Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest and professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University, was the lucky fellow who got the call to translate and subtitle Mel Gibson’s new flick. According to a Chicago Tribune story by Nathan Bierma:

Fulco left Greek out of “The Passion,” substituting Latin in occasional cases where Greek might have been used. 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.
“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 errors 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,” 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.”…
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.”
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.”

Well, yes, that’s true. And I guess the paragraph about “mistakes” may explain the lack of comprehension of Chaldean viewers. But one has to wonder about Fulco’s insurability now that he’s confessed to the liberties he took with this holiest of scripts (“It is as it was“). Cursing? Laundry? One has to wonder whether a bolt of lightning or an enraged Mel will get him first. (Via


  1. I believe two(!) bolts of lightning hit the star during filming. I wouldn’t be terribly concerned as a “mere” translator….

  2. wow that’s a dream assignment for any kind of linguist, and a perfect illustration of the mystical power of language…

  3. I was actually surprised to hear Caviezel talk back to Pilate in Latin — Greek seemed a more logical choice for both characters given the circumstances. I also loved the way how Pilate (a Serb actor) has this slight Slavic inflection in his Latin, and his wife Claudia (Italian actress Claudia Gerini) instead has this quite stilted, Latin 101 diction (her careful pronunciation of “Sanctus est” is really something — made me think of a wary schoolgirl who isn’t really sure about her homework).
    I also have a question: some of my English friends take exception to Pilates pronunciation of “Ecce” with two soft c’s — they’d rather say “ekke” with a hard c. is it a Oxford thing or is there something more to it? Because I’ve taught the classical pronunciation with soft c’s.
    I respectfully take exception to the writer’s definition of Pilate’s Latin as “elegant”. it is anything but, imo. it is colloquial Latin — not as crude as the soldiers’, OK — very far from the Ciceronian standard one is accustomed to hear in his or her studies.
    anyway good story, thanks for the link L-hat
    (I was very moved by the use of Aramaic and Latin. I liked Zeffirelli’s and Pasolini’s Jesus movies a lot, but hearing Jesus talk like that was ver very moving to me. I just wish Gibson had included more flashbacks or Jesus teachings to the Disciples. that is a movie I would have loved)

  4. “Because I’ve BEEN taught the classical pronunciation with soft c’s.”, of course.
    my bad.

  5. The pronunciation with c = ch (“soft c’s”) is Italian, not classical Latin. Read Vox Latina for details on reconstructed classical pronunciation. (And it’s absurd to have people in Palestine speaking Latin rather than Greek; that’s got to be Gibson’s ahistorical preference.)

  6. Chris Lovell says:

    This thread makes me wonder what continentals are taught for the classical pronunciation of Latin. Vox Latina is a pretty recent publication, after all, and I remember some acid comments of Churchill about the proper pronunciation of “v” that indicated our current picture of what the classical pronunciation was would probably not match up with what a British schoolboy of the 1920’s was taught.
    I know that there’s still a wide variety of “classical” pronunciations of Greek out there, and I’ve been told that some modern Greeks insist that Euripides was pronouncing his betas and etas just like they do–so in Italy, Romania, Slovenia, or wherever, is the ecclesiastical pronounciation still put forth as the pronunciation of Caesar, Catullus, Cicero, et al.?

  7. Good question. And I’m pretty sure it’s virtually all modern Greeks, not just some. If as cosmopolitan and educated a man as George Seferis could believe it, it’s got to be pandemic.

  8. I remember reading somewhere (perhaps in relation to Doctor Johnson) that in the eighteenth century and before, when Latin was still used as an international language by educated travellers, you would learn your home country’s system of the pronunciation at school then pick up the local variety in whichever country you were visiting. If you listen to “authentic” recordings of choral music, they very often adopt the local pronunciation, for instance in Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” they sing “Dona nobis pahts-em”, in Italian settings of the mass “pahch-em” and in French “pahs-em” etc.

  9. joe tomei says:

    Slightly off topic, but very funny (at least to me) A Korean children’s choir came through town and one of the songs they sang was Oklahoma. The only problem was that they sang it ‘Oh—-Kaylahoma’ Maybe this is an old chestnut, but when I hear questions of choral pronunciation, I always think about that.

  10. I want to see some contemporary Edomite cinema… but in any case, I missed this during the Aramaic thread – from the Guardian. “How do you say ‘popcorn’ in aramaic:
    Baseem, ellaa saabar naa d-etstebeeth yateer b-Lebeh d-Gabaaraa!
    Not bad, but I think I preferred Braveheart.

  11. “I know that there’s still a wide variety of “classical” pronunciations of Greek out there, and I’ve been told that some modern Greeks insist that Euripides was pronouncing his betas and etas just like they do”
    This is an unfortunate phenomenon. Most forums on the Internet dedicated to classical Greek will have the occasional Greek crank come in and talk about how the language of 2000 years ago had the same pronunciation as today. It’s nationalism pure and simple. I think this is why Greece has contributed very little to the study of classical Greek, and Germany and England, which are remote enough not to be tainted by such foolishness, have.

  12. Yes, Greeks are maniacally insistant that Greek has always been pronounced as it is now. Never mind that you would have to be out of your mind to design an alphabet to work that way from the start. This is true even true of those Greeks I have met who have degrees in Classics.
    As for contintental pronunciations of Latin, generally Italians will insist on Church pronunciation. Some Germans use Erasmian pronunciation. The Francophone Latinists I’ve met generally use classical pronunciation, but with French accent-placing.
    I have been party more than once to discussions of this topic between Luigi Miraglia (who is emphatically in the Italian camp) and users of the Classical pronunciation. He does not claim that Latin has always been pronounced like Italian, but, he argues, we do know that it is a pretty good approximation of the post-classical pronunciation whereas he finds the evidence on earlier pronunciations too shakey to rely on. In other words, he would rather rely on a definite late pronunciation than on a reconstructed classical pronunciation.
    Whatever. When you go to a Conventiculum you rapidly learn to ignore differences in pronunciation, the same way you write off dialects and accents in modern languages.

  13. I have to point out that there was never a time when someone would have said “ecce homo” with both the h and the palatalisation. By the time palatalisation took place, the h was long gone. Just something that irritates me…
    As a long term choral singer I’ve been subjected to many whims of Latin pronunciation, including one director who insisted at all times on “authentic” pronunciation but had a very dodgy grasp of what that might have entailed.

  14. Craig Toth says:

    I think Fr. Fulco was aware of the anachronism in using the Italianate pronunciation. Most classicists know that “c” and “g” were hard until the 4th/5th century (after all, Vox Latina is probably on their bookshelves). Mel Gibson is a Tridentine Catholic devoted to the Latin Rite Mass, which is said or sung in the Italian manner in accordance with early 20th century papal initiatives. His use of that pronuntiation, ahistorical as it may be, was a gift to his co-religionists who labor and pray for the restoration of the Mass of All Ages and the Latin language to the Church of Rome.

  15. So what exactly is the correct pronunciation of ‘Pilates’? I thought it was – ‘pai.l^ts. Kindly send me the correct one.

Speak Your Mind