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This is my first attempt at a translation for a motto. My intent is to convey "Always be good" as an advice. I think it is "Semper bonus esto".

A quick digression on the motto

I'm using Subject+ Object + Verb order, which I read is the most basic one.

According to this answer, "esto" is the imperative form I should be using (since it's meant as an advice)

I am using "bonus", which is "good" in singular masculine, because the motto is talking about a person of unknown gender.

The main issue

My biggest doubt concerns the position of "Semper". Should I put it before the verb, since it is an adverb, or in the beginning of the sentence, since it somehow refers to the whole concept? Phrases with "semper" seem to use it in the beginning, but I'm not sure.

3

It is not necessary to place semper first in the phrase:

Sic semper tyrannis (motto of Virginia: Always like this to tyrants)
Bonus vir semper tiro: a good man is always learning.
semel Abbas, semper Abbas. Once an abbot, always an abbot.
semel et semper: once and always.

But Semper is first in the motto of Queen Elizabeth I

Semper eadem means - "always the same" (feminine) —a motto of Queen Elizabeth I.
and a topic in Latin Language Stack Exchange how-to-parse-semper-eadem
Semper Idem (is the masculine form)

Horace earlier set the example of placing Semper first.

Epistulae, 1.2 56 Semper avarus eget , certum voto pete finem.
A Miser always wants more: set a limit.

Mottoes of the form "Semper ..." are popular for U.S. Service branches.

Semper fidelis: Motto of U.S. Marines https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semper_fidelis
What does the U.S. Navy's motto 'semper fortis' mean? - Quora
semper vigilans: ever watchful
Semper Paratus: always prepared/ ever ready.

It is noticeable that there is no esto, estote in any of these U.S. mottoes.

4

The Latin word order is quite free, but not irrelevant. The proposed semper bonus esto sounds just perfect to me; starting with semper gives the adverb emphasis and it all sounds natural. The choices of words are also good. Moreover, this word order has the additional benefit of fitting in hexameter, as in:

Care soci, do consilium: semper bonus esto!
Dear fellow, I give a counsel: always be good!

The English translation is in prose.

One example of a motto starting with semper is semper eadem. Starting with that word is indeed common.

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To begin with semper is quite acceptable and even gives it a little emphasis. However in a motto I should prefer something more active than bonus esto, and recommend instead semper bene age (act well), or even semper optime age (do as well as you possibly can).

[edit] After a bit more thought, semper quam optime would be even better.

  • 1
    Firstly, your suggestions do not capture the nuance of the intent behind the motto, but I'm very grateful for them nonetheless. Mainly, I am curious about your use of "quam". Semper quam optime sounds like "Always better than" for me, did you mean that? As in constant improvement? In that case, why not use "semper optime"? – rvcam Jan 6 at 20:05
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    The intention underlying the (idiomatic) semper quam optime is 'always as good as possible', which is perhaps a bit strong, but do remember that a literal translation isn't necessarily the best — especially in a motto.You seem to want something punchy : you can usually leave out a verb in this sort of thing, which helps achieve that. – Tom Cotton Jan 6 at 20:59

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