What a Marvel: How Trinity expert brought 'Eternals' script to life

What a Marvel: How Trinity expert brought 'Eternals' script to life

Dr Martin Worthington of Trinity College provided Babylonian translations for Marvel Studios’ ‘Eternals’. Picture: Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography 2021

The latest Marvel superhero blockbuster to hit the screens already had a distinctly Irish feel in its cast, but the newly-released Eternals also had an Irish influence in an altogether different sphere: the translation of ancient languages.

The first major film to feature characters speaking Babylonian, a language that died out more than 2,000 years ago, needed an expert to provide written translations and audio recordings the actors could use for their performance.

Enter Trinity College Dublin’s Dr Martin Worthington, an assyriologist and author of the book Teach Yourself Complete Babylonian.

“I was completely surprised, ” he told the Irish Examiner. “I think in the first instance there was an email that was quite coy, and that there was a project involving my field of expertise.” 

From there, he became involved with the film that was initially identified only by the secret name 'Sack Lunch'.

From left: Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Chloe Zhao, Salma Hayek, Lauren Ridloff, Gemma Chan, Kit Harington and Victoria Alonso attending the UK gala screening of Marvel Studios' 'Eternals', in London last month.
From left: Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Chloe Zhao, Salma Hayek, Lauren Ridloff, Gemma Chan, Kit Harington and Victoria Alonso attending the UK gala screening of Marvel Studios' 'Eternals', in London last month.

Starring Irishman Barry Keoghan alongside Angeline Jolie, Gemma Chan and Salma Hayek, Eternals features a race of immortal beings who have lived on Earth for thousands of years reuniting to fight back against their wicked foes.

In the film, the characters speak to inhabitants of the ancient city of Babylon and it is here where Dr Worthington’s work was essential.

“I’d done a bit of work in this area before in terms of translation,” he said. “One project I did the translation for and forgot all about it. It was only when the film came out, I saw it was the latest Godzilla film. I actually saw it on a plane and saw my name in the credit at the end.” 

He said while ancient languages such as Babylonian seemed to “glitter with a special brand of magic” for him, the translation work wasn’t without its challenges.

Translations for everyday phrases such as “thank you” and “wait a moment” that are common in modern languages were tricky enough, given our understanding of Babylonian comes from written and mostly quite formal documents and clay tablets from the period.

“It was the challenge of broken utterances,” he said. “A character might shout ‘through the gate’. In English, we know how to do these broken utterances and what they mean. It’s an instinct. Babylonian sources talk in complete sentences so it’s a bit more of a challenge.

Barry Keoghan salutes passing traffic outside the cinema he went to as a child, now covered with posters with his movie for the Irish premiere of Marvel Studios’ 'Eternals' in Cineworld, Dublin, last month. Picture: Andres Poveda
Barry Keoghan salutes passing traffic outside the cinema he went to as a child, now covered with posters with his movie for the Irish premiere of Marvel Studios’ 'Eternals' in Cineworld, Dublin, last month. Picture: Andres Poveda

“The Babylonians had a religion but they don’t have a word for religion. Same with economy. The [film] had a sentence that mentions myths and legends and they don’t have words for that either. I was sitting there thinking what should we do with this. So it was enjoyable in that way.

Dr Worthington said it was a pleasure to work on the project and it was thrilling to hear it being reproduced on screen when he saw the film last week.

“It got me to think quite deeply about the language,” he said. “It was a fascinating project to work on that had me weaving my way through so many sources. I learned a lot in doing it.” 

He added: “I’m so pleased these translations were done by someone at Trinity College Dublin, which was the alma mater of Edward Hincks, the Irish clergyman who through utter brilliance first deciphered Babylonian cuneiform back in the 19th century.”

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