I’ll teach you to speak Aramaic

By the

February 26, 2004

Three years ago, Fr. William Fulco, S.J. received a phone call from a production company asking him to help translate a movie script. “Hey, Padre, its Mel. I’ve got a project for you,” said a voice on the other end of the phone. As a professor of Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he teaches courses like “Near Eastern Archaeology” and “Intermediate Classical Hebrew,” his litany of languages includes Aramaic and Latin. Fulco realized he was speaking to Mel Gibson, and soon agreed to help Gibson work on The Passion of The Christ, a movie version of the biblical story that comes out this week. The film’s dialogue is completely in Aramaic and Latin. Fulco helped with both.

Translating the script was not a simple exercise. “A lot of the language is an artistic interpretation,” says Fulco. “You have to get a story out of it. The problem is that the thinking in ancient languages is different from the thinking in English. It’s not just like a mathematical transcription; it’s a different way of thinking.”

The Aramaic was particularly challenging, as it is a language with no tenses. Fulco’s task was further complicated by a lack of information about Aramaic as it was used during the first century. “We have Aramaic documents from the Hebrew Bible, but that’s about four or five hundred years earlier,” he says. The next set of extant texts is about 500 years too late. The difference is far from negligible: “Aramaic changes as much as English did from Beowulf to Chaucer to modern English,” says Fulco. “But we wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I tried to be as plausible as I could with the Aramaic.”

Fulco’s work on the movie began as translator, but he quickly realized he would need to be on the set to coach the actors in delivering their lines.

“I had to coach all of the actors with everything they said. I gave them a phonetic transcription and I also gave them, beneath the phonetic transcription, the exact translation,” he says. The idea was to get the actors to understand the meaning of each sound, and emphasize accordingly, and it seems to have worked. Many people who have seen the movie commented that the actors speak Aramaic as if it was their first language. “For some strange reason, I think they had an easier time with the Aramaic than with the Latin,” he says. “They worked harder with it. It was more foreign to them and more fun to do, whereas everybody thought they knew a bit of Latin and they were caught off guard.”

Fulco then retranslated most of the ancient dialogue back into English. In the film, this retranslated script is used in the subtitles to give audiences a truer sense of the dialogue.

As the film progressed, Fulco’s role continued to expand. His expertise in ancient history made him helpful as an all-around consultant, and he soon developed a close personal relationship with Gibson as well.

“We’ve become pretty good friends,” Fulco says of himself and Gibson. “I say mass for him at least a couple times a week. His whole office takes mass. I was just up at his office just now and we had about 10 people come to Communion.” Fulco believes theirs may be the only film production office in southern California that consistently takes Communion together.

Some early viewers of the film have alleged that it is anti-Semitic, leading to considerable controversy over its release. It only hit theaters yesterday (Ash Wednesday), so it remains to be seen how audiences will react. But Fulco, Gibson and others involved in the production have already heard considerable feedback. One of the more unique objectors to the film attacked Fulco’s decision to use what is known as the Italian pronunciation of Latin. 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.

So dead languages aren’t really dead when it comes to movies. 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. You can borrow it from Lauinger Library.

But the odd epic aside, movies with a few snippets of ancient dialogue are not that uncommon. With Fulco’s baptism by fire in the film industry, he may have found a new career.

“I had a spot job with Keanu Reeves. He’s doing a film called John Constantine. In it, he has a part where he mutters an exorcism,” says Fulco. “And I got a call from Rome a few weeks ago, they’re doing a film called The Exorcist: The Beginning.” They need Fulco to help with the Aramaic. “It’s a small niche,” he says. “But it’s my niche.”

Bill Cleveland is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and a contributing editor of The Georgetown Voice. Never trust a McNamara.

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can u teach me aramaic? i have always wanted to learn.

Alex Gonzalez

I Realy Wana Lurn….It Would Be My Life Goal..