fidei merces est videre quod credis

Case Study: When You Believe (The Prince of Egypt), and Son of Man (Tarzan), in Classical Latin and Ancient Greek

‘When You Believe’ was requested, too, a long time ago, and despite finding it quite daunting for various reasons I thought I’d give it my best shot in both languages. I approached the two versions in completely different ways. I find this quite hard to explain, but I don’t know if that’s because it’s hard to understand or just because I don’t know how to explain it. The Latin is a translation and adaptation; the Greek is a translation, that’s that. They’re two separate (though closely linked, obviously) skills.

What is the difference between translation and adaptation? Read on

Although in this case the Latin is quite a close adaptation, basically the difference is that rendering an adaptation back into English will not produce the exact same words. The Ancient Greek, on the other hand, is a direct translation of the Modern Greek, using older forms of the exact same words, in (where possible) the same order, with (mostly) the exact same meaning – or perhaps ‘nuance’. The goal of an adaptation is to retain the meaning – as in the overall impression – but it requires finding different words that mean the same thing, with slightly different relationships between the constituents.

It’s possible to adapt an English text in English. / One is able to change the words of a passage to other words in the same language.

^ They are two completely different sentences, but are they really telling you anything different? When they’re fed through the brain’s language data cruncher (disclaimer: no scientific jargon to be found on this blog) they probably produce more or less the same impulses. The area in which I’m trying to develop skill is the inventive expression of ideas, the ideas themselves coming from the lyricist.

So much for the Latin version anyway. My aim for the Greek version was to reproduce the words as closely as possible, as a linguistic exercise – most of the time, the languages are so close that it’s only a matter of changing endings/pronouns/fiddly little things like that. I could have adapted the lyrics into Greek myself, but they would have come out with Attic overtones, since I don’t know enough about Greek Orthodox liturgy to give it the tone of ‘Church Greek’. I only know that it’s quite different in tone to the Roman liturgy (I couldn’t explain in what way, but it is).

I’ll stop waffling now, and move onto examples.


LATIN – MIRA FIDES (The Wonder of Faith)

My main inspiration for this, apart from the Vulgate and Tridentine Mass, was the flight of the Trojans to Italy. I feel like I’m inspired by the Aeneid for everything but honestly, it is relevant to everything (not surprising, considering it’s Rome’s national epic, I suppose!). Drawing on Vergil in a song about Exodus is totes legit: St. Augustine frequently adopted his language, and, of course, he was Dante’s guide in Purgatory.

Here is the first verse in English, and the Latin translation, and what that means (and you’ll just have to take my word for it that that’s the nuance, mwahaha):

Original English Latin English translation
Many nights we prayed with no proof anyone could hearIn our hearts a hopeful song we barely understoodNow we are not afraid, though we know there’s much to fear

We were moving mountains long before we knew we could

tot preces vertimus, ignari quis susciperetcorda plena cantibus quos aegre sensimusnec iam veremur, cum timor nos obsideat

prius movimus montes quam sperare ausi sumus

We addressed so many prayers, not knowing who was receivingour hearts full of songs that we had difficulty sensingWe are no longer afraid, although fear besieges us

We moved mountains before we dared to hope

The first two lines in particular require attention because they can mean two things. Alone, the first line can mean, ‘We addressed so many prayers, not knowing who could hear us’. But when you hear the second line, it only makes sense with the ‘ignari quis susciperet’, so the full two lines come to mean, ‘We addressed so many prayers, [separate sense unit] not knowing who was holding up our hearts, which were full of songs that we had difficulty sensing.’ However, a Roman reader would notice the first possibility, which means that the lines contain both nuances. And both are, in fact, different nuances to that of ‘with no proof anyone could hear’. This was a conscious moderation. Partly it was because ‘ignari quis susciperet’ was so much easier to get into the rhythm than anything that meant ‘not knowing IF’. But I suppose I could have adapted it to say something like ‘with no signs in return’ or ‘they were all in vain’ but, frankly, I refused to write something so pathetic. (Translator’s prerogative. Deal with it.) A more obvious change, or addition, is ‘fear is besieging us’, which is a lot stronger than the English.

Reference time!

  • I got the phrase ‘preces vertimus’ from Tacitus’ Annals, 1.11: ‘versae inde ad Tiberium preces’ (at this point prayers were addressed to Tiberius [asking him to accept the position of emperor]). This implies a bit of grovelling which I thought was appropriate, but that isn’t why I used it – it was just that the phrasing was more elegant than anything I could come up with! However, the ‘Annals’ are my favourite classical work aside from the ‘Aeneid’.
  • I used the verb ‘suscipio’ in reference to ‘suscipe deprecationem nostram’ (receive our prayer) from the Latin ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’.
  • ‘sperare ausi sumus’ comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, 1.451-2: ‘hic primum Aeneas sperare salutem ausus’ (here for the first time Aeneas dared hope for safety). There are two more Aeneid references. ‘volat spes ut aves quae trans pontum fugiunt’ is from 6.311-2, ‘quam multae glomerantur aves, ubi frigidus annus trans pontum fugat’ (as many as the birds that gather together when the cold season causes them to flee across the sea), and ‘nunc revocat animum’ comes from Aeneas’ exhortation to his men, 1.202, where he says ‘revocate animos’. It’s a vague reference but that whole passage is about how the Trojans’ suffering will culminate in their arrival in a promised land.


I’m particularly pleased with the chorus, more so than I might have been because I initially struggled with it. I contemplated doing this song early in 2012, but all I could manage was an excruciatingly prosaic: ‘fient miracula si credideris, spes debilis sed fortis est’ (miracles will happen if you believe, hope is weak but strong). That’s just dire, firstly because ‘si credideris’ only just fits into ‘when you believe’, secondly because ‘spes debilis sed fortis est’ makes no sense and doesn’t even sound nice to make up for it.


The solution, when I came back to it, was to abandon the word ‘miracula’ in favour of ‘mira’ (wonders) and to change the construction of the second line, making it ‘fidelibus’ (to the faithful) – which fits perfectly – instead of any type of temporal or conditional clause. As for ‘though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill’, I suddenly had the impulse to use nouns, which I think the Romans would more probably have done, and which saved that line, too. In the subtitles I’ve translated the line ‘quae mira facta sint fidelibus’ as a direct question, as in the English (‘Who knows what miracles…?’), because modern languages have to split their clauses in a certain way, but in the Latin it’s actually an extended indirect question. So here’s the chorus with a more literal translation than in the subtitles:

Original English Latin English translation
There can be miracles when you believe

Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill

Who knows what miracles, you can achieve? If you believe, somehow you will

You will when you believe

nam mira eveniunt fidelibus

timidae spei comes virtus

quae mira facta sint fidelibus confisus etiam tu scies

aperiet fides

For wonders happen to the faithful

Courage is companion to timid hope

If you have faith, even you will know what wonders are done by the faithful

Faith will show you

The start of Tzipporah’s part (in the English, ‘in this time of fear when prayer so often proved in vain’) is a chiasmus, i.e. ABCBA, which can’t be reproduced in English: the words going together, in a prosaic word order, are: [preces inanes] [curis horridis] [falluntur] – they’re symmetrical in the actual line: ‘curis inanes falluntur preces horridis’. That came about simply through trying to put the words where the stress accent would fall in the right place, so it was a rather nice result. This word pattern is a literary device exclusive to Latin.

This is an example of how I had to consider the entire verse before translating the line. If I’d translated it out of context, it would have meant: ‘My prayers were in vain, so I had no hope’ which would give a nuance to the remainder: ‘Now I’ve got what I prayed for, I believe.’ I don’t think that’s what was meant, but considering Miriam’s ‘no proof anyone could hear’, it’s easy to read it that way. For that reason, I translated it in such a way as to imply not that the fear came about because the prayers were not answered, but that the doubt of those praying resulted in either or both of: a) them not really putting their heart into the prayers, and the prayers not being answered until they did; b) them not noticing when the prayers were answered. It can also suggest that the point of the prayers is obscured by worries. In any case it definitely does not suggest that worry came about through ‘praying in vain’. I felt that was far too flippant and mundane for the gravitas of the song. It’s certainly a realistic suggestion as to what someone in that situation would say, but I wanted to be a bit more aspirational about it. Being miserable until you get what you want is not exactly the best way to go. The alternative is sometimes easier said than done but better said, and done with difficulty, than not said at all.

The phrase ‘verbis fides vivis nunc revocat animum’ is translated in the subtitles as ‘Faith’s living words call back my spirit’ but what it actually says is, ‘Now faith is calling back my spirit with its living words.’ (Only slightly different but we have to be specific! It’s a singular verb!) The idea of ‘faith’s living words’ doesn’t refer to anything specific but naturally, faith, the Word of the Lord, and life crop up in Christianity quite a lot (and, I presume, in Judaism).

Now, onto the Greek, which was a different experience entirely.


GREEK – Εάν Πιστεύης (When You Believe)

This is a direct translation of the Modern Greek. There’s a subtitle/translation version available on Youtube, and I’ve used Modern Greek pronunciation so you’ll be able to see how similar they are, so I’ll just discuss the parts I found interesting or that required adaptation.

The first line of the chorus:

Modern Greek: γίνονται θαύματα την πίστη αν βρεις [Miracles happen if you find faith]

Ancient Greek: γίνεται θαύματα ἐὰν πιστεύῃς [Miracles happen if you believe]

It’s possible to translate the second half of the line more literally – τὴν πίστην ἐὰν εὔρῃς – but it wouldn’t fit the rhythm. This was actually a ‘eureka’ moment for me – as many unwary Anglophone classicists will probably be doing, I had been wondering where on earth the verb form ‘βρεις’ (find) came from. Ancient Greek for ‘I find’ is ‘εὑρίσκω’ (pronounced hehw-risk-or) and the perfect ‘I have found’ is the famous ‘εὑρήκα’ (hehw-rare-ka). ‘βρεις’ is actually the dependent form (sort of like the subjunctive) of ‘βρίσκω’ (vrisk-or) and the perfect is ‘βρήκα’ (vree-ka). It still looks a bit odd… until you pronounce ‘εὐρίσκω’ and ‘εὔρηκα’ in modern pronunciation: e-vrisk-or and e-vree-ka. So all that’s happened is the epsilon sound has been dropped and the spelling has been changed accordingly, since in Modern Greek upsilon without alpha or epsilon is ‘ee’, not ‘v’. Neat, huh?

The reason γίνονται changes to γίνεται is because in Ancient Greek, neuter plural nouns take a singular verb. This is my biggest stumbling block in Greek composition and always has been!


The second line:

Modern Greek: και του Θεού το φως θα δεις

Ancient Greek: καὶ τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸ φῶς ὄψῃ

[And you will see the light of God]

Two notes here. Firstly, these lines are completely identical apart from ‘you will see’, which looks completely different: ‘θα δεις’ and ‘ὄψῃ’. But actually it’s still the same verb, it’s just formed from different parts. Modern Greek forms one type of future tense using θα and the dependent form whereas in Ancient Greek it’s a separate formation. Compare ‘je vais aller’ and ‘j’irai’ in French. They still look like different verbs, but ὄψῃ is from the verb ὁράω, of which the aorist infinitive is ἰδεῖν. Take away the iota and you can see it’s the same verb! Interestingly though, for the present tense of the verb, Modern Greek uses ‘βλέπω’, which in Ancient Greek is a separate verb meaning ‘I look at’ (rather than ‘I see’), while ‘I look at’ in Modern Greek is κοιτάζω. I confess I haven’t worked that one out yet.

Secondly, I wondered why the translators had chosen to adapt ‘Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill’ into ‘You will see the light of God’ which is one of the better adaptations (since the English is very… well, English) but nonetheless unrelated. Then during my research I discovered that the Greek Orthodox version of the Latin ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ contains a line that the Latin doesn’t: ‘Δόξα Σοι Ï„á¿· δείξαντι τὸ φῶς’ (Glory to You who have shown us the light). I have observed that Greek liturgical Christian texts seem to refer to light, and seeing, more than Roman texts which are orientated towards speaking and hearing.


The last line:

Modern Greek: μια νέα ζωή και εσύ θα ζεις, θα ζεις την πίστη αν βρεις [You too will live a new life; you will live if you find faith]

Ancient Greek: οὗ νέα ζωή καὶ σε μένει, μένει ὃν πιστεύῃ […where a new life waits for you, too; it waits for the one who believes]

This is the only place where I had to adapt the meaning and I’m happy enough with the change. If I’d translated it literally, it would have been ‘μίαν νέαν ζωήν καὶ σὺ ζήσεις’, which is not only taking the syntax rather too far away from Attic, but would also be pronounced, ‘mee-an ne-an zo-een keh see zee-zeess’ which rather destroys the elegance. Changing it so that ζωή (life) was the subject got round this problem and provided a token Attic-ish line. However, I did put ζήσεις εἰ πιστεύσεις (You will live if you find faith) for the very last line of the song, which followed the Modern Greek audio, since that can stand on its own.


Second verse, first line:

Modern Greek: σαν πουλιά φτερούγισαν οι ελπίδες μακριά

Ancient Greek: ὣς ὄρνιθες αἱ ἐλπίδες ἀναπέτονται μακρᾶν

[Our hopes flew far away, like birds]

This line is unusual in that the meaning in English is exactly the same but the Ancient & Modern Greek aren’t the same. This is because replacing the words with their ancient versions would have produced too long a line, which would have made little sense: ὡς πώλους ἐπτερυγίσαν αἱ ἐλπίδες μακρᾶν

It’s impossible to sing that and fit it into the rhythm without putting the stress on the wrong syllable. Besides, while the Latin word that comes from the same etymological root as ‘πῶλος’, ‘pullus’ (I’m merely assuming these words are where πουλιά comes from; I have tried and failed to find an etymological Greek dictionary), does refer to fowl (hence poulet), the Greek refers to foals. So it would have meant: ‘The hopes hovered far away like foals.’ Um, no. Anyway, ὄρνιθες is so well-known a word (ornithology) that I couldn’t not use it.


So, that’s about it! There’s an adaptation versus a direct translation. But they’re in two different languages. One song that I adapted into both languages using the modern version was ‘Son of Man’ from ‘Tarzan’. I’ll just give the chorus of each as an example – the modern language version, its translation into Latin/Greek, and how I’d adapt it myself (which I may yet do).


Original English (music & lyrics by Phil Collins):

Son of man, look to the sky

Lift your spirit, set it free

Some day you’ll walk tall with pride

Son of man, a man in time you’ll be



Modern language version English translation Ancient translation English translation
Figlio di chi è padre ormai

Libero camminerai

E quando un padre tu sarai

In tu figlio un padre scoprirai


Son of the one who is now father

You will walk free

And when you’re a father

You’ll discover a father in your son

fili eius qui pater est

liber super salies

deinde pater cum tu sis

in tuo filio patrem videbis

Son of the one who is father

Freely you will leap above

Then when you’re a father

You’ll see a father in your son

γιός του ανθρώπου είσαι συ

κοιτάξε τον ουρανό

με περήφανη ψυχή

άντρας θα γίνεις μα τον καιρό

(Modern Greek)

You are the son of the human race

Look at the sky

With a bright soul

You’ll become a man at the right time

υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εἰ δὴ σύ

βλέπε πρὸς τὸν οὐρανόν

ἐὰν περιφανὴς ψυχή

ἄνηρ γενήσῃ διὰ τὸν καιρόν

You are the son of the human race

Look towards the sky

If your soul is bright

You’ll become a man at the right time

My own adaptation English translation
nate dea, cur cessas?

specta prolem futuram

immota manet gloria

in caelum ducet et te pietas

Son of a god, why do you hesitate?

Look to your future race

Your glory remains secure

Your loyalty will take you, too, to heaven

τέκνον, βλέπε πρὸς οὐρανόν

θαρρεῖ θύμον ἐλεύθερον

ποτὲ γὰρ οἰσῇ ἄκρον κλέος

ἐσῇ δὲ καὶ σὺ φῶς ἰσοθέος

Child, look to the sky

Brighten your free spirit

One day you’ll receive the highest glory

and you, too, will be a godlike hero


These, of course, are deliberate paraphrases of the Aeneid and Iliad, rather than simply inspired by those poems, which most of what I write is. I’m not entirely sure whether I prefer my adaptations or translations. I feel more accomplished when I’ve also adapted something, but at the same time part of my aim is to show that Latin and Greek are still very relevant today and writing versions that are so close to the modern ones is a way to do that. It also means I can use so many more versions for inspiration than the original version, since I’m not very good at detecting nuance in English myself, and I find it fascinating to see how other translators have done it. The best example of where I’ve done this is Beauty and the Beast – but that song is the bane of my existence and deserves a post on its own.


Before I finish (almost finished, I promise), there’s one aspect of translating ‘When You Believe’ that I particularly enjoyed. The Hebrew verse sung by the children after the second chorus was translated in some of the videos I was watching, and I was translating it into Latin for subtitling purposes (I did the Latin first) when I realised it sounded vaguely familiar… So I typed the English words into the Vulgate Bible search and it turns out that it’s from Exodus 15, verses 1, 11 and 13. Actually using the relevant Bible passage – how cool is that?! If the Hebrew lyrics are indeed Biblical Hebrew as I’ve heard they are, means I could make a Biblical multi-language… What are the chances of being able to do that? XD

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