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Ancient Roman Curses, Translated

What do you do when you come home from a bad day at work, furious at someone? Do you pour yourself a drink? Blow off steam playing video games? If you lived in a time when people commonly believed in black magic, you might have used a different coping mechanism: casting a curse at the offender, usually by contracting with a witch or sorcerer.

In ancient Greece and Rome, if you meant business, you’d have your curse written down on a stone tablet called a curse tablet or defixio. These tablets were purported to bind deities like Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, to the sorceror’s will in order to make them punish the person named in the curse. Defixiones were sometimes mass-produced by sorcerers, with the curses pre-written and space left for information like the victim’s name and his or her alleged crimes.

Interestingly, the tablets often included “Voces mysticae,” untranslatable words that were thought to have magical powers, like the modern day “Abra Cadabra” (or Avada Kedavra, as the case may be.)  In ancient Rome, these words have been of Etruscan origin, or they may have been made up out of whole cloth. Nobody is quite sure.

LiveScience reports that two defixiones from the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna have recently been translated. The translations, with targets as high and mighty as a senator and as low as an animal doctor,  seem to illustrate how common  these cursing tablets were in Roman society.

It’s not hard to imagine reasons why a politician would be targeted, but what did the hapless veterinarian do? Celia Sánchez Natalías, the doctoral student who translated the tablets, speculated that perhaps  he just wasn’t good at his job: “Maybe this person was someone that (had) a horse or an animal killed by Porcello’s medicine.”

Either way, ancient curses were quite vicious. Here’s just a sampling of the one directed at Porcello:

“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …”

Senator Fistus doesn’t get off any more lightly:

“Crush, kill Fistus the senator. May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”

Are you sensing a pattern here?

The Pope Tweets in Latin

Change sometimes comes slowly to the Catholic Church. However, last month the Vatican’s communications strategy took a huge leap forward when Pope Benedict XVI joined other world leaders on Twitter, under the username @Pontifex.

At first, his Holiness tweeted in English on his main account, with 7 other accounts dedicated to tweets in languages including Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Last weekend, the Pope launched another account, this time in Latin. Read more

The Google Code

Last week, the Internet lit up with the news that a “secret code” had been discovered in Google Translate. But was it really a secret message, or just another bad translation?

Much of the time, Google Translate will provide an imperfect but serviceable translation. However, sometimes it comes up with automatically generated translations that are so bad, they seem uncanny.

The story of the “secret code” was originally published on the Krebs On Security blog.  A few months back, researchers from a couple of different security firms approached computer security reporter Bryan Krebs with an intriguing discovery: putting the traditional “Lorem Ipsum” placeholder text into Google Translate yielded some very strange, politically tinged results. For example, Google translated “lorem ipsum” without capital letters as “China.” “Lorem Ipsum”, capitalized, produced “NATO.”  Check out his blog post for the entire list of seemingly-not-quite-random translations.

The researchers wondered if, perhaps, they had stumbled upon a secret code. Was it used by spies? Activists? Hackers? Perhaps it was meant to be a tunnel through China’s “Great Firewall.”  The truth is out there…but it will be a lot more difficult to uncover it now that Google has fixed the translations, which it did almost immediately after being notified of the issue.

Unfortunately, the most likely explanation is also the most mundane…it’s simply a bad machine translation caused by inadequate, poor quality data.

As ZDNet explained, because lorem ipsum is used as a placeholder,

“[T]here are millions of examples but very few actual translations of them; instead, the placeholder text will get matched up with documents that just look similar to the algorithm but aren’t actually connected. That would explain why you got different translations if you capitalised the words differently or duplicated them, resulting in translations like China, the Internet, NATO, the Company, China’s Internet, Business on the Internet, Home Business, Russia might be suffering, he is a smart consumer, the main focus of China, department and exam. Those are all common phrases – and you might recognise some of them from spammy web sites promising thousands of dollars for working from home or offering you answers to exam questions.”

Additionally, the standard lorem ipsum text is only one step above gibberish, anyway.

For her part, Kraeh3n, the researcher who discovered the “code,” told Krebs that she doesn’t believe it’s random:

“Translate [is] designed to be able to evolve and to learn from crowd-sourced input to reflect adaptations in language use over time,” Kraeh3n said. “Someone out there learned to game that ability and use an obscure piece of text no one in their right mind would ever type in to create totally random alternate meanings that could, potentially, be used to transmit messages covertly.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch is reporting that the odd translations were part of 1o57’s Defcon Badge puzzle.

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by pkwahme

Bringing Latin Back

Latin split into the Romance languages in the 6th through 9th centuries AD, but this officially dead language has long refused to give up the ghost, persisting among scholars for centuries more and in the Catholic Church even until the present day.

Now, it appears that Pope Benedict XVI is bringing Latin back, with the opening of a new pontifical academy to promote its study and use.

Why the renewed interest? Latin’s status as a lingua franca among clergy has declined in recent decades, as has the understanding of the language among regular church members.

As Vatican spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini explained to the Daily Telegraph:

“When I was a young seminarian I was once on the border of Italy and Austria, where we met a group of priests. We spoke not in German or in Italian but in Latin. There is certainly a desire for more people to learn and understand Latin. From the Church’s point of view, the more people who speak Latin, the better.”

Of course, the world has changed tremendously since the time of Ancient Rome. So, bringing the language into the modern day requires a certain amount of potentially controversial tweaking. As Fr. Roberto Spataro, Professor of Ancient Christian Literature and Secretary of the Pontificium Institutum Altioris latinitatis, explained to the Vatican Insider:

“There are two schools of thought. The first is what we may call the Anglo-Saxon school of thought, which holds that before a neologism is created, we need to sieve through all the texts that have been written in Latin – and not just classical Latin – throughout the centuries. The other school of thought, which for the sake of ease I will call Latin, holds that we can be freer in creating a circumlocution that properly conveys the idea and meaning of a modern word, whilst maintaining the flavour of classical Ciceronian Latin.”

For your edification, here are some of the modern-day neologisms Vatican scholars have put together:

  • Alternative energy sources: “fontes alterius generis”
  • Non-renewable energy sources: “fontes energiae qui non renovantur”
  • Photocopy: “exemplar luce expressum”
  • Bank note: “charta nummária”
  • Basketball: “follis canistrīque ludus”
  • Blue jeans: “bracae línteae caerúleae”
  • Hot pants: “brevíssimae bracae femíneae”
  • Internet: “inter rete”
  • Email: “inscriptio cursus electronici”

 

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by sethschoen

 

A Latin Translation Error, Carved in Stone 

The public library in Moorestown, New Jersey has an admirable motto: “We confirm all things twice.” After the unveiling of their new building this week, the staff there is probably wishing they’d lived up to those words.

The designs for the building included a Latin translation of the library’s motto, carved into two stone medallions on the building. Unfortunately, the translation was  hopelessly wrong, and nobody bothered to confirm it even once.  The error wasn’t uncovered until after the building was complete and the motto was quite literally carved in stone.  In the words of the great philosopher Homer J. Simpson: “D’oh!”

The translation used on the library walls was “‘nos secundus coniecto omnia,” which Google translates as “We second-guess all” and anyone who actually speaks Latin knows is just a jumbled mess.

The building’s designers can’t even blame technology for the error; head architect Rick Ragan admitted in the Daily Mail that the botched translation “was attempted by a staff member who looked through a Latin dictionary.”

Ragan continued:

“We’ve looked at the definition of the words. It says that the verb says, ‘think, include, conclude, judge and confirm. But Google’s version, and I’m old enough to admit that I’ve never translated anything on Google or conjugated (anything). Their version is that ‘We all second-guess.”

The Daily Mail also has an excellent breakdown of all the things wrong with the translation:

“While ‘nos’ can mean ‘we’, it is in fact unnecessary because verbs in Latin contain who is doing them in the way the word ends. Coniecto – the verb in the sentence – in fact means ‘I conclude’ or ‘I guess’. The ‘we’ form would be ‘coniectamus’. Likewise, ‘secundus’ is an adjective meaning ‘second’, but even in conjunction with a verb meaning guess, does not mean ‘second-guess’. The correct way to render ‘we confirm all things twice’ would be ‘bis verificamus omnia‘.”

Ragan’s firm will now be paying for stonecutter to fix the medallions, as well as to correct some missing Roman numerals on other parts of the facade. A quick phone call to the nearest Latin professor would have saved them quite a bit of trouble and embarrassment.

If you’re thinking of translating any of your business communications by “looking through a dictionary,” stop. Do not pass go.  Do not collect $100. Call us and get your message properly translated!

What Does Lorem Ipsum Mean?

At some point in time, almost everyone has encountered text that reads Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet… It’s used all over the place and theories on what it is range from it being a secret illuminati code, to it being complete nonsense. Let’s explore.

What does Google Think?

Partly fuelling conspiracy theories was when you pasted the first few paragraphs of Lorem ipsum into Google Translate they translated it into English as nonsense but included words like China and Nato (for those concerned, instructions on crafting foil hats can be found here). Read more

A Latin Translation of "The Hobbit"

Peter Jackson’s long-awaited first film installment of “The Hobbit” premiered in New Zealand on Wednesday, and there was much rejoicing amongst the geeks of the world.

However, for fantasy lovers who also speak Latin, there was another reason to rejoice this week. On Tuesday, the first-ever Latin translation of “The Hobbit” was released. Titled “Hobbitus Ille,” the translation was done by classicist, author and Latin teacher Mark Walker.

Why Latin? Here’s what Mr. Walker had to say on the subject, taken from an excerpt from the foreword reprinted on the Huffington Post:

“There is, as anyone who has taken the trouble to study Latin knows, a curious gap in the available reading material. On the one hand are simplified stories for classroom use, on the other the glories of high Latin literature — but remarkably little in between… This is where the Latin Hobbit comes in. It is nothing more or less than a novel — but a novel now in Latin. Which is to say, it is a Latin text whose principal aim is to be read solely for the pleasure of reading….”

The translation was obviously a labor of love. Mr. Walker even went so far as to translate the songs in the book into Latin, using classical Latin meters appropriate for the mood of each song.

According to a press release issued by the publisher, the novel ” follows the Cambridge and Oxford Latin conventions” and is therefore “ideal for school use.”

This does look like it would be a lot of fun for children and teenagers, and a great way to motivate young Latin students.

One caveat: Translating a novel is no easy task, and a lively debate over some of Mr. Walker’s word choices is currently raging on the book’s Amazon page, with one reviewer declaring it “bad Latin.” If that’s the case, hopefully a revised second edition will be released in the future.

Photo Credit:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Nick Bramhall

Google translates latin

Google Translate Now Translates Latin Ad Libitum

Last week, Google added another language to its popular Google Translate service, and Latin students everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, Google Translate now decodes Latin. The announcement came via a blog post written entirely in Latin by engineer Jakob Uszkoreit. Show-offs!

Google expects the Latin version of Google Translate to be quite popular with students who are studying the language, as well as for people studying philosophical and other texts originally written in Latin.

The fact that Latin is a dead language should make Google’s machine translation more accurate, as the company explained in its blog (Latin translation from the Telegraph):

“Unlike any of the other languages Google Translate supports, Latin offers a unique advantage: most of the text that will ever be written in Latin has already been written, and a comparatively large part of it has been translated in to other languages. We use these translations, found in books and on the web, to train our system.”

Read more