The Language of “The Passion”

If we can set aside, just for a moment, our passions about “The Passion,” we can view it as a movie with some really good linguistic special effects.

Below is the full text version of an article entitled “The Jesuit scholar who translated ‘The Passion'” (by Nathan Bierma, Special to the Tribune. Chicago Tribune, Mar 4, 2004). The footnote numbers refer to my comments at the end.

Obscured by the furor surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is one relatively mundane bit of trivia: Last week’s debut marked the widest release ever of a subtitled film in North America.

The subtitles were actually Plan B. Gibson originally intended to show the movie without them, letting the sound of the Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin – not to mention the spattering blood – speak for itself.

“He was real hard-set against them,” said Alan Nierob, Gibson’s publicist. “He initially thought they would be a distraction …. It’s a very visual movie.”

Gibson also wanted to avoid the phony air of British English1 that has plagued so many film renditions of the life of Jesus Christ, Nierob said.

For clarity

But after early screenings of the film without subtitles, Gibson decided to insert them for the sake of clarity.

“I’m glad he did,” Nierob said. “It is a better movie with them. I’ve seen it both ways, and it’s great [either way], but it’s much better with subtitles, I felt.”

The task of achieving linguistic authenticity fell to Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest and professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Gibson got Fulco’s name from Yale University, where Fulco received a doctorate and taught Aramaic.

“I got a call while I was in Jerusalem: ‘Hey, Padre, It’s Mel, I got a job for you,”‘ Fulco said. “I said, ‘Mel who?’ We talked for about an hour. He told me about the project, and I couldn’t pass it up.”

In 2002, Gibson gave Fulco the script written by Benedict Fitzgerald, mostly derived from the Gospels, and asked Fulco to translate it into Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin. Fulco later translated the script back into English subtitles.

The use of multiple languages in the film reflects the linguistic diversity of Palestine during Jesus’ life. Most people spoke Aramaic, which the Jews adopted while exiled in Babylon in the 6th Century before Jesus’ birth. Hebrew, their language before the exile, was retained in religious writings and liturgy (and is spoken by Jesus in prayer in “The Passion”). Latin was spoken by the Roman soldiers occupying the region. Greek was spoken throughout the Roman Empire, thanks to Alexander the Great, but was seen as a sign of secularization and thus resisted by many Jews.

Fulco left Greek out of “The Passion,” substituting Latin in occasional cases where Greek might have been used.2 He also made mostly imperceptible distinctions between the elegant Latin of Pilate and the crude Latin of soldiers, thanks to an X-rated source he found on his shelf.3

“I tracked down some obscene graffiti from Roman army camps,” Fulco said. “Somebody who knows Latin really well, their ears will fall off. We didn’t subtitle those words.”

Fulco even confessed to some linguistic mischief.

“Here and there I put in playful things which nobody will know. There’s one scene where Caiaphas turns to his cohorts and says something in Aramaic. The subtitle says, ‘You take care of it.’ He’s actually saying, ‘Take care of my laundry.”‘

Other linguistic tricks of Fulco’s serve a function in the script.

For example, he incorporated deliberate dialogue errors4 in the scenes where the Roman soldiers, speaking Aramaic, are shouting to Jewish crowds, who respond in Latin. To illustrate the groups’ inability to communicate with each other, each side speaks with incorrect pronunciations and word endings.

Later, “there’s an exchange where Pilate addresses Jesus in Aramaic, and Jesus answers in Latin. It’s kind of a nifty little symbolic thing: Jesus is going to beat him at his own game,”5 Fulco said. “One line [in that exchange] I kind of enjoyed is when Jesus says, ‘My power is given from above, otherwise my followers would not have allowed this.’ That’s [spoken in] the pluperfect subjunctive.”

Appreciating the niceties

It takes a linguist to appreciate that grammatical nicety as remarkable for being uttered by a Palestinian Jew who mostly spoke Aramaic and Greek.

For the relatively few Middle Eastern Christians who still speak Aramaic, “The Passion” may sound riddled with mistakes – spurring Fulco to point out, “modern Aramaic dialects are as different [from ancient ones] as Chaucer and modern English.”6

Still, now that the movie is in general release, Fulco fully expects to get an earful about his use of languages.

“We linguists are a crazy bunch,” he said. “The more obscure the language, the more people try to prove their territory worthwhile and say, by God, we’re going to sniff out errors.”

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Alan’s comments:

(1) Good decision. The use of British English in so many old movies made the Romans and other ancient peoples seem powerful and imperial – the way the British themselves were – but let’s face it, the Romans did not sound like that. They didn’t speak English at all, let alone British English. And it’s a sure bet they didn’t always sound stiff and formal to each other, either.

(2) A compromise, but I doubt that anybody noticed.

(3) A brilliant bit of authenticity, and, as Fulco observes, a few people will actually notice.

(4) Another brilliant bit of authenticity.

(5) This is too much of a stretch. Now Fulco is improvising on the original. How can we know whether Jesus had that level of mastery of Latin? Or any level of mastery?

(6) He’s right. The same thing applies to English. For most modern speakers of English, any movie that takes place before about 1600 would require subtitles even if the actors are speaking English. The language of all movies that take place in medieval England would be completely unintelligible to us.

What does this all have to do with forensic linguistics?

One type of forensic linguistics that I practice – forensic stylistics – is all about authenticity. In analyzing a forged, disputed, or questionable document, I try to discern the hallmarks of the writer’s style. Fulco did the same thing in reverse: he tried to create authenticity by drawing on what he knew about the use of language in the ancient world.