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Everything’s more awesome with Latin.

July 29, 2010

I’m considering going sword-and-sorcery for this year’s NaNoWriMo, as it would finally provide a creative outlet for the otherwise useless tidbits of medieval history I’ve amassed. (Like knowing all the technical terms for bits of fourteenth-century armour. Thank you, Gawain and the Green Knight.)

Following everyone since Tolkien, the world I have in mind – it has a map and everything – is cobbled together from a pile of knock-offs of the real world. I’d like to make it hang together as a reasonable approximation of the High Middle Ages,* but I fear that the temptation to bung in Expies of all the cool groups/people who existed outside that specific era will be too high. I don’t know what exactly would happen if the Knights Templar fought the Vikings, for example, or if Lorenzo de’ Medici had to deal with Robin Hood, but I would kind of really like to find out.

Which has left me with a problem re: the translation conventions.

The administrative, legal and ecclesiastical language of the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome to, oh, just before the (English) Renaissance, was Latin. All Latin, all the time. The three functions above were united by the fact that for centuries most of the people who could read and write to a decent standard (and therefore carry out administrative and legal functions), other than nobles, were the clergy.

Latin was the language of education, the language of such science as was practiced, of medicine, of law. Most crucially, it was the language of the Bible (the medieval Latin Bible is also known as the Vulgate) and of doctrine, and as such utterly sacrosanct, in the most literal translation of the word.** It was ubiquitous.

It’s probably that combination – of ubiquitousness to the point where almost everyone in the West recognises it when they hear it, plus its inextricable association with the powerful and often terrifying medieval church*** – that produced the modern tendencies to regard Latin chanting as ominous and what TVTropes (inevitably) christened Canis Latinicus, also known as Gratuitous Latin. Thanks to its lingering associations of both ancient wisdom and incipient hellfire, it’s all over the place. Writing a novel and want to sound clever? Throw in some Latin. Writing a soundtrack and want to sound scary? Throw in some Latin.

There’s no doubt it works. The particular example that’s going round and round in my head right now is “Hellfire”, Frollo’s Villain Song from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s backed by a chanted version of the Confiteor (Latin for “I confess”), a Catholic prayer of confessing one’s sins. And it’s creepy as fuck. And awesome. And the lyrics of the Latin also provide a telling counterpoint to the English, especially in the middle of the song.

To describe it quickly, to get to the good bit: Frollo is consumed with desire for the Gypsy Esmeralda; he pleads with Mary (Notre Dame – who else would it be?) for the strength to resist the temptation, and the prayer turns nasty as he tries to lay the blame for his ‘sin’ on the girl. He stares into the fire, twisting and caressing Esmeralda’s stolen scarf (and it is just as creepy as that sounds), and singing about how he’ll either make her love him or burn her at the stake. It’s hard to tell which possibility excites him more.

At one point he hallucinates a line of faceless, red-cowled monks, who tower over him as he protests “It’s not my fault!” And in the background the choir – who have been chanting quietly on and off all this time – suddenly swells into full dramatic voice, just as the prayer reaches “Mea culpa . . . mea culpa . . . mea maxima culpa.” (“My fault . . . my fault . . . my greatest failing.”) It’s a truly chilling moment and a great use of Ominous Latin Chanting in-context as opposed to just being there to sound, well, ominous. If you can watch it, there’s a decent video here, which also has the lyrics – English, Latin and a translation of the latter – in the little ‘More’ box underneath.

This, this degree of sheer Latin-based awesomeness, is where I face a problem. My version of the Middle Ages has a version of medieval Catholic Christianity with the serial numbers hastily painted over, complete with clones of the militant orders and various sorts of monk and so on. It also has lawyers, administrators and scientists. It needs Latin. But I can’t just throw bits of Latin into a fictional world – it wouldn’t feel right. Some settings get round it by saying that as the ‘common’ languages are translated by English, the ‘ancient’ languages come out as Latin. But this would beg the question of why characters from Totally Not France aren’t rendered in French, or those from Not The Italy You’re Looking For in Italian. If I’m going to handwave it that characters speaking UnFrench and NotItalian and AntiSpanish are all being read in English, why should Latin be exempt?

A lot of it will simply not come in, of course. Anyone who’s trying to explain scientific or legal matters to the main characters would have to translate into the vernacular anyway, so that’s easily dealt with. Same with medicine. But the church! I want to put in ominous chanting (I follow Tolkien in believing that songs are totally worth it in books, even if none of your audience then read them) and portentous Biblical Generic Holy Book verses and without Latin to lean on that’s going to be tricky.

You can get English lyrics to sound properly portentous, of course. Many, many people have managed it. But the specific flavour that ominous Latin chanting and/or gratuitous Latin tends to confer is hard to match, because . . . well, Latin comes with ominous associations as standard. English, indeed any vernacular, doesn’t: it’s hard to be instinctively terrified of the same language that you and your friends joke and cry and curse in.

I still don’t really know what the point of this post was, so here’s some gratuitous Latin. (Because I’m bored and find this sort of thing funny.) Another thing about using a language that sounds impressive but scarcely anybody speaks anymore: you can sneak a lot of stuff under the radar. I would bet money that you could claim that any of the following were real ecclesiastical Latin, and probably be believed.

I encourage people to use the following should they ever need to cite a fictional Papal encyclical: Ne sistite credo, Undique circum speculam, Via vastitatis, Quassans in vento, Tempora mutantes sunt, Hieronicae sumus, Numquam ambulabitis soli.

And if a fake Bible verse is required:

1 Et diem illam nos absentes manemus, ob omnes spiritos consumptes; sentimus dolorem aetatis perditae in millibus diebus, et per facem atque flammas perstamus.

2 Via deserta eo; sola via est qua ego umquam sciveram. Nescio quo exit; sed me solum est et eo solus. 3 Umbra mea sola est qui me anteit, et cor brevis meum solum est quod pulsat; interdum volo homine cui me inveniet. Antequam horam illam solus eo.

I make absolutely no promises about the quality of the Latin. (I tend to screw up relative clauses, and pronouns are uniformly a pain.) Hopefully, however, they will be more than adequate to your faux-Latinical needs.

Points may be handed out for the correct identification of each segment. (And what do points mean? PRIZES!)


*With added dragons, naturally.

**Sacrus is the root of ‘sacred’, sanctus of ‘saint’. ‘Sacrosanct’ would be not entirely ridiculously renderable by ‘doubleplusholy’.

***We have much less classical Latin than we do medieval Latin. Latin chant (well, Gregorian plainsong) is also a medieval invention as far as we know – no Roman music has survived, to my knowledge. The association of the Romans with conquering might, mad emperors and really nasty public entertainment probably helps the ominous reputation, though.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    July 31, 2010 5:19 pm

    I think I may have your answer. It lies in a convention often used by South American writers working in English, to show that their characters are speaking in Spanish. They populate the dialogue, particularly near the start of the story, with fragments of Spanish in places where their meaning is obvious or need not be understood. Thus, one ends up with dialogue like:

    — Mamá…
    — Yes, hijo mío?
    — What is tía Luba doing?

    This example somewhat exaggerated, but you get the idea.

  2. Seamus permalink
    July 31, 2010 5:25 pm

    Obviously, since ecclesiastical Latin isn’t conversation, it wouldn’t look particularly weird for that to be in all Latin, while still using the odd but fairly self-explanatory Creole version of French, Spanish, Italian, etc.

    See Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace for another example of how to do this; certain characters speak in French constantly, but are given in French only when using certain words and phrases: “Why, Madame la Comtesse, you know what they say: Cousinage, c’est dangereux voisinage.”

  3. heliconia permalink
    July 31, 2010 6:10 pm

    No one’s taken the bait yet…perhaps I will. Am I allowed to consult a dictionary?

  4. July 31, 2010 11:27 pm

    @Seamus: That’s an interesting suggestion, and one that I’ll bear in mind for future use. I’d rather avoid using real languages other than English for NaNo, if I can, but you make a good point.

    @heliconia: Hehe. The challenge was mostly tongue-in-cheek; I was going to post the answers after a while anyway. But do feel free to have a go at them yourself 😀

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