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The Subjunctive Mood: An Exercise in Translating Latin Mottos of Two Universities

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

The Subjunctive mood often gives students of Latin trouble when translating from Latin to English. These two university mottos offer some practice in use of the Subjunctive Mood.

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    Often, universities adopt Latin phrases to serve as their official motto. Many of these mottos are nominative-genitive, nominative-nominative, or verb-verb pairings. Occasionally, an institution of higher learning adopts a motto that contains the subjunctive mood. Since the subjunctive mood routinely gives students of Latin trouble when translating from Latin to English, these mottos provide some practice in recognizing and translating this mood.

    The subjunctive mood is far more common in Latin than in English. Many English speakers and writers avoid the subjunctive mood and many readers and listeners are unable to identify the subjunctive mood when it is used. The result is a difficult period of learning for the Latin student when he/she first encounters it. The mottos discussed below are good examples of the subjunctive mood in its simplest form.

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    Translating the Latin Motto of the University of California: Fiat Lux

    The official motto of the University of California may be familiar to many people. “Fiat Lux” is a phrase found in Genesis 1:3. The full Latin phrase as found in the Latin Vulgate Bible is “dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux.” Translated into English, the phrase means “…and God said let there be light and there was light.”

    Fiat Lux as the official motto of the University of California can be appropriately translated as “let there be light.” The verb “fiat” is the third-person singular present active subjunctive form of the verb “fio” (fieri) which means “to be made” or “to come into existence.” Fio is used as the passive voice form of the word “facio” which means “to make” or “to do.”

    The present subjunctive mood of fio is formed by taking the stem of the verb “fi–,” adding the telltale letter –a–, and then adding the personal ending for the present tense. Recall that translation of the subjunctive mood from Latin to English often necessitates addition of the word “let” or “may.” So “let there be,” or “may he/she/it come into existence” are both appropriate translations.

    Lux is a third-declension feminine noun which literally means light but can figuratively mean “hope” or “encouragement” as it does in English. Here, however, it literally mean “light” as in “daylight.” As a noun in the nominative case, Lux is the subject of this motto. Since Fiat is used as the passive voice form of a Latin word meaning “to make” or “to do,” a literal translation of Fist Lux can be “may light be (exist)” or “let there be light.”

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    Translating the Latin Motto of Amherst College: Terras Irradient

    Amherst College also adopts a subjunctive motto. Amherst College officially translates “Terras Irradient” as “Let Them Give Light to the World.” However, this is much more of a figurative than literal translation.

    Irradient is the third-person singular active subjunctive present tense form of the verb “irradio.” Akin to “radio,” irradio means “to gleam” or “radiate” in the sense that it radiates over a large area, both figuratively and literally. In its subjunctive form, “irradient means “may they radiate.”

    Terras is a first-declension feminine noun meaning “earth” or “land.” In the plural, its root word “terra” can mean “many lands” in the sense that the word encompasses all the lands or the entire earth. Since terras is in the accusative case, it is functioning as a direct object of the verb and can be translated as “the lands.”

    Taken together, a literal translation of “Terras Irradient” is “may they radiate the lands” or “let them light up the earth.” The translation offered by Amherst College as “let them give light to the world” implies that “light” is the direct object and “the world” is an indirect object. Although an approximate translation of the Latin phrase, it is not a literal one. A Latin phrase that approximates Amherst College’s translation could be “Terris Lucem Dent;” Literally it translates as “may they give light to the world.”

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    The subjunctive mood is far more common in Latin than in English. In fact, many English speakers are unaware of its use and have trouble recognizing it in speech and writing. The subjunctive mood is so important in Latin, that laying down a solid foundation of its use is essential to later studies where the subjunctive becomes more complicated. Translation of simple Latin mottos such as those described here is an excellent opportunity to explore the intricacies and subtleties of the mood. In addition, it is an exercise in figurative versus literal translations.