Thursday, 13 June 2019

Bad Latin in the movies: Constantine (2005)

Keanu Reeves. Yup, he’s hot stuff right now. And his films do seem to have a fair bit of Latin. His latest, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019), has a Latin subtitle, a short form of ‘if you want peace, prepare war’ -- a motto favoured by the alt-right, and also Parabellum was the official brandname of the Luger pistol.

Looking back further: in the first John Wick (2014), the gold coins used by professional assassins have Latin inscriptions -- on one side ens causa sui, ‘existing for its own sake’ -- I’m not sure that’s the intended meaning, but it’s what it does mean -- and on the other ex unitae vires, an error for ex unitate vires ‘strength from unity’. In The Matrix (1999), the Oracle has a Latin motto over her kitchen door, temet nosce ‘know yourself’. And Bill & Ted (1989) -- well, there’s no Latin, but we do have Socrates speaking ancient Greek. In a British accent.
John Constantine consults the archangel Gabriel. Left: Hellblazer 43 (1991); right: Tilda Swinton and Keanu Reeves in Constantine (2005).
And then there’s Constantine (2005), loosely based on a storyline in the comic book Hellblazer. Yes, there’s the good old tradition inherited from The Exorcist of repeating ‘in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit’ in Latin as an incantation for dispelling demons.

But there’s a more substantial chunk too. At one point we get to see a passage from a demonic bible, with an extra chapter at the end of 1 Corinthians. The original text, Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, was in Greek ... but, well, I guess demons do love them some Latin.

Here’s the text shown on screen.
The surrounding text has nothing to do with 1 Corinthians, by the way. The verse above the chapter heading is actually Isaiah 1.23.
Ad Corinthios XVII

Amor enim patris modo Satanae possessionis, atque potestatis et voluptatis eius excessus fuit. Atque in lumbis et ex lumbis eius conceptus est filius. Filio de quo fierit damnatio mundi. Hoc modo solo homines orbis terrae verum fatum suorum, certam vocationem, verum dolorem sub calce veri Domini explere poterunt per potestatem veri fili poterunt. Animas enim suas homines in fornace semper ardente sub pedibus verorum angelorum invenient.

Filius, in lucis ardore Patris conceptus, in umbra eius qui cecidit naturus est, nec umquam luce creatoris contaminatus erit. Et lux ignis veri sui patris flammae ardentes in cordibus hominum erint.

Peccata patris modo peccatis fili excessa erint.

Mammon erit nomen eius qui caput patris percutuit. Vires suae desuper patrem descendunt et potentia sua tanta erit ut lucem soli extingueret. Et tenebrae super Terram et super homines descendent.
The interpretation given out loud in the film is related to the Latin text, but isn’t a direct translation.

This isn’t exactly good Latin. OK, I’ve seen worse in students’ homework. This is good enough to work out the intended meaning -- mostly -- and it’s certainly way better than anything you’d get from Google Translate. (That’s setting a very low bar: Google Translate is notoriously bad at Latin. I guarantee you are much, much better at Latin than Google is, even if you’ve never studied any Latin at all.)
Never, ever, ever use Google Translate for Latin. Here’s its attempt at the first bit of Latin I ever read. This is day one material: you’ll be able to follow it even if you’ve never considered learning Latin.
But it’s very obviously translated from English, and translated by someone with a very shaky idea of verb tenses and noun cases. Here’s my best effort at working out the intended meaning:
For the love of the father was exceeded only by Satan’s lust for possession and power. And in his loins and from his loins a son is conceived. From that son will come about the damnation of the world. In this way alone will humans be able to fulfil the true destiny of their world, its assured calling, its true agony, beneath the heel of their true Lord: through the power of his true son they will be able (to do this). For humans will find their souls in a furnace, ever burning, beneath the feet of the true angels.

The son, conceived in the heat of his Father’s light, is to be born in the shadow of him who fell, never tainted by the light of the creator. And the light of the true fire of his father will be flames burning in people’s hearts.

The sins of the father will be exceeded only by the sins of the son.

Mammon will be his name, the one who beheaded his father. His strength descends upon his father, and his power will be great enough to extinguish the light of the sun. And shadows will descend upon the Earth and upon humans.
There’s an awful lot of mistakes in the Latin. Not historically plausible mistakes, mind: we’re talking classic mistakes made by English-speakers who just don’t get how noun cases work.

The first sentence, for example, is mangled enough that I’m not confident it was meant to say what I wrote in my translation. Here’s a literal version of what the Latin actually says:
For the love of the father had been had exceeded only of Satan or of possession and of power and of his desire.
Yeah. And verb tenses are all over the place. The phrase excessus fuit would be a kind of more-pluperfect-than-pluperfect, if that were a thing. My impression is that the translator forgot that Latin doesn’t really do tenses with auxiliary verbs, and shoved in English expressions in their place. In the second paragraph, contaminatus erit is literally ‘he will have been tainted’, not ‘he will be tainted’, which is what I think the writers were going for. Naturus est is clearly a translation of a faux-biblical English phrase ‘he is to be born’: authentic Latin would just use the future nascetur.

There are other problems. They’re all typical of an English speaker with dodgy Latin.

Reflexive possessives are used where ordinary possessives ought to be used. The phrase ‘of the son’ (paragraphs 1 and 3) is misspelled, so that the text actually means ‘oh my son!’. When humans ‘find’ their souls in a furnace (paragraph 1), the choice of words implies that they hit upon a research finding, not that they awake to a realisation. In paragraph 2, the ‘light of the true fire’ is singular, but the verb is plural -- another classic student’s mistake, agreeing with the complement instead of the subject. In paragraph 4 the Latin for ‘sun’, soli, is given a second-declension form when it should be third-declension.

Just for the sake of it, here’s a re-written version of the passage with some better Latin.
Amor enim patris solo Satanae possessionis atque potestatis voluptate exceditur. Atque in lumbis et ex lumbis eius concipitur. Quo de filio fiet damnatio mundi. Hoc modo solo homines verum fatum mundi sui, certam vocationem, verum dolorem sub calce veri Domini explere poterunt, per potestatem veri filii. Homines enim animas suas in fornace semper ardenti reperient sub pedibus verorum angelorum.

Filius, in lucis ardore Patris conceptus, in umbra illius qui cecidit nascetur; nec umquam luce creatoris contaminabitur. Et lux ignis veri sui patris erit, flammae ardentes in cordibus hominum.

Peccata patris modo peccatis filii excedentur.

Mammon erit nomen eius qui caput patris percutiet. Vires eius desuper patrem descendent et tanta erit potentia eius ut lucem ipsius solis extinguat. Et tenebrae super terram et super homines descendent.
You just can’t have demon stuff going on without some bad Latin. (Rich Burlew, The Order of the Stick 635 [2009])


  1. Thanks for another fascinating post.
    Apparently "Ens Causa Sui" has currency (sorry) among philosophers including Spinoza and Descartes, so it is correct in that sense:
    "Ex Unitate Vires" was the national motto of South Africa, lending it an unfortunate association with racism that the film makers probably didn't look far enough to find:

    1. That's really helpful, thanks Typhoeus! I didn't look far into the backstory of those mottos. Though it did look like 'ens causa sui' wasn't an accident -- you don't go using the participle of sum willy-nilly, and the genitive of se is always a special occasion.

      (I wonder if I should sit down and try to transcribe Tony Steedman's Greek in Bill and Ted. I do find his accent rather hard to follow.)

  2. Who said anything about "Latin"??? That is your assumption because it looks like Latin. (the words translate but the syntax is gibberish) It translates perfectly into "Esperanto"... I can only imagine how many authentic documents have been destroyed because of translators being ignorant of this language.

    Here is a translation of "Ad Corinthios XVII" verbatim from "Google translate"

    "For the love of the Father was only excessive of his possession, and his power and pleasure. And the son was conceived in his loins [and <from?] his loins. The cause of this is the damnation of the world. In this way, only the people of the world can fulfill their true fate, a certain call, but pain under the Lord's shoe of truth through the power of a true son. For your souls are always burning in the furnace burning under the feet of the true angels.

    The Son, who is conceived in the light of the Father, will be born in the shadow of the one who has fallen, nor will he ever be defiled by the light of the Creator. And the light of the fire of their true heart will burn the flames of their father in the hearts of men.

    Only the sins of the father will be the excess of my son's sins.

    Mammon will be the name of the one who struck the head of his father. Their descendants descend down from their father and their power will be so great that the light alone extinguish. And darkness will come down on earth and on men."

    I would say the translation given in the movie was acceptable. I want to know what the rest of that book says because there is no way that was written for the movie!!!

    P.S. Google's translator is sufficient (not perfect) for translations, if you are translating from the correct language...