Google Translate doesn't know Latin

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Sean Hannity's new book, Live Free or Die, was released a couple of days ago. The original cover featured a Latin motto, "Vivamus vel libero perit Americae", whose source was apparently Google Translate's version of "Live Free or America Dies":

As Spencer Alexander McDaniel observed, this is gobbledygook — or perhaps we should say "googledygook".

The title of McDaniel's post ("Sean Hannity does not know Latin") is unfair, though probably true, since the cover design was most likely created by the publisher. But a better observation might have been that Google Translate doesn't know Latin. Of course modern machine translation systems don't really "know" any languages, but have just memorized patterns of contextual correspondences. When the available training data is merely a few million words, as in the case of Latin, the results are often bad, as here.

In any case, Hannity's book has a new cover on which the motto is rendered more plausibly as "Vivamus liberi ne America pereat", literally "Let us live free lest American perish".

McDaniel attempts to construe the earlier version as follows:

The words in Hannity’s motto are real Latin words, but, the way they are strung together, they don’t make even a lick of sense. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Vivamus is the first-person plural present active subjunctive form the verb vivo, meaning “to live.” Here it is presumably functioning as a hortatory subjunctive meaning “Let’s live.”
  • Vel is a conjunction meaning “or.”
  • In this context, libero is most likely either a masculine singular dative or ablative form of the adjective liber, meaning “free,” but it could also be the first-person singular present active indicative form of the verb libero, meaning “I set free.”
  • Perit is the third-person singular present active indicative form of the verb pereo, meaning “to die” or “to pass away.”
  • Americae is either the genitive singular, the dative singular, or the nominative plural form of the name America.

The only way I was able to make any grammatical sense out of this on my own was by assuming that perit had an unstated subject, interpreting libero as a dative of disadvantage, and interpreting Americae as a genitive of separation.

Thus, with some serious creative liberties, you could maybe argue that Hannity’s motto says something like, “Let’s live or he [i.e. the unstated subject of perit] passes away from America for the detriment of a free man.” Unfortunately, this still doesn’t really make any sense and you have to jump through a ton of grammatical hoops just to get here.

As for the origins of the phrase "Live free or die", Wikipedia has it covered.

See also McDaniel's more recent post "Sean Hannity Still Doesn’t Know Latin—But Does He Read My Blog?", 8/2/2020.


  1. S Frankel said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 6:40 am

    How well does Google translate do when translating from English into other highly inflected languages, the Slavic languages for example?

  2. Bathrobe said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 7:33 am

    My big problem with Google Translate at the moment is that it constantly leaves out sentences that are in the original. Just leaves them out. Automatic translation is useless if you can't even trust it to try to translate everything that is there.

  3. Keith said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 7:39 am

    Google also thinks that "Romanes eunt domus" means "Romans go home".

  4. Tom Dawkes said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 8:13 am

    The real issue is why the author felt Latin was needed in the book at all. Though I see from Wikipedia that he worked on a radio station in Athens (Alabama), so he has some classical links…

    [(myl) It was more on the book than in the book. As for why, Spencer Alexander McDaniel's snarky explanation was "Sean Hannity—an older conservative white man who thinks he knows a lot more than he really does—is exactly the sort of person you would expect to have a Latin motto." ]

  5. James Kabala said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 8:30 am

    This comedy song (one brief NSFW image – if anyone is at work anymore!) translates "Sports go sports" as "Ludis ire ludis." Obviously out of context the phrase is nonsense in English, but the verb is meant to be an imperative, and sports should obviously be in the nominative (well, the vocative, but that doesn't apply here). I assume that whatever translation program was used assumed the meaning was "to go to the sports," and no one knew any better. Today Google Translate produces "ad ludis ludis."

  6. Adam Roberts said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 8:35 am

    I translated Finnegans Wake into Latin in collaboration with (or if we prefer: leaning heavily on) Google Translate, well aware, of course, of the many limitations of that programme. I ruminate a bit about what it means "collaborating" with a translation algorithm in a project like that in this old blogpost.

  7. Rodger C said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 9:19 am

    On top of everything else, isn't vel the wrong word for "or"? Shouldn't it be aut?

    [(myl) You're probably right — Lewis & Short describes vel this way: "As disjunctive conjunction, to introduce an alternative as a matter of choice or preference, or as not affecting the principal assertion (while aut introduces an absolute or essential opposition", and says about aut: "In gen. it puts in the place of a previous assertion another, objectively and absolutely antithetical to it, while vel indicates that the contrast rests upon subjective opinion or choice; i. e. aut is objective, vel subjective, or aut excludes one term, vel makes the two indifferent."

    So a version with vel, otherwise corrected, might be translated as "Live free, die, whatever." ]

  8. David Marjanović said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 10:03 am

    Aut, BTW, has to be doubled up: aut A aut B much like "either A or B".

    How well does Google translate do when translating from English into other highly inflected languages, the Slavic languages for example?

    In the other direction it sometimes ends up with the opposite of the meaning…

    The real issue is why the author felt Latin was needed in the book at all.

    Quicquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur. On top of that, America has a long tradition of comparing itself to Rome: republic, Senate, Capitol, the classicist architecture of those buildings and the font of the inscriptions on them, annuit coeptis, e pluribus unum and so on and so forth.

    Today Google Translate produces "ad ludis ludis."

    …which doesn't make any sense, because ad, meaning "to", requires an accusative, which ludis isn't.

  9. mg said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 10:19 am

    Following one of your links led to going down the rabbit hold of link chains to this gem showing how English sounds to non-English speakers:
    "'Skwerl'. A short film in fake English."

  10. Mark P said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 11:23 am

    With my blog’s name ( I was kind of aiming for “In dog we trust” but my high school Latin had long since departed. Google translate does not yield that when going from English to Latin. Going from Latin gives “we trust the dog”, which I’m fine with. I know my old Latin teacher would spin in her grave, probably along with my old English teacher.

  11. Terpomo said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 11:32 am

    In the linked post the author mentions:

    >For an article I wrote last year, I conducted a little experiment in which I typed extremely simple Latin and Greek sentences from some of the very first lessons in my old workbooks into Google Translate.

    By the context this seems to mean ancient Greek. This is a mistake plenty of people who are a bit too eager to show the defects of Google Translate have made- feeding it Classical Greek, failing to consider that it's trained for Modern Greek, or similarly feeding it Classical Chinese, failing to consider that it's trained for Modern Chinese.

    (Not 100% sure about the quote formatting, sorry if it doesn't come out right.)

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 11:46 am

    MYL: It's Spencer Alexander McDaniel, not Spencer David Alexander.
    Keith: "Romanes eunt domus" is from Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979, long before Google).

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 12:54 pm

    At least according to wikipedia, Mr. Hannity not only had a Catholic schooling before going to college at the rather secular NYU, he attended a now-defunct high school named St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary. I suppose the baleful influence of Vatican II might have been such that by 1981 it was possible to graduate even from a school boasting that name without ever having been formally taught Latin, but I should hope not.

    Obviously the extent to which Americans who had a decent grasp of American-high-school Latin while in high school retain it four decades later will vary quite a bit. Speaking as someone who last took a formal high school Latin class in 1983 but who has a child who has taken both high school and college Latin much more recently, I find that I have forgotten some quite elementary things but occasionally can remember more complicated things.

  14. Rachael Churchill said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 1:11 pm

    @Coby: I'm pretty sure Keith knew that and was making a reference to it. If he weren't, how would he have picked that exact phrase?

  15. Mr. Encyclopedia said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 1:32 pm

    To be fair, my understanding of language is also just memorized patterns of contextual correspondences, albeit a pretty vast and complex set of contexts and correspondences.

  16. Joshua K. said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 2:21 pm

    @Keith: Nevertheless, if you start with the English sentence "Romans, go home," Google Translate will correctly give you "Romani ite domum." The fact that it can also make sense of "Brian's" poor Latin is merely a bonus.

  17. cameron said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 2:38 pm

    google translate supports some other Monty Python references as well. Try entering "Wenn ist das Nunstück git und slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das oder die flipperwaldt gersput"

    If you actually type it in, rather than copy/paste, you'll see it gamely try to translate word by word, until the end, when it dies laughing

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 4:33 pm

    In an article in the September issue of The Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi has the line

    The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.” The “one” is the president.

    Can it be deduced that, since the neuter unum cannot refer to a person, Kendi doesn't know Latin?

  19. monscampus said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 6:50 pm

    What makes you think "unum" refers to the president? It means "out of many a whole" or words to that effect. Unum can refer to a person in the accusative case, e. g. out of many candidates the voters choose one (unum).

  20. vadati said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 7:05 pm

    It's also possible that 'unum' could be deliberately vague, as the neuter singular of modifiers can be used more generally in Latin to convey abstraction or non-animacy in the absence of an explicit noun phrase. On a related note, the following link gives a very interesting history of the use of the phrase, and the possible motivations behind using it in the case of the American motto; the author mentions that Augustine uses the phrase 'ex pluribus unum', though I'm not sure what the referrent is in that context.*.html

  21. Ken said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 8:34 pm

    "When the available training data is merely a few million words, as in the case of Latin,"

    Is that the size of the known classical Latin corpus? Or does it include nearly two thousand years of church writings?

  22. John Swindle said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 9:21 pm

    @monscampus: To be fair, Coby Lubliner wasn't saying the "one" was the president. He was quoting Kendi as saying that. But you've explained why I was mistaken as a child when I thought "e pluribus unum" meant "one of several."

  23. Neil said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 9:34 pm

    If you've DeepL, which I use regularly for German, how do you find it? I find it much better than Google, it's able to work with archaic forms and fills in the gaps when it can (although this is a bit hit and miss).

  24. Terry Hunt said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 9:47 pm

    @ monscampus
    Was not Kendi making a sardonic point that the current President thinks (assuming he's familiar with it, perhaps not a given) that the motto means he is the personification of America and can therefore do (a) no wrong and (b) whatever he likes, somewhat along the lines of Louis XIV's (apocryphal) "L'etat, c'est moi"? That would have been my assumption, but as a European I am admittedly deaf to the subtler nuances of US political discourse.

  25. Michael Watts said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 4:24 am

    if you start with the English sentence "Romans, go home," Google Translate will correctly give you "Romani ite domum."

    Hm. I wanted to say it should be domo, but it looks like domum is indeed correct. On the other hand, I still have the impression that the locative form of humus is humo and not humum. Is that true? (And, if so, isn't it weird that the "locative case" would be so different for those two nouns? That looks more like zeroing an obligatory-but-assumable preposition than the last vestigial gasps of an old grammatical form.)

  26. Tom Dawkes said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 4:50 am

    @Michael Watts.
    "domum" in this case is used for 'to[wards]" home": "domo" would mean "at home", though "domi" is more common in this meaning. See Lewis and Short' Latin Dictionary at Perseus, under lemma "domus":

  27. ktschwarz said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 5:15 am

    Unlike most of the "elephant semifics", this post's pseudo-Latin isn't a hallucination, i.e., it doesn't have any bizarre words that come out of nowhere. Each Latin word corresponds to a word of the English input, though with random grammatical inflections. That's because Google Translate doesn't use neural-network translation for Latin.

    @Bathrobe, do you have some examples of missing sentences?

  28. Andrew Usher said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 7:43 am

    Michael Watts:
    'Domum' is the accusative, used as explained by Tom Dawkes. It is synchonically analysable as an omitted preposition, yes. The locative is used (only) when motion is not implied.

    Google Translate obviously could use improvement for Latin; if it doesn't use 'neural-network translation' (which, I am supposing, is what is used for modern languages), what does it use?

    And it is likely the largest accessible corpus of Latin consists of modern (17-19c.) scholarly Latin, which is also probably a significant part of what people would like translated. Ignoring this source would be a mistake.

    k_over_hbarc at

  29. Rodger C said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 8:49 am

    I was taught that as "the accusative of place to which." No one knows English like that any more either.

  30. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 12:26 pm

    "…the cover design was most likely created by the publisher."

    You made me look. The publisher is Threshold Editions, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. My initial response was to be surprised that Simon & Schuster was so sloppy. This might be optimistic, to the point of naivety. But further investigation reveals that Threshold Editions was set up specifically for the "conservative" market, with Mary Matalin the founding editor-in-chief. The sloppiness now surprises me rather less than before, though I am still disappointed in Simon & Schuster for not providing adult supervision.

  31. Joyce Melton said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 1:09 pm

    Of course, Trump's version of the Louis quote is, "Le torte, c'est à moi."

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 2:28 pm

    Roger, what were you taught as "the accusative of place to which" ? I ask because I can find no earlier use of "accusative" into which your construct could be slotted.

  33. Michael Watts said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 3:36 pm

    I was taught that as "the accusative of place to which."

    I don't think this can be right, though. It doesn't look like other nouns can take part in this construction, judging by the Lewis and Short entry for eo ( ):

    eo ad forum
    i domum
    i in crucem
    i in malam rem hinc
    animae ad lumen iturae
    in semen ire

    domum is quite conspicuously different from every other noun appearing as the destination of ire. (Except for a citation of "ire vias", "travel the roads", but I will argue that vias is not actually a destination.) This strongly suggests that whatever's going on, it's not a normal function of the accusative case in which domum appears — that case is freely available to all nouns.

  34. ktschwarz said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 5:47 pm

    Latin is the only language in Google Translate that is still using the previous generation of statistical translation. All their other languages were upgraded to neural network translation at various points between 2016 and now. You can tell the difference by mousing over the output (only works in the desktop version): if it highlights whole sentences, it's neural network; if just individual words or short phrases, it's not. (Occasionally this happens with other languages, when (I guess) the new version can't get a satisfactory result and falls back on the old version.)

    As for why they haven't upgraded, maybe the corpus isn't big enough (see Mark Liberman's comment; and later Latin isn't the same as classical), or maybe it just isn't worth it to them.

  35. vadati said,

    August 7, 2020 @ 9:18 pm

    The use of the accusative (without preposition) meaning 'towards' is restricted to a particular lexical set, namely towns, cities and small islands, usually locations which are proper nouns (there are additional members of this set, including 'domus' and frequently 'rus'). In this case it is in fact the normal construction for expressing movement towards, e.g. Romam eo, domum festinamus, rus appropinquo, etc. To say 'ad Romam eo' would have the flavour of 'I am approaching the environs/vicinity/borders of Rome'. Historically, 'ad' and the like were purely superfluous adverbial markers since movement in a particular direction was marked by case alone. Later, the use of prepsoitions seemingly became common, if not obligatory, for nouns whose meanings do not automatically situate them in geographical space.

    This explains why 'lumen' takes 'ad' in the examples @Michael Watts gives from Lewis and Short. As for those entries with 'in', this seems to be a different usage altogether, the intended meaning being 'enter into' implying the crossing of a boundary or limit, which is not within the scope of the simple accusative of motion towards construction. As for 'ad forum', it may well be that the speaker intends to convey that they approached the vicinity of the forum; if not, then I presume this is a permitted, albeit pleonastic, use of 'ad' with a noun of location, or maybe 'forum' didn't make the cut for the set of location words to which the accusative of motion towards rule applied. Alternatively, since L&S use diachronic data, perhaps this is taken from a later stage of Latin in which levelling of the accusative case-marking feature of 'ad' took place. In any case, I have seen the rule outlined in the previous paragraph to be ubiquitous in Latin authors.

    More generally, the accusative also seems to mark goal/movement towards/purpose in other contexts. A good example is the use of the supine after infinitives of motion to express purpose, in which the supine is marked by the accusative:

    Fuēre cīvēs quī rem pūblicam perditum īrent. (Sall. Cat. 36)
    There were citizens who went about to ruin the republic.

    Etsī admonitum vēnimus tē, nōn flāgitātum. (De Or. 3.17)
    How now, shall we be seated? Though we have come to remind, not to entreat you.

    Vēnērunt questum iniūriās. (Liv. 3.25)
    They came to complain of wrongs.

    Examples are from

    What's interesting is that the last example in particular demonstrates that this isn't just a matter of agreement between the supine and the (optional) accusative marked direct object, so it is presumably a vestigial phenomenon resulting from a wider use of the accusative case to indicate a literal or metaphorical movement 'towards' a goal, which in Classical Latin clearly applies only to a restricted set of geographical words.

  36. Andrew Usher said,

    August 8, 2020 @ 8:32 am

    There can be little to add to that last discussion, but in summary it simply 'looks like' (in classical Latin) that 'domus' is one case in which the usual preposition is omitted. Coincidentally, we have an exact parallel in English 'home': one goes 'home', not 'to home', although the latter would be understood.

  37. Rodger C said,

    August 8, 2020 @ 8:42 am

    Roger, what were you taught as "the accusative of place to which" ?

    What vadati said said.

  38. JPL said,

    August 8, 2020 @ 4:58 pm

    What puzzles me is, why did the publishers choose to translate the expression, "Live free or America dies" for their "motto" instead of "Live free or die"? Their choice makes it look like Hannity is addressing us holding America by the neck and pointing a gun to her head. It seems very far from being an acceptable paraphrase of the New Hampshire motto: "Live free or die!" presents us with an expression of personal choice or preference between two mutually exclusive alternative values for a meaningful life; Hannity's presents "live" as a command, expresses a causal relation between "not living free" and America dying, and includes the specific reference to "America", leaving the Frenchman who says, "Vivre livre ou mourir!" to protest that the sentiment is universal.

  39. Andrew Usher said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 6:50 pm

    The idea is 'we must keep living free, or the concept of "America" has vanished'. There's nothing wrong with that – although one might disagree with it. I agree it's not quite the same as "Live free or die!", but it may well be believed by the same class of Americans.

  40. Daniel N. said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 6:27 am

    S Frankel:

    How well does Google translate do when translating from English into other highly inflected languages, the Slavic languages for example?

    I tried to translate "Live free or America dies" into my native Croatian, and it's 100% correct, you get:

    Živite slobodno ili Amerika umire

    The only minor problem is that the imperative is in plural.

    However, anything more idiomatic can be a complete garbage.

  41. Andrew Usher said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 10:10 pm

    Surely the imperative is meant to be plural, though English makes no difference. Or at least it could be read that way, i.e. addressing all potential readers – note that I used the plural in my paraphrase just above.

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