Friday, April 4, 2014

"Strength and Honor": Adventures in Translation

Strength and Honor

Ever since I showed the movie "Gladiator" to my current Latin 1 class, some of the students use the greeting employed by Maximus and his fellow soldiers and gladiators, "Strength and Honor." I answer back with the same. It's strangely fun.

It's a glorious movie. I've seen it at least twenty times now. And I still cheer and tear up each time I watch it.

I wondered recently what the Latin antecedent of the greeting "Strength and Honor" was. A bit of internet research uncovered the background.

In an interview with "Inside the Actors Studio," Russell Crowe described how the phrase came to be in the movie. He recalls how he told writer/director Ridley Scott that he wanted some greeting that sounded more like what soldiers or gladiators might say and he proposed using something like the motto of his high school, "Strength and Honor." Ridley Scott told him "Use THAT!"

(Earlier in that interview, he quoted the motto of the Sydney Boys High School, Veritate et Virtute, and translated it as "Truth and Honor." Crowe and Scott had apparently (and correctly) determined that "Strength and Honor" had more gravitas and would make for a more memorable greeting.)

I've seen on the web numerous queries for the Latin original of "Strength and Honor," much of it so as to get a tattoo of the phrase. Since the greeting is only based on an authentic motto, there really isn't a Latin original at all. So, on one level, there could be multiple correct translations. But I'm going to explore what really is the best Latin translation, and why.

If something actually has an original antecedent, you don't translate it, you just go look it up. It would be ludicrous, for instance, to back translate "I sing of arms and the man" as "Canto arma et virum." That translation is technically correct, but all wrong at the same time, since what Vergil actually wrote was "Arma virumque cano."

Translating "Strength and Honor" into Latin 


First off, let's get "and" out of the way. There are two main options
for "and" in Latin. We can use the simple word et (as in panem et circenses, bread and circuses), or we can use the enclitic -que (as in Senatus Populusque Romanus [S.P.Q.R. the mark of the Legion in Gladiator], The Senate and Roman People). 

I'm choosing et as the most basic and straightforward way to bind two different things. Compare, for instance, such famous quotes as:

Ora et Labora, Pray and Work (Motto of the Benedictine Order)
Perfer et Obdura, Be Patient and Tough (Ovid, Amores 3.11.7)


If you look up "strength" in an English-Latin dictionary, you'll find a number of potential candidates there:

vīs, vīs (f., 3rd irregular declension): strength, force 
fortitūdō, fortitūdinis : strength, courage
virtūs, virtūtis (f., 3rd declension): strength, courage, excellence

Each one of these can be found as a proposed translation of "Strength and Honor" on the web. And technically each is a correct translation. But one is better than the rest.

First off, vīs is the word that describes mere physical force. When I hear the men in that movie say, "Strength and Honor," I am hearing and feeling "Strength" to include not just physical strength, but mental and moral strength as well. The word vīs is just not le mot juste! (Sorry to everyone with that tattooed onto your body.)

That brings us to fortitūdō. This word really does carry the deeper meaning of "Strength" that the soldiers and gladiators embody. One problem. Imagine saying "Fortitudo et Honor!" That just doesn't sing. That word simply has too many syllables to capture the energy and grace of the English phrase "Strength and Honor."

Which brings us to virtūs. This word truly conveys every aspect of what "Strength and Honor" means. Interestingly, Mr. Crowe's school translated that word as the "honor" component of "Truth and Honor." And that's not wrong. The word denotes not just bravery and strength, but also goodness, moral perfection, and high character. Indeed, it is the source of our English word virtue.

So, I'm translating "Strength" with the word virtūs.  Again, it's not that the other words are wrong. They're just not the best choice to convey this particular concept.


Our English word honor comes from the Latin word:

honor, honōris (m., 3rd declension): honor

However, this word was originally:

honos, honōsis

The earliest recorded Latin tracks a sound change in which all r's between vowels turn into s's. This is known as rhotacism. As a result of this sound change, the noun in question became:

honos, honōris

The s between vowels became an r in all the oblique cases. But the final s of the nominative singular was left intact.

As should be expected, by analogy, that vestige of an s was eventually replaced by an r in the word English actually borrowed:

honor, honōris

But the form honos was still attested and used in the Golden Age of Latin Literature. So, I'm selecting honos as my best rendering for the translation in question. It would have rung on the ears of Latin speakers as the dignified and formal way to say "honor."

Strength and Honor - Virtūs et Honos

I've presented above why I believe virtūs et honos is the best translation of the English phrase "Strength and Honor." Again, when translating anything from one language to another, there can be multiple "correct" translations. But I believe what I have produced best captures the beautiful camaraderie we see in the movie Gladiator, as men say, sincerely, "Strength and Honor."

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