The ancient dead language of Babylonian is to feature in a Hollywood film for the first time thanks to a British scholar.
Dr Martin Worthington, an expert on the language, has advised Marvel Studios on the use of Babylonian in its new blockbuster Eternals.
The film features characters played by actors Richard Madden and Lia McHugh speaking in Babylonian, a language of ancient Iraq that died out more than 2,000 years ago.
Translations of the long-dead language were provided by Dr Worthington, the author of the book Complete Babylonian and a former Cambridge academic, now at Trinity College Dublin.
The film tells the story of the 10 “eternals” who have been on Earth for centuries and, in the early part of the film, they are seen killing “deviants”, or monsters, in ancient Iraq.
Two of the main characters fall in love while they are there, and interact with locals in Babylonian.
Actress Gemma Chan’s character, Sersi, clearly knows the language because she corrects Madden on what he is saying. She points out, in English, that he said “I am beautiful” when he meant to say “You are beautiful”.
Tongued tied over simple phrases
Dr Martin Worthington spoke of the 'thrill' of sending translations of Babylonian phrases to the stars of Eternals
Credit: AP Photo/Sang Tan
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 came from written, and often quite formal, documents, mostly clay tablets, much was still unknown about “chatty” uses of the language, he said.
Generally, the more colloquial the English phrase, the harder it was to translate, according to Dr Worthington. A 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’ (‘ilū likrubūki’ to a woman; ‘ilū likrubūka’ to a man),” he said.
Directed by Chloé Zhao, the Academy Award-winning director, Eternals also stars Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Barry Keoghan. Dr Worthington provided written translations and audio recordings, which the actors practiced with the film’s dialect coach.
As the Al-Maktoum associate professor in Middle Eastern studies at Trinity College Dublin, Dr Worthington 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”.
A step back in time
The 3,500-year-old Gilgamesh Dream Tablet contains text from the Epic of Gilgamesh
The Babylonians, who discovered mathematical astronomy and invented the horoscope, first became prominent as a people in c.1800 BC. Babylonian kings include Hammurabi, who created one of the earliest written law codes, and Nebuchadnezzar II, who deported the Jews to Babylonia and beautified the city of Babylon with constructions such as the Ishtar Gate.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was composed in Babylonian, on clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script. The Babylonian language seems to have started dying out at about 500 BC, owing to displacement by Aramaic.
Dr Worthington said: “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.”
He added: “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.”