Translation Tips


  • Get the context of the passage before you start. Read the title and any background information and notes. Mark words that there are notes for.
  • Read through the whole passage first for the general idea.


  • After you have previewed the whole passage and have an idea what the passage is about, if you need a more detailed understanding, go back and read through the first paragraph again. Depending on the length of the passage you are reading, you may need to review the whole paragraph before looking any words up yet. You may find later that you don’t need to look up a word.
  • Use any notes provided as needed and write notes in the margin of the text (e.g. Abl. Abs.) or symbolic structure notations (arrows or lines connecting words, brackets for phrases or clauses, etc.) as needed. Avoid writing interlinear “translations” as much as possible They often lead to “translations” of individual word lexical meaning but with incorrect grammar, and by drawing your eye to the English, they don’t help you practice retrieving the meaning and reading (vs. translating), thereby preventing real learning.
  • When you have an idea of the meaning of the paragraph, if you need a more detailed understanding, then go back and when you get to a word you don’t know that is holding up your understanding, read through the whole sentence and figure out as much as you can about the meaning of the rest of the sentence. Remember to translate endings, not just meanings. Follow the strategies for guessing the meaning of the word before looking it up. Verbs especially may have multiple meanings and need context for choosing the most appropriate one. (Cogita antequam quaeris)


  • Review the whole passage. Sometimes this faster reading will help something “click” in context that you were stuck on before. You may have had the right translation, but not quite get what it meant. Another meaning for a word may suggest itself. You may discover that something doesn’t make sense and you need to go back and rework a section.
  • Lay the text aside for at least an hour. Then reread the whole passage again using your vocabulary list and notations as needed. Mark (* or highlight, etc.) important words on your list that keep coming up and you keep forgetting.

Top Things to Remember in Reading

  1. Remember to translate endings, not just meanings. Work in structural units (e.g. prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses), not word for word or jumping around looking for verbs, etc.
    Be able to recognize and translate subordinating conjunctions. Reread ( a written translation) when you are done by clauses and check for complete clauses, redundant or missing subjects, etc.
  2. Substantives, especially neuter plurals in -a (“ ______ things”).
    e.g. omnia (everything) vs. omnes (everyone); multa (many things), multī (many people); haec (these things)
  3. Meanings of prepositions. Especially:
    1. ā/ab vs. ad
    2. ā/ab + thing: “(away) from” (not “by”)
    3. ā/ab + person: “by,” (“from”)
    4. in + acc. (motion into) vs. in + ablative (location in/on)
  4. Translation of forms of is, ea, id. (See Pronouns)
  5. Translation of forms of qui, quae, quod/ quis, quid. (See Pronouns)
  6. Be able to recognize suffixes (> part of speech) and their meaning (e.g. abstract noun vs. person). Remember when you are working from English derivatives to guess meanings, you may need to change the part of speech.
  7. Latin word order, especially be patient for the verb. Remember adjectives can bungee jump; adverbs are velcroed to the word they modify.
  8. Gapping: missing elements may be filled in from parallel clauses; often a common element, especially verbs, will be in the second or last clause, not the first as in English.
  9. -que (translated before the word it is attached to, and often joins clauses, not just words, so the word it is attached to may not be translated right after the “and”)
  10. Verb subject endings.(Remember also the importance of properly identifying the principal parts.)
  11. The most common mistake in reading is mistaking a word for another word – thinking you know a word when it is really another word.

Guessing the Meaning of Words in Context

Identify the part of speech of the unknown word and how it may be functioning.

Does it have a verb ending (-t, -erunt, etc.)? Does is have a noun/adjective ending (-os, -em, -arum, etc.)? Does it have a noun or adjective suffix? (A graphic of the parts of speech. An explanation of prefixes.)
Where in the sentence (and which clause) is it? (after a preposition? before the verb?)
Try reconstructing the “vocabulary/lexical entry” form (nominative singular of a noun, 1st person present for a verb). Do you recognize it now? Sometimes just seeing it in that form can trigger your memory. If so, do the final check: does it fit the part of speech and grammar and does it make sense in the context.

  • If you are still stuck, are there any words in the context that suggest something about the meaning? For example:
    • Noun: Are there any adjectives describing it? Is it the subject doing something? Is the subject doing something to it?
    • Is it connected to another word (probably similar in meaning) with “atque” or “ac?”
    • Is there a “sed” implying a contrast?
  • Are there several words in the same sentence you don’t know?
    You need to know about 95% of the words to be able to guess from context (and there will not always be enough clues even then)(Nation 261). If so, you may need to work on learning more of the most frequently used words (see Vocabulary for lists and aids) and/or vocabulary for the particular author you are reading. See Characteristics of authors and vocabulary notebooks. You can also Use the Vocabulary Tools in the Perseus website to get a list of words characteristic of a particular author (for a general list of the most frequently used by an author, use the Weighted Frequency; for words characteristic of a particular author compared to other authors, use the Key Term Score. Jeffrey A. Rydberg-Cox and Anne Mahoney recommend top 40-50% for the general list and top 10% for the Key Term.)(“Vocabulary Building in the Perseus Digital Library,” Classical Outlook 79.4, 2002, 148)
  • Can you analyze any parts of the word? Do you recognize a verb or noun stem? Prefix? Suffix?
  • Do you think it is related to a word in English or another language that it might be related to?
  • Try your guess. Check:
    • Does it fit the part of speech and grammar of the word and the syntax of the sentence?
    • Does it make sense in the context?




       I still don’t know what the word means; there weren’t enough clues

       Do you  need to look it up to confirm your guess? Review your guessing strategies.
      Check the other words in the sentence. Are you sure they are what you think they are?  Could one of the words have another meaning than the basic meaning you know?
      Remember: The most common mistake in guessing words in reading is mistaking a word for another word – thinking you know a word when it is really another word.
      Should you look up the word?
       Should you look it up or go on?
      What is your purpose in reading?  general comprehension or exact translation?
      How important is the word to understanding the sentence and passage?
      Have you seen the word (several times) before? Is it one that should be learned to save time in the future and improve your reading ability?
      Depending on your answer to the previous, you could go on and wait until you finish the whole paragraph or passage, then look it up, or look it up now, or decide that you don’t need to look it up.

      If you do decide to look it up, depending on your answer to the preceding, the Quick Click on-line search may suffice.This is especially useful if you need to keep the flow of the meaning going and the word is not important to learn. Remember, however, that the on-line identification may not give you a definitive answer and may even give an incorrect answer; it may mistake the word for another similar word. For long term memory, you may want to check the actual dictionary (entry). Looking the word up yourself (in a physical dictionary) may help you learn how to analyze words (e.g. different verb stems) and decrease the need to look up words in the future. If it is a word you may need to remember and learn, write it down (with any pertinent information) in your vocabulary list for the passage and/or your vocabulary notebook, flashcards, etc. (See the Vocabulary Home page and  Tips on Learning Vocabulary


  1. For guessing words in context, see also Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000, 153-155, and I.S.P. Nation, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001, 256-259.
  2. For mistaking a similar word: see Schmitt, Vocabulary, pp. 45-46 (citing Huckin and Bloch 1993 and Haynes 1993) and 153.