Keeping a dead language alive

Trinity News speaks to Dr Martin Worthington about dead languages, ancient cultures and the latest Marvel film

Marvel Studios, the super-powered media giant, is famously secretive, known for giving actors censored scripts and using codenames to avoid leaks and spoilers. Trinity College’s Dr. Martin Worthington got a taste of this famous secrecy in 2019 when he was asked to translate dialogue into Babylonian for an undisclosed project known as “Sack Lunch”. Months later, Worthington discovered that these translations were for Marvel’s latest blockbuster hit, Eternals. 

As someone whose work focuses on ancient cultures and dead languages, most of Worthington’s work concentrates on stories of the past rather than those told today. When Eternals came out, Worthington told Trinity News he was left “dumbstruck” upon realising that his work had been involved in such a huge cinematic project. However, the scenes set in Ancient Babylon play a key role in the narrative and structure of the film.

“As the name says, the Eternals have been on Earth for a long time,” Worthington explains, “…and so the story lingers in Ancient Babylon for a while. I think they wanted some of the language to create a sense of authenticity and to bring [the audience] into the story, and I think they succeeded.”

Worthington not only translated the dialogue, but also provided multiple recordings of the dialogue in “slow, fast, loud, soft, angry, happy” tones to help the actors deliver their lines not only with accuracy, but with authenticity. 

This experience was not Worthington’s first interaction with Hollywood; in 2018, Worthington was sent an English poem to translate into Babylonian, for a film about “an ancient creature waking up”. Worthington happily provided the translation, but it was not until a year after the film’s release that he realised that his translations were used in the 2019 monster film, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”.

Despite the allusive nature of the job, the secrecy surrounding these types of film projects does not bother Worthington: “People who work on the Ancient Near [and Middle] East and Ancient Mesopotamia are always grateful for any publicity we can get, so pretty much any film that wants something translated into Babylonian will always get a yes from me.”

When Worthington is not translating for the stars, he is Trinity College’s Al-Maktoum Associate Professor in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. His days are spent lecturing, writing, and conducting research on the historical region known as Mesopotamia (largely present-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey). Ancient Babylonian language, also known as Akkadian, faded into oral obscurity by around 500BC, but interest and research into the topic remain alive.

“Really drilling down into something is a way of creating mental order and sort of getting a handle on a small part of the world.”

Worthington’s current research, for example, is centered around Sargon, king of Assyria from 721-704BC. An inscription by the ancient king discusses a newly built city whose perimeter, when measured in cubits (an ancient form of measurement based on the distance from the arm to the elbow), somehow spells out his name. Questions of how this measurement and construction was possible have lingered for hundreds of years and even as Worthington believes he is getting closer to the answer, many questions about Mesopotamia might remain unanswered for hundreds of years more. 

For Worthington, confronting these unanswered questions is tantamount to  a “form of therapy” for the clarity and perspective it provides: “Understanding the world is not easy. There are all sorts of questions about the way the world works, and I think most of us actually go throughout our lives without resolving these questions because we don’t confront them. So really drilling down into something and mapping out all the sub-questions and finding the evidence and tying it up, for me, is a way of creating mental order and sort of getting a handle on a small part of the world.”

Worthington also believes that it is precisely its vast, unexplained history that makes the study of Mesopotamia so exciting today. In comparison to other historical periods, there is still a great deal we do not know about Mesopotamia; according to Worthington, our knowledge of Mesopotamia today is, in many ways, at the same standard that knowledge of Ancient Rome and Greece was in the 1700s. There are still huge amounts of ancient writing tablets waiting to be discovered under the deserts of Iraq. To Worthington, this means “you’re part of a massive intellectual journey, and you’re aware that, for a lot of things you do, in time it will be forgotten that you did them, but they will become unobtrusive bricks in a wall of knowledge that continues to grow”

The bricks we already have certainly created an impressive image of these ancient cultures. As Worthington explains, it was in Ancient Mesopotamia that “cities were born and writing was invented”, showing the far-reaching influence they had on modern civilisation. The Babylonians also “used Pythagoras’ Theorem before Pythagoras” (but did not receive credit for it until discoveries of its usage were made thousands of years later) and developed the groundwork for our modern concept of measuring time. Stories and ideas from these ancient cultures also find their way into popular culture today: along with the Babylonian translations used in Eternals, the 1970s comics the film is based on include a character named Gilgamesh referencing the Babylonian epic and a villain named Tiamut, a name that could be referencing Tiamat, Babylonian goddess of the sea.

Worthington concedes that there are aspects of Babylonian culture that we may never discover, and that this knowledge gap colours our entire interaction with the study. While “thousands” of writings from Ancient Babylon have been found, they consist mainly of medical records, administrative documents and “praising kings” — every day, “chatty” Babylonian was not recorded in words. Therefore, our knowledge of Babylonian today does not include the colloquial words and phrases that are a key part of every language. Worthington compared this to a study of the English language that completely excludes letters, diaries and conversations in novels that make up an essential portion of language.

This knowledge gap actually led to an interesting challenge for Worthington when he was translating the dialogue for “Eternals”. As there is little to no information on colloquial Babylon, Worthington had to make a lot of logical jumps to capture the conversations between the characters. For instance, when coming across the line “I feel everything around me vibrating”, Worthington was faced with two huge gaps: there is no recorded Babylonian word for “vibrating” or “feel” in the same sense as English. Worthington had to reconstruct the sentence to, literally, “Everything around me is constantly touching me” a self-admitted “ridiculous” sentence in English, but a sentence that was able to capture the feeling of the story in Ancient Babylon. 

“The exercise of learning a language is one of the most neurologically challenging activities that the human mind can engage in.”

Despite the gaps that exist in Babylonian and the entire study of Mesopotamia, Worthington believes that keeping this dead language alive is an exciting and worthy endeavour. When it comes to the language, the “rewards [of studying Babylonian] are enormous” for critical engagement and analysis.

“Studying Babylonian and similar sources is a hardcore education in how to read written materials,” Worthington tells Trinity News, “If you want to become a lawyer, there could be no better training than to be pouring over Babylonian sources and working out what a word really means and where a sentence starts and stops and what the implications are… textual analysis is absolutely key.”

“I’ve heard it said that the exercise of learning a language is one of the most neurologically challenging activities that the human mind can engage in, so in terms of keeping the old brain a-rattling, that’s a good thing to do.”

Engaging with ancient literature and the countless interpretations and translations “trains you in juggling possibilities simultaneously,” according to Worthington, “which is something that as responsible citizens of the world, we all need to try and do in life.”

“What a society needs is intelligent citizens who are able to assess evidence critically, develop an open mind, a curiosity, a measure of empathy.”

On the subject of civic responsibility, Worthington also considers the study of ancient civilisations to be a “mind-broadening” experience: “in the same way going to visit a foreign land today makes you realise that humans can organise themselves in different ways, looking out into the window on Ancient Babylon makes you realise that humans organise their societies in utterly different ways, and it can in both ways cause you to rethink the axioms of both societies.” 

Worthington is always excited to engage “lay people” in Near and Middle Eastern studies, as he explains that “talking to the public can be very refreshing, they come to the subject with no preconceptions, and they’re not part of the communities of consensus that form within scholarship.”

Worthington has taken many measures to make Mesopotamia as accessible of a topic as possible. Along with translating Babylonian for Hollywood films, in 2018 Worthington collaborated with his students to direct the first Babylonian language film in the world, The Poor Man of Nippur, which has gained nearly 100,000 views on YouTube. He is also involved with the College’s new master’s program, The Middle East in a Global Context, which focuses on the history, culture and politics of the Middle East. According to Worthington, this course “tells us a huge part of the human story, and it is important for people to be aware of that, and to be pointed in its direction.”

Worthington sees a value in his study that goes beyond the academics: “What a society needs is intelligent citizens who are able to assess evidence critically, develop an open mind, a curiosity, a measure of empathy, and hopefully not be completely in thrall to excessive capitalism. And oh look, that’s basically the description of a student of the Ancient Near East.”

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of Politics, Philosophy, and Sociology.