The Yoda Problem
A standout challenge of Latin is the “Yoda problem.” Most classical authors structured sentences using a syntax that is unfamiliar to English speakers. The normal English sentence follows a general structure:
1. Subject 2. Verb 3. Object/Complement.
Fancier writers spice it up by adding elements like adverbial or adjectival phrases, interjections, and other ornamental bits of text. But at its core, an English sentence is nearly always displayed, and therefore read, in that order.
So what’s the Yoda problem? The question a good one it is, young Padawan. Yoda clearly loved his Virgil, because when he speaks, just like the Latin authors of old, he often defaults to the standard Latin structure:
1. Subject 2. Object/Complement 3. Verb
That’s Clear…Sort Of
So how do we deal with this “strange” format? Everyone has their preference of translation approach. Some Latin textbooks recommend always beginning by finding the verb in a sentence; then looking for the subject (represented primarily by the nominative case); then, finally, determining the object and dealing with the remaining phrases and clauses. For most students, and from my personal experience, this method proves difficult for many beginning Latin students. Nearly all western nations read from left to right, and We’re conditioned from the beginning of our reading lessons to go from Sure, the verb is fairly easy to identify once you’ve learned the corresponding endings, and if you understand the concept behind the nominative case as the case of the subject, then you’re on your way to those core components of a sentence. But many students I’ve worked with get stuck on these very first steps of analysis. They find the verb, but then get wrapped up in parsing each component of the verb before even moving on to the rest of the sentence. Or they see multiple options for the subject, and then have to work through the rest of the sentence anyway, to determine what should logically be the true subject of the clause.
Here are the steps I present to Latin students for a straightforward translation approach:
Write the literal meanings of each Latin word, accounting for possible case usages for nouns and adjectives, tenses for verbs, and the variety of prepositional variations.
Remove the ancillary words which don’t fit the logical context of the sentence, or which are unnecessary for the overall English.
Use the refined translation in conjunction with your logical interpretation of the sentence to produce a natural, accurate rendering of the Latin.
Putting It Into Practice
Here’s an example:
1. Latin: Puer in omnem agrum agricolis multum frumentum portabat.
2. Define: The boy into/onto all/every field to/for/with the farmers much/many grain he was carrying.
3. Refine: The boy into every field for the farmers much grain he was carrying.
4. Combine: Into every field, the boy was carrying a lot of grain for the farmers.
Using “D.R.C.” prioritizes the literal meaning (or meanings) of a word or phrase, then eases into analysis, rather than the opposite. A nominative can sometimes parade as a dative. By starting with all the options, then whittling down those possibilities using analysis and context, allows students to grapple with and appreciate the ambiguity of Latin inflections. Moreover, English speakers and readers are accustomed to reading left to right, word by word. Many systems of Latin try to break that habit, rewiring the reading process so that students start translating Latin words in the order they might be written if the sentence were in English. Rather than avoid our tendency to move left to right, lean into it! Using “D.R.C.” encourages students to start with an approach they know well, and then work from there to develop strong vocabulary and analysis skills.
Of course, word order in many languages serves functions beyond the syntactical or grammatical. Wordplay, literature, songs, poetry – all these forms utilize a variety of literary devices (deliberate line breaks, abstract metaphor, rhyme) that suspend the normal, “left-to-right” approach of English grammar. But give “D.R.C.” a try. See what you think. Eventually, I’m betting you’ll get to a point where the individual parts of the process blur together, and becomes muscle memory, just like English. And if you have other thoughts or ideas of how to approach Latin translation, I’d love to hear them!