University Mottos: When Translators Are Liars

One of the entertaining and disturbing things about learning languages is finding out how badly people have misrepresented the world to you. Translations of Latin mottos are particularly prone to mishandling, in these sad days when few people learn Latin. Heck, you can make up anything and people will swallow it.

For example:

The University of Cincinnati’s motto has long been “Juncta juvant.” It’s also New College in Toronto’s motto. Both universities’ official materials say it means “Strength in Unity.” But where on earth do they get that?

Obviously, there are plenty of noble Latin words for strength: virtus, robor, vis, potestas, fortitudo. And unity is unitas. “Virtus in unitate” would be a perfectly cromulent motto. (Although it does sound very Nazi or Communist or collectivist.) But that’s not it.

“Juncta” means yoked. Hence, joined, joint, together. “Juvant” means “They help”, with connotations of support, service, and pleasing each other. None of this is about strength, and it’s a unity of separate things being joined together. “Those joined together support each other.”

So Washington and Jefferson College (which also uses the motto) is giving a lot better information with its official translation, “Together We Thrive.” (Although that we would make it “Juncta Juvamus.”)

Sometimes, you can understand a translator’s liberties. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, has the unexpectedly religious motto “Numen Lumen”. First of all, it’s two rhyming nouns. In Latin, this usually implies an “is” (though three is usually a list). Second, while “lumen” is easy — it’s just “light, lamp” — “numen” is one of those weird Latin words with a lot of meaning. If you were an ancient Roman, and you went up a hill or down into a hollow, and you felt something holy or scary or beautiful, you would say that you were sensing the “numen” of the place. So “numen” means some sort of indwelling of God. “Numen lumen” is saying that the Divine is the guiding Light. There’s no good way to say this as succinctly as Latin does.

Latin mottoes often include some kind of joke. For example, the older motto of the University of Cincinnati was “Alta petit”, which means “She seeks the heights.” The idealistic reason was that they meant students to strive for high standards. But the joke was that UC was built on some very tall hills.

Here’s a great site consisting totally of translations of Latin university mottoes. Have fun!


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6 responses to “University Mottos: When Translators Are Liars

  1. Hotaru

    Information currently in use. Nice to see ideas
    that can be acted on brought up.

    The section on twisted meanings left me with
    an inexplicable certainty about the importance
    and influence and dangers and hopes of blindly ignored syntax.

    Time to be on my guard.

  2. Powerman

    My favorite lying translation is “the little boy” for El Nino. A real translation would be “The Christchild” or “The baby Jesus.” Even “Son of God” would not be a bad translation. The translators have an obvious anti-religious bias here.

  3. Tapan Kumar Mukherjee

    Numen Lumen grammatically represents the typical terse condensed epigrammatic Latin construction. Literally it can be translated as Name (Numen) Light (Lumen). Its inner significance becomes clear if we recall the intial statement in the Bible: In the beginning there was Word, and the Word was God. Numen is equal to Word and Light is equal to divine light. We have here in the centre of our Burdwan town (West Bengal) an iconic landmark gate called Curzon Gate erected by Maharaja of Burdwan to commemorate the historic visit of Lord Curzon which bears a motto around the image of a luminous disk or the sun which is almost a transliteration of the Latin phrase Numen Lumen: Heaven’s Light our Guide.

  4. Lawrence Sisk

    Sorry, but numen does not mean name; name is nomen. The Latin word for Word in John 1:1 is Verbum, which translates the Greek logos.

    • joe

      the latin dictionnary says for Numen translation “1 divin will, divinity 2 god” so Numen Lumen could mean “divin light” or “god’s light”

  5. Gail Finke

    That is the official slogan of our city; UC took it from the city’s flag. ‘Ive always heard it translated as “together we prosper” or a similar phrase. Cincinnati’s new professional soccer team uses the hashtag/slogan “together we rise” (#togetherwerise). It took me more than a year to realize this is supposed to be the city’s motto in a new translation – perhaps inspired by the translation used by Washington and Jefferson that you reported above! It’s much pithier than “those yoked together support each other,” and you can squeeze that meaning out of “juvant” if you try very hard…. I think it’s fun to have our city’s flag and slogan used all over the place, and though I’m not usually a fan of dynamic equivalence, I’ll take “together we rise.”

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