Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Screenwriters Latin Up

Posted by Neal on February 11, 2009

Last week on Lost, we learned that the mysterious characters known as the Others speak Latin — at least, when they don’t want to be understood in the presence of non-Others. A couple of Latin enthusiasts have blogged about this. This makes the third time that I know of that a TV show has made use of Latin this season.

First, Bob Kennedy at piloklok noted a truly pitiful translation into Latin that appeared in a November episode of the since-canceled Pushing Daisies. It was even worse than this:

Kennedy has a pretty good idea how the writers arrived at such a sorry excuse for a translation, and concludes that the writers for Pushing Daisies were just plain lazy. I’m inclined to agree, based on the diligence I know first-class staff writers are capable of when they need some dialogue translated into Latin. I happen to know one who found himself in that situation not too long ago; he took a crack at the translation, and then sent an email to his brother, who majored in classics in college, saying:

Hey, it looks like the Latin-speaking dudes are going to be recurring on the show, so I might be asking you to check my Latin from time to time. Here’s the latest: …

“We have another candidate.”
Femina candidata alia habemus.

(The “candidate” in question is a woman, and I couldn’t find a noun in Latin for candidate, so I used the adjective candidatus/a/um along with femina. The woman is a (non-consensual) candidate for an experimental procedure, not for a candidate for office, in case that makes a difference.)

“I won’t let you down” (disappoint you)
Te non frustrabo.

-Glen

Jasika Nicole plays a linguist on TV.

Jasika Nicole plays a linguist on TV.

These Latin-speaking gentlemen Glen refers to first appeared on an episode where their overheard conversation was translated by the character of Astrid (not Astird) Farnsworth, a linguistics major. I’ve forgotten a lot of Latin vocabulary, and I’m afraid all my reading in it wasn’t enough to give me an intuitive feel for idiomatic word order, but at least I could check up on candidata and frustrabo. I wrote back:

Question: Are these Latin-speaking guys in an ancient-Rome flashback, and to be expected to speak good Latin? Or are they present-day guys who, for their own strange reasons, speak Latin (like maybe Catholic priests)? If the latter, it might be a bit easier to translate, since mistakes are to be expected in their attempts to speak Latin as a nonnative language.

‘habemus’ seems fine. The rest should be in the accusative case: ‘aliam’. Now as for ‘femina’, I don’t see why that’s needed, since the feminine ending of ‘candidatam’ would do the job. Also ‘femina’ is a noun, not an adjective, and I don’t think Latin compounding works like English compounding does. If you must have it, I’d say use the adjective ‘femineam’ (stress on second syllable, since the penultimate ‘e’ is short). Regarding ‘candidatam’, my dictionary has that strictly as a candidate for office (recall that we’re hundreds of years closer to the original meaning of ‘clothed in white’, which I guess is what political candidates did). I tried ‘prospect’ and got the word for hope ‘spes’, but that didn’t seem to be what you’re looking for. But if these are modern guys trying to speak Latin, they’d probably light upon ‘candidatam’ just like you did, so maybe it would work.

“I won’t let you down”:
Non tibi deero. (I won’t fail, fall short, disappoint)
Non te destitues. (I won’t abandon you, leave you in the lurch.)

I now open the floor for those with better Latin than mine to tell me what I should have said. Glen, BTW, smacked himself in the forehead for forgetting to put candidata into the accusative case. He made good grades in high school Latin, and definitely knew better. Anyway, what I did was essentially what professional writers tell you to do when using a thesaurus:

  1. Find your synonym in the thesaurus, or translation in the English-to-target-language section of the translation dictionary.
  2. Look the word up in a dictionary or the target-language-to-English section of the translation dictionary, to minimize your chances of using the word in the wrong context or in an unidiomatic collocation.

I was glad I did this with “let down”, since when I looked up the translations deesse and destituere in the Latin-to-English section, I found they had different shades of meaning. Deesse seemed to mean more of an accidental failure, while destituere seemed to imply a deliberate abandonment. The same went for frustrare, which I found when I looked up “disappoint”.

Knowing all the connotations of English words that don’t make it into the regular dictionaries, let alone translation dictionaries, I can’t have confidence that anything I come up with would truly sound normal to an ancient Latin speaker, but it’s good enough that Glen shouldn’t have cause for embarrassment like the Pushing Daisies writers do. (At least, not on the grounds of his Latin translations!)

Now I know what all you Fringe fans are thinking: “I’ve watched every episode and I don’t remember any exchange like that!” Well, unfortunately, that dialogue, and in fact the Latin-speaking guys themselves, were subsequently cut from the show. But Glen’s still writing for Fringe, and last night’s episode even has him (and his writing partner and one David H. Goodman) credited as the writers! Optime, mi frater.

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4 Responses to “Screenwriters Latin Up”

  1. viola said

    Darn those producers, cutting the Whitman bros’ Latin. I’m always tickled at how many root words in Latin our modern-day English contains. Children would benefit greatly by learning a few Latin root words.

  2. AJD said

    You mean “destituam”, not “destitues”, right?

  3. Neal said

    AJD: Yes, you’re right.

  4. Akilah said

    Today, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iphone
    and tested to see if it can survive a thirty foot drop, just
    so she can be a youtube sensation. My apple ipad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
    I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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