‘Terrible’ Places


Latin translation presents us with tempting cognates, but often enough these have changed so much in their transition into modern English that it would be unreasonable to employ them in a straightforward way.  Terribilis is just such a false friend.  We now most often use the term Terrible to mean Very bad or repulsive (“What a terrible thing to say!”), or even just Very (“I’m terribly sorry”).  This is a far-cry from its meaning in Latin, is clear from a glance at the translation in the image above.

Quam terribilis est locus iste”

It’s hard to suppress a smile at the thought of translating this transcription (plucked from the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles Borromeo, Rome) as “What a terrible place this is”(!)  Of course that would be completely wrong. The Latin here retains the earlier meaning of “Inspiring fear (terror) or awe”.  So it would be best to translate this as “What an awe-inspiring place this is!”

A brief digression: this inscription is in fact a reference to Jacob’s exclamation after his famous dream of the ladder (Genesis 28.11-17), which the Vulgate renders as follows:

Quam terribilis, inquit, est locus iste!  Non est hic aliud nisi domus Dei et porta caeli.”

(How awe-inspiring this place is!  This is none other than the house of God and the doors of Heaven.)

Readers more accustomed to the pitfalls of Latin translation will perhaps think this post is a bit of a tempest in a teapot.  But if the present case is illustrative, it’s only because it is so obviously wrong to translate Terribilis as “Terrible”.  Frequently, false friends don’t bare their falsity on their sleeves.  Take the following line from Livy (9.23.10):

Stativa nostra munimento satis tuta sunt sed inopia eadem infesta.”

We might be tempted to translate this as follows: “Our camps are safe enough when it comes to walls, but they are infested with poverty.”  But Infestus here (and very often) means not “Infested” but “Exposed to, at risk of” (or, in some other cases, “Hostile”).  The camps are not overwhelmed (‘infested’) with poverty, but merely at exposed to scarcity or want.

Let this be a cautionary tale.


A colleague of mine points out that Terrible still occasionally means “Frightful” or “Awe-inspiring”.  And this is sometimes true.  Just look at how A.T. Murray translates Iliad III.336-7:

κρατι δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἰφθίμῳ κυνέην εὔτυκτον ἔθηκεν

ἵππουριν: δεινον δε λόφος καθύπερθεν ἔνευεν”

(And on his mighty head he set a well-made helmet with a horse-hair crest; and terribly did the plume nod from above.) 

Very well.  But Murray’s translation dates back to 1924; and I would be surprised if Murray didn’t have the Latin in mind when he wrote this. Still, if I tell you my helmet is terrible, will you expect me to get a new one, or will you expect drivers to cower as I merge?


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