The Mysterious Latin Gerundive

An in-depth look at the problems of translating the Latin gerundive and potential solutions.

The gerundive is a feature for a Latin writer to do but the English lacks a direct equivalent. This Latin component leads any translator to the question, how does one translate the gerundive?

First before delving into the text, one needs to define what a gerundive is.

The gerundive is a future passive participle used in Latin literature. A number of authors and sites are devoted to addressing the gerundive but there is no unanimous approach on how to translate it into English.

Some authors have simplified it for the sake of novice Latin students who are tackling it for the first time. For example, one Latin study guide suggests it “is usually translated into English with the words ‘to be’ followed by the past participle.” 1

This same website outlines the thought behind the gerundive and how to translate it, “It is important to note that the gerundive does not have an exact translation into English, and in order to convey the idea of obligation or suitability inherent in its meaning, translations can include such forms as ‘fit to be’, ‘must be’ and ‘ought to be’.”2

Another option to consider is the ‘about to be’ approach: “The gerundive can be translated with ‘about to be’ or ‘to be’: epistula legenda = the letter (about) to be read. Sometimes it can be translated as a simple adjective: homo abominandus = ‘horrible man’ in place of ‘man about to be abominated.’”3

John Burroughs School gets closer to the nuances and range of the gerundive along with the problems of translating it into English.

Sometimes the gerundive is used simply as any other Latin adjective, in which case it is best treated as a future passive participle. amandus, for instance, could thus be translated (very literally) “about to be loved,” but “to be loved” gets the same point across. But when Roman authors used gerundives, the emphasis in not only the futurity, but imminence and perhaps even inevitability. Horace himself (whom we, of course, know fondly as Quintus) is very fond of gerundives used like this in his poems. Here is an example:

cur invidendis postibus…/sublime…moliar atrium?

Why should I toil over a hallway lofty with columns bound to be envied?

Horace’s point is not that, if he exerts lots of effort to build a fancy house, it will cause envy, but that it is bound to cause envy. The emphasis lies not on establishing a time-frame, but upon the probable or even inevitable effect. He could have used a simple adjective invidiosis, which would be translatable as “enviable,” but that would not get across the idea that if you build ostentatiously, somebody is sure to feel envy. As you can see, gerundives bring us firmly into the realm of “nuance” and connotation rather than ordinary denotation.

Here’s another example, again from Horace’s Odes; I have simplified and abridged it for purposes of clarity:

  • compescit Geryonen Tityonque tristi unda enaviganda omnibus, sive reges sive inopes coloni erimus.

  • He imprisons Geryon and Tityos with that gloomy stream bound to be navigated by us all, whether we will be kings or peasants.

Horace refers here to Pluto, king of Hades, who uses the River Styx as a sort of security barrier to keep sinners (Geryon and Tityus were two of those eternally punished) in the underworld. But his main point in this sentence is that everybody, rich or poor, is bound to cross that same river–in other words, everyone has to die, regardless of social status. The gerundive enaviganda conveys both the futurity and inevitability of this sad fact with an economy that English cannot manage.4

The author frequently likes to use ‘bound to be’ as his English translation.

Charles E. Bennett’s book, New Latin Grammar, covers it in-depth; “The Gerundive denotes _obligation_, _necessity_, etc. Like other Participles it may be used either as Attributive or Predicate.” He goes on to give some good examples. Here is one of them;

liber legendus, _a book worth reading_;
leges observandae, _laws deserving of observance_.

He described some other important aspects and then wrote that after certain verbs the gerundive has to be translated as a purpose clause:

After curo, _provide for_; do, trado, _give over_; relinquo,
_leave_; concedo, _hand over_, and some other verbs, instead of an
object clause, or to denote purpose; as,

Caesar pontem in Arari faciendum curavit,
Caesar provided for the construction of a bridge over the Arar_;

imperator urbem militibus diripiendam concessit,
the general handed over the city to the soldiers to plunder_.

John R. Porter at the University of Saskatchewan (Canada) provides the most comprehensive portrait of the gerundive and even challenges the notion that it is a future passive participle. He thinks it is simply the “the adjectival counterpart to the gerund.”

Similar to Bennett’s approach, he translates the gerundive according to context and gave copious examples;

Gerund: uēnit ad legendum librōs.
Gerundive: uēnit ad librōs legendōs.
[“He/She came with a view to books having an act of reading applied to them.” — i.e., to read books]

Gerund: studium legendī librōs
Gerundive: studium librōrum legendōrum
[“zeal of/for books having an act of reading applied to them” — i.e., of/for reading books]

Gerund: ōtium petit legendī librōs causā.
Gerundive: ōtium petit librōrum legendōrum causā.
[“He/She seeks leisure for the sake of books having an act of reading applied to them.” — i.e., of reading books]

Gerund: discimus legendō librōs.
Gerundive: discimus librīs legendīs.
[“We learn by means of books having an act of reading applied to them.” — i.e., by reading books]

Gerund: hoc locūtus est dē legendō librōs.
Gerundive: hoc locūtus est dē librīs legendīs.
[“He/She said this concerning books having an act of reading applied to them.” — i.e. concerning the reading of books].

Porter then concluded, “In each instance, the gerundive is inserted as the passive, adjectival correlative to the active, substantival gerund. The construction with the gerundive is much more vivid, to the degree that it allows the immediate focus to be placed on the noun (“books”) rather than on the abstract action (“reading”).”5

Of course there are the typical gerundive as a passive periphrastic or when it is combined with ‘ad’ plus the gerundive to denote purpose, but this is not the case here with the examples shown below with Ambriosaster text, so this aspect of the gerundive will be ignored.

The gerundive creates an ambiguity that one must ponder about all the options above and see which one is most suitable for a text. Perhaps it will even take more thought and one may have to use a totally different structure as Charles Bennett demonstrated to capture the nuance.

With all these options in mind, the following two texts in Ambrosiaster’s commentary on the Book of Corinthians provide some good examples on how to translate it.

The following are from MPL Vol. 17. Ad Opera S. Ambrosii Appendix. Comment. In I Ad Corinth. Col. 268ff. The gerundives are highlighted in italic for the reader to easily identify.

The first example is from I Corinthians 14:12 “Quia prodest Scripturas explanare propterea ad hanc partem studium monet applicandum.”

If one is to use a number of the methods mentioned above, the literal translations work out like this:

“Because it [prophecy] is useful to explain the Scriptures…

  • The ‘about to be’ method: “therefore he teaches learning is about to be applied by this office.”

  • The ‘bound to be method’: “therefore he teaches learning is bound to be applied by this office.”

  • The Porter approach: “therefore he teaches transformational learning [learning having to be actively put into practice with it] by this office.”

  • The ‘ought, fit or must’ method: “therefore he teaches learning is fit to be put into practice by this office.”

In this instance the preferred translation would be:

“Because it [prophecy] is useful to explain the Scriptures… therefore he teaches transformational learning by this office.”

This one suits the best because Ambrosiaster was trying to emphasize the fact that the learner is going to go deeper in the Scriptures with the aide of a prophet. The prophet can teach a type of knowledge that transcends the intellect and changes one worldview.

The second example is a bit more complex. It is from the Ambrosiaster commentary on I Corinthians 14:5 “Non poterat prohibere loqui linguis, qui superius donum istud dicit esse Spiritus sancti : sed ideo prophetandi magis studium habendum, quia utilius est.”

If one is to use a number of the methods mentioned above, and assuming prophetandi to be a gerund, the translations would go something like this: “He could not prohibit to speak in languages which he teaches to be such a superior gift of the holy Spirit but…

If habendum is to be translated as a gerundive, then these possibilities exist:

  • The ‘about to be’ method: “more learning is about to be had by means of prophecy because it is more beneficial.”

  • The ‘bound to be’ method: “more learning is bound to be had by means of prophecy because it is more beneficial.”

  • The Porter approach is difficult to apply here so it will be left literally: “rather study [having an act applied to it] by prophecy because it is more beneficial.”

  • The ‘ought, fit or must’ method: “more learning must be had by means of prophecy because it is more beneficial.”

Note that the noun studium – learn, study, zeal, fondness etc., and the adverb magis are changed depending on how the gerundive is understood.

All carry a similar gist to the thought but my personal preference is, “He could not prohibit to speak in languages which he teaches to be such a superior gift of the holy Spirit but more learning is bound to be had by means of prophecy because it is more beneficial.” This does not mean one should use the ‘bound to be’ method every time. It just seemed to fit here the best.

See also Translating Future Active and Passive Participles into English by John Garger.

  1. link to quote National Archives.
  2. link to quoteNational Archives.
  3. Link to quote participles explained.
  4. J. Burroughs.
  5. Link to his article PorterGerundive

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