Friday, 21 June 2019

Bad Latin in the movies: Life of Brian (1979)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian contains a Latin lesson that Latin students find unforgettable. When the film got released in other languages, though, how did the dubbing process deal with this scene?
Note, a couple of days later: I’ve made some minor edits to try and clear things up: apparently some readers interpreted this post as though I had translated the scene into other languages myself. I didn’t, and I’m not sure what the point of that would be! I’m looking at officially released dubs of the film.
How many Romans? (Life of Brian, 1979)

The English version

Video: link 1, link 2, link 3
Centurion. What’s this then? Romanes eunt domus? ‘People called Romanes they go the house’?
Brian. It -- it says ’Romans go home!’
Centurion. No it doesn’t. What’s Latin for ‘Roman’? Come on, come on!
Brian. Ahh! Romanus?
Centurion. Goes like?
Brian. annus?
Centurion. Vocative plural of annus is ...?
Brian. anni?
Centurion. Ro ... ma ... ni. eunt? What is eunt?
Brian. ‘Go’!
Centurion. Conjugate the verb ‘to go’.
Brian. Uh, ire. Uhh, eo, is it, imus, itis, eunt.
Centurion. So eunt is ...
Brian. Uh, uh, third person plural, present indicative! ‘They go’.
Centurion. But ‘Romans go home’ is an order, so you must use the ...
Brian. Aaaaahh, the imperative!
Centurion. Which is ...
Brian. Uuumm, oh! um, i, i!
Centurion. How many Romans?
Brian. Aaahh plural, plural, ite, ite!
Centurion. i ... te. domus? Nominative? ‘Go home’, this is motion towards, isn’t it boy?
Brian. Uh, uh, dative!
[Centurion draws sword and holds it to Brian’s throat.]
Brian. Oooohh, not dative, not the dative sir! No, ah, oh, the accusative, accusative! Uh, domum, sir! ad domum!
Centurion. Except that domus takes the ...
Brian. The locative, sir!
Centurion. Which is?
Brian. domum!
Centurion. domum. dom ... um. Understand?
Brian. Yes sir!
Centurion. Now write it out a hundred times.
Brian. Yes sir! Thank you sir, hail Caesar sir!
Centurion. Hail Caesar. And if it’s not done by sunrise, I’ll cut your balls off.
Brian. Oh, thank you sir, thank you sir, hail Caesar and everything sir!
-- Life of Brian (1979)
When I show this to a beginners’ Latin class, the students love to see Graham Chapman suffering like they do, and John Cleese’s horrible old schoolteacher, but there are some bits I have to explain. In my classes students don’t learn what a noun ‘goes like’: I think that expression is specific to England. Here they learn which ‘declension’ it belongs to.

Then there’s the bit about domus. A movie audience that doesn’t know any Latin won’t mind, but for students who have encountered the niceties of how to deal with ‘to’ in Latin, the route by which Brian gets to domum is confusing. Here’s the reasoning, if you’d like to learn a little Latin grammar. In Latin, ‘to’ is translated with a dative form only if you’re giving something ‘to’ someone, or telling, or showing something to someone. If you want to talk about motion to a place, you have to use the word ad, then the accusative form of the noun: ad urbem ‘to the city’, ad tabernam ‘towards the pub’. But there’s a select group of nouns that use the accusative by itself, without ad, and domus is one of them. A characteristic unique to nouns in that select group is that they can also take another special form, called the locative. So Brian is right to say that he should use accusative domum -- his error is using ad. When the Centurion gets him to remember that domus can take the locative, he says that Brian should use the locative form -- but that would be domi, and it would be wrong. The underlying idea is that because domus can take a locative form, therefore it belongs to that select group of nouns, therefore the correct expression is accusative without ad.

Brian gets the correct result, but the explanation is designed around comic pacing, not pedagogy.
Explanations in various Latin textbooks: Oxford Latin Course vol. 2 p. 122; Moreland and Fleischer p. 103; Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer §§268-275; North & Hillard p. 32; Bradley’s Arnold pp. 207-208.
And now for something completely not different. I think it’s interesting to see what happens to this scene in dubs of the film into other languages. How do they explain the Latin? We’ll look at the German, French, Italian, and Spanish dubs.

The German dub

Video: link 1, link 2

First, I have to praise the marvellous job done by the actor for the Centurion’s voice. He’s wonderful. I’ve no idea who he is, though, because there are no credits for the dubbing.
Centurion. Was haben wir denn daaaaaaaa?! Romanes eunt domus? ‘Menschen genannt Romanes gehen das Haus’?
Brian. Es soll heißen ‘Römer geht nach Haus!’
Centurion. Heißt es aber nicht. Was ist lateinisch für ‘Römer’? Na komm schon, komm schon!
Brian. Romanus!
Centurion. Deklinieren.
Brian. annus?
Centurion. Vokativ plural von annus ist ...?
Brian. anni?
Centurion. Ro ... ma ... ni. eunt! Was heißt eunt?
Brian. ‘Geh’.
Centurion. Konjugiere das Verb ‘gehen’.
Brian. eo, is, it, imus, itis, eunt.
Centurion. Also ist eunt ...?
Brian. Dritte Person Plural Präsens Indikativ! ‘Sie gehen’.
Centurion. Aber ‘Römer geht nach Haus’ ist ein Befehl, also musst du was gebrauchen ...?
Brian. Den Imperativ!
Centurion. Der lautet ...?
Brian. i, i!
Centurion. Wie viele Römer?
Brian. Plural! ite! ite!
Centurion. iiiii ... te! domus ... Nominativ? ‘Geht nach Haus’ ist eine Bewegung auf etwas zu, nicht wahr, Junge?
Brian. Ja. Dativ, Herr? Ahh, ahh, ahh, oh nein nein nein nein! Ahh, Akkusativ, Akkusativ! domus, Herr, ad domus!
Centurion. Nun fordert domus den ...?
Brian. Den Lokativ, den Lokativ!
Centurion. Welcher lautet?
Brian. domum! Aaahhh!
Centurion. domum! dom ... um. Hast du verstanden?
Brian. Ja, Herr!
Centurion. Du schreibst das jetzt hundert mal.
Brian. Ja, Herr! Vielen Dank, Herr! Heil Cäsar!
Centurion. Heil Cäsar. Wenn du bis Sonnenaufgang nicht fertig bist, dann schneide ich dir die Eier ab.
Brian. Ahh, Danke Herr! Danke sehr, Herr! Heil Cäsar und alles andere!
In place of the English school expression ‘Goes like?’, the Centurion uses the technical term: he asks Brian to ‘decline’ the noun annus.

When we get to the bit about domus, the German dialogue screws up the grammar worse than in the original. In the original the Centurion asks Brian for the locative, and he gives it as domum (the correct form, but not locative). In German, Brian initially tries to use the expression ad domus, claiming that it’s the accusative, when in fact it’s nominative. What a mess. I wonder how Latin teachers in Germany explain this to their confused students. Maybe they just don’t show it ...

The French versions

Video: link

Thank you to Dr Jutta Günther for deciphering some bits that I couldn’t follow. A French dub was only made for the DVD release in 2003: it’s closer to the English than the subtitled version. This Centurion is a right bastard of a schoolmaster, even more than in the other versions: he’s constantly interrupting Brian’s correct answers with his next question.
Centurion. Qu’est-ce que tu as barbouillé là? Romanes eunt domus? ‘Des promeneurs nommés Romanes, qui vont la maison’?
Brian. Non ... ça veut dire ‘Romains, rentrez chez vous!’
Centurion. Mais non, pas du tout. C’est quoi ‘Romain’ en Latin? Alors, alors!
Brian. Romanus?
Centurion. Ça décline comment?
Brian. annus?
Centurion. Le vocatif pluriel du annus, c’est ...
Brian. anni?
Centurion. Ro ... ma ... ni. eunt. D’où ça vient?
Brian. Du verbe ire.
Centurion. Conjugue le verbe ‘rentrer’.
Brian. ire: eo, is, it, imus, itis, eunt.
Centurion. Donc eunt, c’est ...
Brian. Troisième personne du pluriel du présent l’indicatif! ‘Ils vont’.
Centurion. Mais ‘Romains rentrez chez vous’, c’est un ordre, donc nous devons utiliser ...?
Brian. L’impératif!
Centurion. Qui est ...?
Brian. i, i!
Centurion. Combien de Romains?
Brian. Pluriel! Pluriel! ite!
Centurion. i ... te. domus? C’est un nominatif! ‘Rentrez chez vous’, c’est un expression d’un mouvement, hein, jeune homme?
Brian. ... datif? Ahh non, non, pas datif, monsieur! L’accusatif, accusatif! domum, monsieur, ad domum!
Centurion. Excepté la domus se décline aussi en ...
Brian. Le locatif!
Centurion. Lequel est ...?
Brian. domum!
Centurion. do ... mum. uuummmm! Compris?
Brian. Oui monsieur!
Centurion. Donc la copiera cent fois.
Brian. Oui monsieur, merci monsieur, avé César!
Centurion. Avé César. Si c’est past fait au lever du soleil je te coupe les baloches.
Brian. Oh, merci monsieur, merci monsieur! Avé César et tutti quanti, monsieur!
The subtitled version, however, captures the grammatical logic of the domus bit better than any of the other versions here:
Centurion. domus? Nominatif? ‘Rentrez chez vous’, c’est là où l’on va, c’est ça?
Brian. Le datif! Non, pas le datif! L’accusatif! domum! ad domum!
Centurion. Mais domus prend le ...
Brian. Le locatif!
Centurion. Alors?
Brian. domum!
In the original and the French dub, the logic sounds like ‘domus takes the locative, therefore we should use the locative’ -- and that’s wrong. In the subtitled version, the logic is ‘domus takes the locative, therefore the correct form is domum.’ And that’s correct.

As in the German version, the Centurion doesn’t ask what Romanus ‘goes like’: instead he asks how it declines.

I’m vaguely pleased that the Latin domus is given its correct gender in French.

The Italian dub

Video: link
Centurion. Cosa stiamo facendo qui? Romanes eunt domus. ‘Certi chiamati Romanes vanno la casa’.
Brian. Vuol ... vuol dire ‘Romani andate a casa.’
Centurion. No, carino. Come si dice ‘Romano’? Forza, in latino.
Brian. Romanus!
Centurion. Della?
Brian. Seconda.
Centurion. La desinenza del vocativo plurale ...
Brian. i, i!.
Centurion. Quindi, Romani. Che vuoi dire con eunt?
Brian. ‘Andate’.
Centurion. Coniuga il presente indicativo di ‘andare’!
Brian. ire. eo, is, it, imus, itis, eunt.
Centurion. Quindi eunt è ...?
Brian. Ahh, ahh, terza persona plurale, presente indicativo. ‘Essi vanno’.
Centurion. Ma ‘Romani andate a casa’ è un ordine, quindi devi usare che cosa?
Brian. ... l’imperativo!
Centurion. E cioè?
Brian. Eh, oh, oh, um ... eh, i, i!
Centurion. Ma quanti sono i Romani?
Brian. Ah, già, plurale! ite, ite!
Centurion. iiii ... te. domus. Nominativo? ‘Andate a casa’ è moto a luogo, giusto, giovanotto?
Brian. ... dativo, signore? Ahh, no no, no! Non dativo, signore, no! No! Ahh! Accusativo! Accusativo! domum, signore! ad domum!
Centurion. Solo che domum vuole il ...?
Brian. Il locativo, signore!
Centurion. E cioè?
Brian. domum!
Centurion. dommmm .... dom ... um. Hai capito?
Brian. Sì, signore!
Centurion. Allora scrivilo cento volte.
Brian. Sì, signore! Grazie, signore! Ave, Cesare!
Centurion. Ave, Cesare. E se all’alba non hai finito, ti taglio le palle.
Brian. Grazie signore, troppo buono! Ave, Cesare! Ave, Cesare!
Once again, we have the telescoped bit about the locative, sticking close to the original.

The Italian dub handles the declension of Romanus differently from the others. Here, the Centurion doesn’t ask for a paradigm, and Brian doesn’t answer with annus. Instead, the Centurion simply asks ‘from which (declension)?’, and Brian answers ‘second (declension)’. Then he gives the correct ending, without bothering with a stem, and without bothering to use annus as a paradigm. I’m intrigued that the Italian doesn’t even use the word ‘declension’, just the number.

The Spanish dub

Video: link 1, link 2

A big thank you to Dr Tatjana Schaefer for copying this out (my Spanish is nearly non-existent). And a shout-out to the actor for Brian, who’s easily the best Brian in these dubs. His squealing of ‘El imperativo!’ is gold.
Centurion. Qué describes ahi? Romanes eunt domus ... ‘Gente llamada Romanes ir la casa’?
Brian. Dice ‘Romanos marchaos a casa!’
Centurion. De eso nada. Como se dice Romanos en Latin? Vamos, vamos!
Brian. Romanus.
Centurion. Y se declina como?
Brian. annus!
Centurion. El vocativo plural de annus es...?
Brian. anni.
Centurion. Ro ... ma ... ni! eunt. Qué es eunt?
Brian. Ir.
Centurion. Conjuga el verbo ir.
Brian. ire. eo, is, it, imus, itis, eunt.
Centurion. Luego eunt es ...?
Brian. Te-te-te-tercera persona del plural del presente indicativo. ‘Ellos van’.
Centurion. Pero ‘Romanos marchaos’ es una orden, asi que hay que usar ...?
Brian. El imperativo!
Centurion. Que es ...?
Brian. i, i!
Centurion. Quantos Romanos?
Brian. Plural! ite, ite!
Centurion. i ... te. domus -- en nominativo? ‘Marcharse’ indica movimiento, no, muchacho?
Brian. Dativo, señor! -- no no no no no no, no es dativo! Acusativo! domum, domum!
Centurion. Solo que domus lleva el ...?
Brian. El locativo!
Centurion. Que es ...?
Brian. domum!
Centurion. domum. do ... mum. Has comprendido?
Brian. Si señor.
Centurion. Escribelo cien veces.
Brian. Si, señor! Gracias señor! Hail César!
Centurion. Hail César. Si no esta escrito al amanecer te corto los cojones.
Brian. Gracias señor, gracias señor! Hail César y todo los demas.
Brian barely squeaks out the word annus: the Centurion should probably have double-checked that he had the right paradigm.

In this version the business of domus makes no sense at all. Brian offers the correct form, domum, only to have it corrected to ... domum. I don’t think the translator understood the reasoning. Which is fair enough, given that it doesn’t quite make sense in the original.

Other versions

Links to other languages, for the curious.

Dubbed/voice-over: Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian
Subtitles: Croatian, Greek, Hebrew, Serbian


  1. Fun article! I think one of your sources should read, Moreland and Fleischer.

    1. Whoops! Quite right - I got mixed up with Morwood, one of the authors of the Oxford Latin Course. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for gathering all these together!