"Quegli [i magi], udite le parole del re, si partirono" (Mt 2.9 in Martini 1828 translation).

Since udire is a transitive verb, "udite" should be passive in meaning (according to Kinder and Savini, Using Italian, Cambridge 2004, pg 428). So a close translation would be: "They, the words of the king having been heard, left". This is awkward in English and I wonder if Italians actually understand it this way or rather as "They, having heard the words of the king, left"

Maiden & Robustelli (2nd ed, section 14.23) say: "The sole case in the modern language in which the past participle must agree with an object noun arises with 'clausal' uses of the participle of a transitive verb". Their example is "Interrogati gli studenti, il poliziotto ...." and their translation of that is "Having interrogated the students, the policeman ...." But this example, as well as many examples given in section 15.22 of their book, could also be translated with passive meaning, so I am left wondering if the active meaning given in M & R's translation is really the way Italians understand it or just M & R's preferred translation of it.

So, to summarize, this is my question: do Italians understand the past participle "udite" in the above quote from Martini (and similar constructions) as active or passive?

  • Personally, what I don't understand is the use of "quegli" in this sentence. – Charo Nov 22 '20 at 7:27
  • @Charo, "quegli" means "quelli" (Those) – Nicola Nov 22 '20 at 10:44
  • Questo l'avevo già immaginato, @Nicola. Il mio problema è: il termine "quegli" ha avuto in passato (capisco che con questa funzione sarebbe caduto in disuso in italiano moderno) il ruolo di pronome dimostrativo plurale? – Charo Nov 22 '20 at 11:07
  • 1
    Effettivamente “quegli”, usato così, è insolito. Sarebbe il plurale dell'aggettivo dimostrativo “quello” davanti a vocale, ma qui è appunto un pronome, e la vocale che segue non fa parte dello stesso sintagma. Come pronome, “quegli” è in genere singolare. – DaG Nov 22 '20 at 11:30

Not sure I understand correctly the question, actually. As an Italian I can say that we understand those kind of clauses for what they mean (which I believe you understand too). “Active”, “passive” and other grammatical categories are used a posteriori, not while reading or listening to one's own language.

This said, if I were forced to choose, I'd opt for the “active” interpretation. The fact itself that we (and Maiden & Robustelli) are talking about an object – rather than a subject – confirms this.

Notice that the fact that the past participle agrees with the object does not, in itself, suggest a passive construction. Just consider its agreement after an object expressed by pronouns (“l'ho mangiata”, “li ho visti”). In older Italian, this agreement was even more widespread, for instance in relative clauses (“i libri che ho letti...”, which today is allowed, but sounds old-fashioned). For more on these agreements, see also some earlier questions.

A further confirmation can come – but perhaps this is excessive – from the fact that this construction appears to descend from an analogous Latin construction, the ablative absolute, one of whose forms was, explicitly, with active transitive verbs. See the relevant article on Wikipedia (in Italian).

For instance,

Volsci, traditis armis, sub iugum missi sunt.

translated in that WP article as “I Volsci, consegnate le armi (= dopo che sono state consegnate le armi, essendo state consegnate le armi), furono fatti passare sotto il giogo”, i.e., “Volscians, having surrendered their weapons, were forced to pass under the yoke”.


@DaG, your note on the Latin was not excessive but helpful: it prompted me to look into the use of the ablative absolute in Latin and find that it was often used in place of the nonexistent perfect active participle, as it is in the example you cited (See also Allen & Greenough, New Latin Latin Grammar, sec. 493; I do not know Italian well enough yet to read the WP article you cited). I think a good example of this practice is found in Mt 2.7: The Greek uses an aorist active participle; but since Latin does not have an analogous form, the Latin translation uses an ablative absolute:

Tunc Herodes, clam vocatis Magis, ....

This practice evidently carries through into Italian, since all the Italian translations that I have seen use an absolute past participle clause, as in Diodati's translation:

Allora Erode, chiamati di nascosto i magi, ....

Strictly speaking, "chiamati" modifies (and agrees with) "i magi"; but the Italian reader must (I am guessing) understand "chiamati" to be modifying "Erode" and "i magi" to be the object of "chiamati", as in "Herod, having secretly called the Magi, ...." This is how M & R described this sort of construction in section 14.23 of their book, but I found the notion of a participle agreeing with its object to be a little hard to take without more explanation.

By the way, the original question was my first post. I tried to post the above in a comment on your answer, but was told that it was too long by 716 characters, so I posted it in an answer to my own question. Please let me know if I should have done it differently. Thanks.

  • Glad to be useful! Just one thing: you write “Strictly speaking, "chiamati" modifies (and agrees with) "i magi"; but the Italian reader must (I am guessing) understand...” etc. Actually, in Italian there is no conflict between the participle agreeing with a noun or pronoun and the latter being the object of the former, as I have tried to show in my answer. (The moderators will see whether yours can be left as an answer or turned into one or more comments.) – DaG Nov 22 '20 at 22:38

It is an implicit subordination

"udite le parole" has the same meaning as "dopo aver udito le parole"

In English it would be "after hearing these words" so it sounds active.

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