Approximately 4,000 years ago, Babylonian emerged as one of the principal languages of ancient Mesopotamia, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (present-day Iraq) often described as the “cradle of civilization.” Though it has left a rich artistic and literary legacy, immortalized in tablets inscribed in cuneiform, the wedge-shaped script and earliest writing form, Babylonian gradually died out. It was replaced by Old Aramaic — the precursor to modern Arabic — around the eighth century BCE.
Unexpectedly, Marvel Studios’ latest movie may help revive interest in the long-dead language. Eternals, now in theaters, is the “first major film” to include characters speaking in Babylonian, according to Trinity College. Martin Worthington, an Assyriologist and associate professor in Middle Eastern Studies at the Dublin university, worked on translations for the film.
Eternals introduces a new group of eponymous superheroes sent to protect Earth from evil creatures known as the Deviants over 7,000 years ago. When the monsters unexpectedly return to wreak havoc on the planet, the 10 immortal protagonists must reunite to save humankind. Characters in the film speak Babylonian in scenes where they communicate with the inhabitants of the ancient city.
Thanks to more than a century of scholarship — Babylonian cuneiform was first deciphered in the mid-1800s — Assyriologists have a strong understanding of the structure and vocabulary of Babylonian and other ancient dialects of the region, such as Sumerian and Hittite. And Worthington knows a thing or two about adapting the extinct language for modern audiences: in 2018, as a fellow at St. John’s College, he created the first film entirely in Babylonian, casting his students to dramatize a folk tale written on a clay tablet in 701 BCE.
Dr. Martin Worthington in the Library of Trinity College Dublin reading a Sumerian cuneiform tablet, which uses the same wedge-shaped script as Babylonian. (photo by Chris Bellew /Fennell Photography © 2021)
Still, the Eternals script presented some challenges. The most difficult lines to translate were casual phrases used in everyday conversations, like “wait a moment” or “let me help you,” Worthington explained in an interview with Trinity College. These colloquial expressions and parts of speech were rarely included in the highly formal texts and documents inscribed on cuneiform tablets, the principal sources for studying Babylonian. Unable to identify an exact translation for “thank you,” for instance, he had to get creative.
“It is ubiquitous today, but as far as we know it was not used in Ancient Mesopotamia, so I had to find workarounds — expressions such as ‘May the gods bless you,’” Worthington said [was this directly to you, or elsewhere?] [in the interview cited above]. For phonetics and pronunciation, he referred to transcriptions of Babylonian and Assyrian into related scripts, such as Hebrew circa 700 BCE and later Greek.
Worthington believes Eternals will “raise awareness of Ancient Mesopotamia and its fascinating cultures.”
“It was thrilling to create these translations and send them out into the ether for an actor to speak them aloud, imbue them with gestures, and bring them to life,” he said. “Film is such a powerful medium, which can summon a past full of moving, breathing and talking people.“
And for those who want to watch Eternals without subtitles — or have a lot of extra time on their hands — Worthington authored Complete Babylonian, a teach-yourself handbook featuring original Babylonian texts.