Marvel Studios’ Eternals, released last Friday, is the first major film to feature some characters speaking in Babylonian, a language of ancient Iraq that died out over two thousand years ago. Translations into the long-dead language were provided by Assyriologist Dr Martin Worthington, from Trinity College Dublin, and author of the book ‘Teach Yourself Complete Babylonian’.
In the film, the ancient language is used by immortal heroes who reunite to defend humanity from monstrous creatures called the Deviants when they speak to inhabitants of the ancient city of Babylon. Directed by Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao, the film boasts an A-list cast including Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan and Salma Hayek as well as Dubliner Barry Keoghan. Dr Worthington provided written translations and audio recordings, which the actors practiced with the film’s dialect coach.
Dr Worthington, Al-Maktoum Associate Professor in Middle Eastern Studies, in Trinity specialises in the languages and civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia, including those of the Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians. This region of the world, which includes present-day Iraq and parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria, is often referred to as the “cradle of civilisation”.
The Babylonians, who discovered mathematical astronomy and invented the horoscope, first became prominent as a people in c. 1800 BC. Famous Babylonian kings include Hammurabi, who created one of the earliest written lawcodes, and Nebuchadnezzar, who deported the Jews to Babylonia and beautified the city of Babylon with constructions including the Ishtar Gate. The Epic of Gilgamesh was composed in Babylonian, on clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script. The Babylonian language seems to have started dying out around 500 BC, owing to displacement by Aramaic.
Dr Worthington comments: “It was thrilling to create these translations and send them out into the ether for an actor to speak them aloud, imbue them with gestures, and bring them to life. Film is such a powerful medium, which can summon a past full of moving, breathing and talking people. Eternals will raise awareness of Ancient Mesopotamia and its fascinating cultures, and I hope people will go on to explore them further.”
“Ancient languages have always seemed to me to glitter with a special brand of magic. As a child they fascinated me from the moment I clapped eyes on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later I went on to discover that these are just the tip of an iceberg. Thanks to over a century of scholarly work, we have built up a very good understanding of the structures and vocabulary of Babylonian as well as other languages of the ancient Middle East, such as Sumerian and Hittite. With patience and dedication, it is to some extent possible to ‘think in’ these ancient languages.”
One of the most challenging aspects of Dr Worthington’s work on the film was coming up with translations for everyday phrases such as ‘let me help you’ or ‘wait a moment’. Because our understanding of Babylonian comes from written, and often quite formal, documents, mostly clay tablets, much is still unknown about ‘chatty’ uses of the language, he explains.
Generally, the more colloquial the English phrase, the harder it was to translate, according to Dr Worthington. A really tough nut was the expression ‘thank you’. “It is ubiquitous today, but as far as we know it was not used in Ancient Mesopotamia, so I had to find workarounds – expressions such as ‘May the gods bless you’ (il? likrub?ki to a woman, il? likrub?ka to a man).”
And how do we know what Babylonian sounded like? “Many Babylonian words are quite similar to their relatives in Hebrew and Arabic, and we can also draw on transcriptions of Babylonian (and its close relative Assyrian) into other scripts – Hebrew from c. 700 BC, and Greek from several centuries later”, Dr Worthington explains, “plus a lot can be gleaned from careful study of ancient spellings”.
Dr Worthington added: “I’m so pleased these translations were done by someone at Trinity College Dublin – the alma mater of Edward Hincks, the Irish Clergyman who through utter brilliance first deciphered Babylonian cuneiform back in the nineteenth century.”