Catholic priests in their 70s/80s that actually had that opportunity during their studies in Rome.
  • Reading/listening to texts you are already familiar with. No need to translate, since you actually know the translation. I know this one from very close. There are lots of works from antiquity to the Renaissance that were either written in Latin or translated to it before modern languages took their current form: from the Greeks to the Latin Classics, to the Bible, to early scientific texts.) And there is also a number of modern literary works that have been translated to Latin by (somewhat?) skilled scholars. (Think of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, to cite a funny example.)
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    There is also the school Accademia Vivarium Novum, where students learn Latin by immersion, but I think that not everybody may have the time or the money to spend a summer there. And if I try to find a really skilled person, what are the chances that he (or she) can translate any word I ask? Can really good scholars use Latin as they use any other foreign language they learn or are they only experts in reading and writing? Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 4:48
  • @AlfieGonzález Of course, the chances depend on the word. For many words the chances are pretty high. For some, it is even difficult to tell whether there was a word at some point in history. Yet some modern concepts (e.g. the names of many digital devices) just need neologisms, and there are a few sources considered authoritative enough to provide them with a high level of acceptance. There are a few scholars able to use Latin like any foreign language, undoubtedly. I'm afraid the number is decreasing by the day, though
    – Rafael
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 16:43

Translating a language is a different activity than understanding it. Think about a baby. A baby knows no language, but learns one. The baby does not translate anything, it just understands. You can only translate a language, if you know another one already.

It is much better to learn a language like a baby does, mentally understanding the essential meaning of the words and phrases, rather than trying to learn one language in terms of another language.

When I learn Latin, in every instance, I try to learn the meaning of words, not their English translations. So, for example, for the prepositions, I don't even use words, I draw pictures to illustrate what the preposition means or the situation it is used in. Likewise, for nouns, I learn the meaning of the noun, not its translation. For example, when I read a word like aedis, I imagine a one-roomed building like a hut, or a garage or the Pantheon. English actually does not even have a word for a one-roomed building, so you can't do a one-to-one exact translation anyway from aede into English even if you wanted to.

  • Immersive learning of a language is indeed effective, but it requires an environment to be immersed in. Living in a community using a certain language gives ample connections between language and physical referents, while a common textbook does not. Can you give any ideas how to practically immerse oneself in Latin? And which ages would that be appropriate for? People of different ages learn differently.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 12:11
  • @JoonasIlmavirta You don't have to be in an immersive environment to intuitively understand a language. When I learn prepositions in Latin, for example, I make drawings to show the relationships involved, or I mentally imagine them. I don't try to translate the prepositions. I do the same thing with nouns. So, for example, I don't try to translate a word like aede. I just imagine a building with one room, like a hut or the Pantheon or a garage. Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 12:16
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    Research shows that second-language learning is an entirely different process than learning one's first language as a toddler.
    – user3597
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 12:59
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    Just to reiterate what brianpck said. There is absolutely no need to translate a langauge to learn it, for an adult or anyone else. As Brian said, you can find any number of classrooms where using a second langauge is entirely forbidden and you can only use the langauge being learned. In Latin, you can read it without translating it. Learning the meaning of a word is different than learning to translate a word. Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 13:18
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    @brianpck I've had that experience too, but not with Latin. (Which is a coincidence; Latin certainly fits such an approach.) I see a lot of value in such immersion, but I think it requires an environment such as that created by a teacher. I was just asking for Tyler to elaborate on the kind of circumstances needed. Details would be interesting, such as whether there is anything to be done in self-study.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 13:19

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