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.

  16. Owlmirror says

    The link to the metromix site is not loading, but the article can be found here:

    I found it because I was searching for some sort of script/transcript of the classical languages in the film. Alas, no luck

  17. Thanks, I substituted the link in the post (and fixed other dead links while I was at it). And if you ever find a transcript, by all means share it!

  18. Owlmirror says

    I found that in 2005, there was an interview with Fitzgerald (co-script-writer) and Fulco, so I’ll copy-paste the details about the languages (and a few comments of my own). Actually, I think I’ll cross-paste them to this thread and the other thread on the topic ( ).

    Shepard, David. From Gospel to Gibson: An Interview with the Writers Behind Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Religion and the Arts. Jan 2005. v 9, n 3-4, pp 321–331. DOI: 10.1163/156852905775008787

    BF= Benedict Fitzgerald
    WF=William Fulco

    DS: The film has been criticized in some quarters for its use of Aramaic as opposed to Greek? Given that the New Testament is in Greek, why not write the dialogue in Greek?

    WF: There were a couple of reasons. I started to do some of the translations into Greek, as a matter of fact, because Mel’s original instructions to me were, “Do whatever languages are appropriate for the conversation.” So my thought was the dialogue between Pilate and the elders of the people should have been in Greek as the language of communication of the time. Mel wanted it back in Latin—there were a couple reasons why we ended up doing it in Latin. First of all in terms of the audience: Latin is much more familiar than Greek and gave a sense of comfort to the audience, a sense of being at home, but also gave a sense of being ancient and not being English—so you’re not bringing an English mentality or an American mentality to Jesus. Greek, on the other hand, would have been unfamiliar and rather jarring. But my main reason for not insisting on Greek was that we talked with a lot of Greek scholars at Loyola Marymount and at UCLA who said there is so much controversy about the pronunciation of koiné Greek that no matter what pronunciation you used, you would have 90% of Greeks furious with you. Whereas Latin, since you have to choose between the two pronunciations, you would only have 50% of the people furious with you!

    BF: Somebody said earlier that it was so Roman—it was such Italian Latin. But there is nothing wrong with that because this is probably as close to Latin as you can get—Italian being a language that came quite directly from Latin.

    WF: I got an email from somebody—all we had in the trailer so far was “ecce homo”—saying, “Why are you using this bastardized ecclesiastical Latin? I want you to know that I am boycotting this film, and I have written a message to my old Latin teacher and she is going to boycott this film too.” But the actors were mostly Italian, and the ones that weren’t Italian were for the most part European, Romanian, for example. So they were very familiar with that pronunciation and it’s what they learned in Rome. For them to have tried even an alternate pronunciation would have been a nightmare—it wouldn’t have worked. They were able to be relatively consistent with this pronunciation.

    I could be wrong, but I suspect that if Gibson were a member of an Eastern Orthodox Church, rather than the Western Catholic one, he would have pushed for Greek rather than Latin, and using the ecclesiastical pronunciation (is the church pronunciation actually distinct from the rest of Greece? I’m winging it a bit here), because if you’ve making a religious film anyway, you would want one’s co-religionists to be happy.

  19. I could be wrong, but I suspect that if Gibson were a member of an Eastern Orthodox Church, rather than the Western Catholic one, he would have pushed for Greek rather than Latin

    I join you in your suspicion.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    I’d have gone for Esperanto. There’s surely a gap in the market for big religious-themed movies in Esperanto.

  21. As opposed to horror movies. (“Esperanto speakers are generally disappointed by the pronunciation of the language by the cast of Incubus.”)

  22. @languagehat: There was a showing of that at MIT when I was there, probably just a couple of years after the surviving print of the film was discovered.

  23. Did you see it? If so, what did you think?

  24. Frankly, it was pretty forgettable. Shatner was not quite as absurd as you might expect from his later (or earlier) oeuvre; however, the whole thing just felt like a B-grade monster movie that was short on budget and special effects. I didn’t (and still don’t) really know what Esperanto is supposed to sound like, but in any case, I think I pretty quickly tuned out what the actors were saying and just focused on following the dialogue via the subtitles.

  25. Owlmirror says

    Another article about the Gospel according to Mel had an aside about a different film:

    Strange as it may seem, The Passion isn’t even the first full-length feature to have all of its dialogue in a dead language. That distinction goes to Sebastiane, a British film from 1976, which a reviewer on the Internet Movie Database describes as “The Gone With The Wind of homoerotic fantasies.” It is set in ancient Rome, and involves loincloths, centurions and bondage.

    Going by the poster on the Wiki Page, those interested in hearing Latin dialog should be prepared for an eyeful as well as an earful.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    I hope they paid proper attention to getting the vocabulary right. It doesn’t do to skimp on these things.

    I thought Gone With The WInd was the the Gone With The WInd of homoerotic fantasies. People have no imagination these days. I blame television.

  27. Owlmirror says

    I wondered if the Latin screenplay of Sebastiane was online. I found this, but it seems to be just the captions or transcript of the captions (there’s no mention of who is speaking, let alone any descriptions of actions or scenes), in English only.

    Perhaps more surprisingly, someone seems to have uploaded the entire film to the Internet Archive. So, illic est.

  28. David Marjanović says

    From the article:

    An early viewer wrote Fulco a letter arguing that the movie should have used the German pronunciation, in which “veni vidi vici” would be pronounced not as it appears, but as “waynie weedie weechie.” The man is boycotting the movie, and has apparently enlisted his old Latin teacher in support.

    …that’s not remotely German pronunciation?

    This is German pronunciation.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    Speaking of Esperanto, I have no doubt mentioned here before the experience of being in Trieste in, um, I think 2006 and seeing posters indicating I had just missed by a few days the chance to attend a Solemn High Mass celebrated in Esperanto, it being the centennial of some association of Catholic Esperantists. The idea of having Mass occasionally celebrated in a potentially universal L2 that wasn’t currently the L1 of any major ethnic or political or nationalistic faction seemed so inspiring once consciously considered that one rather wondered why Vatican II hadn’t encouraged it more explicitly.

    The original Christian community in Rome founded no later than the reign of Nero mostly knew Greek, of course, and St. Paul’s Epistle to them was written in Greek. And they used Greek as their primary liturgical language into probably the 3d or even 4th century. Those like Mel Gibson who regret the switch out of Latin in the 1960’s are not so impeccably reactionary as those who regret the earlier switch into Latin.

  30. …that’s not remotely German pronunciation?

    I say, weening, whining, wincing

  31. Those like Mel Gibson who regret the switch out of Latin in the 1960’s are not so impeccably reactionary as those who regret the earlier switch into Latin.

    I had a grad-school friend, not long after the English Mass became a thing, who used to imagine what it must have been like in those days:

    Priest: Dominus vobiscum.

    Obnoxious reactionary (yelling): KAI META TOU PNEUMATOS SOU!

  32. I would have been that obnoxious reactionary!

  33. David Marjanović says

    It does sound like a curse if you yell it. 🙂

  34. Owlmirror says

    Trailer for Passion of the Christ, at the point where “ecce homo” is pronounced.

    At about 1:28, Jesus says something, but I can’t figure out what the sounds even are.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Priest: Dominus vobiscum.
    Obnoxious reactionary (yelling): KAI META TOU PNEUMATOS SOU!

    This inevitably reminds me of the hoary old Anglican story about the visiting Bishop conducting the Eucharist:

    Bishop (aside): There’s something wrong with this microphone.
    Congregation (in unison): And also with you!

  36. Ha! I hadn’t heard it before, but then I haven’t hung out with many Anglicans.

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