A Look at Literal Latin Translations: Columbia University and the College of Mount Saint Vincent
written by: John Garger
• edited by: Rebecca Scudder
• updated: 9/13/2013
This article compares the literal Latin to English translations of Columbia University’s and the College of Mount Saint Vincent’s Latin mottos with the official translations offered by these institutions.
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Many colleges and universities adopt Latin mottos to express some educational sentiment followed by these institutions of higher learning. Often, these Latin mottos date back decades or even centuries. Some even date back to the time when Latin was still widely taught and was used as the official language of science, education, and the church in Europe.
Both Columbia University and the College of Mount Saint Vincent have adopted Latin mottos. As with all institutions that do so, these universities offer official translations of these mottos to be used by the administration, faculty, and students. Sometimes, however, the official translation does not exactly coincide with the Latin motto’s literal translation. Read on to learn how well the literal translation of these two universities’ Latin mottos match up to a literal English translation.
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Translating the Latin Motto of Columbia University into English
“In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen" serves as the Latin motto of Columbia University for which the university offers the following official translation: “In Thy light we shall see light." Let’s take a closer look at this motto and see how well the official translation stands up to a literal English translation.
“In lumine" is a common grammatical construction in Latin called the ablative of place where. A noun in the ablative case is paired with another word such as “in" to indicate where something or someone is, was, or will be. It can also be used to indicate where something is, did, or will take place. “Lumine" is the ablative form of the third-declension noun “lumen" which literally means “light" but like in English, it can also figuratively mean a place where nothing is hidden or where everything can be seen.
“Tuo" is also in the ablative case and is modifying the ablative noun “lumen." “Tuo" is the ablative singular form of the possessive pronominal adjective “tuus" which can mean “your." Notice that the Romans did not use the genitive form of personal pronouns to indicate possession, so “tui" would be inappropriate to indicate whose light is being referred to here.
“Videbimus" is simply the first person plural future tense active indicative form of the second conjugation verb “video" which means “to see." In its current form, “videbimus" can be translated as “we will (or shall) see."
“Luminem" is also a form of the noun “lumen," this time in its singular accusative case and is functioning as the direct object of the verb “videbimus." Here, it can be translated as “the light."
Put together, Columbia University’s Latin motto “In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen" can be literally translated as “We will (or shall) see the light in Your light." The university’s use of the early modern English “Thy" rather than “Your" is just a matter of preference and also notice that capitalization of “Tuo" clearly is used to indicate that it is in God’s light that we shall see light.
Translating the Latin Motto of the College of Mount Saint Vincent into English
The College of Mount Saint Vincent offers the following translation of its Latin motto “Bonitatem et disciplinam et scientiam doce me": Teach me goodness and discipline and knowledge. Let’s dissect this official translation and see how closely it comes to a literal Latin to English translation.
“Bonitatem" is the accusative singular form of the third-declension noun “bonitas" which means “goodness" or “excellence" and is used especially to indicate moral goodness and righteousness.
“Disciplinam" is the accusative singular form of the first-declension noun “disciplina" which means “instruction," “teaching," or “training."
Finally, “scientiam" is the accusative singular form of the first-declension noun “scientia" which means “knowledge" or “skill."
These three words are used as the direct objects of some verb. That verb is “doce" which is the present singular active voice imperative form of the second conjugation verb “doceo" which means “explain" or “teach." Recall that there are three moods in Latin of which the imperative is used to give commands.
“Me" is simply the accusative singular form of the personal pronoun “ego" which means “I" (or “me" in the other cases). “Et" is a common conjunction in Latin which is nearly identical to English’s “and."
Taken together, “Bonitatem et disciplinam et scientiam doce me" can be literally translated as “Teach me goodness and training and knowledge" This is nearly an exact translation as offered as the official translation by the College of Mount Saint Vincent.
The translation of the word “disciplinam" as “discipline" is nearly the same in meaning as the definitions offered above. Clearly, the English word discipline is closely related to this Latin word. In later Latin periods, “disciplina" began to more closely mean “discipline" than its meaning in Classical Latin.
Latin students may have noticed the repetition of the word “et" in this motto Latin sentence. When there are two instances of of the word “et" in the same sentence, they can often be translated to mean “…both…and…" as in:
Caesar et bonus et iustus est.
Caesar is both good and just.
However, since there are three accusative direct objects associated with the verb “doce," it is more appropriate to translate each “et" as “and."
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The literal English translations of Latin mottos are not always the same as the official translation offered by the university. Sometimes the translation of a Latin motto has been altered from its literal translation because of inexperience with the Latin language. The Latin mottos discussed above are testament that these universities have preserved the integrity of the motto without altering its literal meaning.