Translation Tips for IB Latin Paper 1

 By James Rodkey

(ACT, SAT, SSAT, English Builder, ESOL, and Latin tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Translation Tips for IB Latin Paper 1The IB Latin Paper 1 examination for both HL and SL is a translation exercise from selected texts with the permitted use of a dictionary. (The only difference between SL and HL for Paper 1 is the length of the selection.) The IB provides the following guidelines for students’ translations in the curriculum guide:

Students should be able to produce a translation that

  • shows understanding of phrasing, syntax, grammar, and vocabulary found in the passage,
  • makes sense in English, French or Spanish and that incorporates standard word order and grammar usage of the response language, and
  • retains the meaning of the original.

This is all much easier said than done, so let’s look at some different possible translations of a Latin sentence and see which one strikes the best balance of the elements stipulated by the IB.

Let’s consider the following sentence from the beginning of Martial’s epigram I.35, which appears as a possible selection in the IB Latin curriculum from 2019.

Martial writes:

Versus scribere me parum severos

Nec quos praelegat in schola magister,

Corneli, quereris: sed hi libelli,

Tamquam coniugibus suis mariti,

Non possunt sine mentula placere.

Here are three different possible translations of this sentence with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original Latin:


“Cornelius, you complain that I write too unserious verses

And not those which a teacher reads in class: but these little books,

Just like husbands with their wives,

Are not able to be pleasing without the male sexual organ.”

This translation mostly accurate, but it isn’t particularly elegant in a few places, like “too unserious verses” for Versus … parum severos and the overly literal rendition of the relative clause in the second line. The phrase “are not able to be pleasing” is also too literal and could be expressed more naturally in English. It also fails to consider what mentula, which does literally mean “dick,” could really mean in the context of this poem.


“Cornelius, you complain that my poems are insufficiently austere

The sort that a teacher would never present to his students:

But without a little lasciviousness, my poems would be

Just like a sexless marriage.”

This would be a great translation for an anthology of Martial’s poems, but the very liberal interpretation of the text in some places strays too far from the grammatical structure. For IB Paper 1, our translation should mirror the grammar of the original text as closely as possible in order to demonstrate that we are following the syntax accurately. Translating Versus scribere me parum severos … quereris as “you complain that my poems are insufficently austere” does not reflect that the subject of the accusative and infinitive construction is me, not Versus severos, for example. This translation of sed hi libelli, Tamquam coniugibus suis mariti, Non possunt sine mentula placere as “But without a little lasciviousness, my poems would be just like a sexless marriage” certainly captures the spirit of Martial’s sentiment here, but it is far from what the Latin literally says.


“Cornelius, you complain that my verses aren’t serious enough

And aren’t the kind that a teacher would present in school: but these little books,

Just as husbands with their wives,

Cannot entertain without some sex-appeal.”

This translation strikes a good balance between Latin grammar and English convention. It preserves the syntax of the accusative and infinitive construction to demonstrate knowledge of that concept. It also correctly renders the relative clause in the second line as a relative clause of characteristic, which explains the use of the subjunctive for the verb praelegat and justifies the translation of “the kind that… would…”in English, even though those specific words don’t appear explicitly in the Latin. It also renders Tamquam coniugis suis mariti literally without sounding awkward, and it recognizes that mentula in the context of this poem must be metaphorical rather than literal, something symbolizing sex.

Finding a balance between faithfulness to the letter of the text and idiomaticity in modern English is always going to be a challenge in any translation exercise. It’s important in IB Latin Paper 1 to demonstrate that you understand both the context and the literal meaning of the text and produce a translation that conveys that understanding clearly. As long as your English translation reads like normal English and still follows the basic structure of the Latin text, you’re going in the right direction.

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