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Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 25, 2014

I must apologise for neglecting this blog somewhat recently. Most of my effort at the moment is going into my Commemorating Augustus project website, which is busier than ever now that we have reached Augustus’ bimillennial year. In between matters Augustan, though, I’ve recently been having a lot of fun revisiting Hammer’s Dracula (1958).

Since the discovery in 2011 of some lost scenes from this film and the release of a new Blu-Ray / DVD edition complete with those scenes lovingly restored, it has been enjoying quite a renaissance. Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen as part of Manchester’s GrimmFest 2013, and soon afterwards I bought my own restored copy and got stuck into the DVD extras.

The one I enjoyed most was a half-hour documentary with Christopher Frayling, entitled ‘The Demon Lover’, in which he explains how Hammer introduced full-blown sexuality into the Dracula story for the first time, effectively making it a metaphor for a couple (Mina and Arthur) overcoming the threat of an adulterous relationship (between Mina and Dracula). I’m a big fan of Christopher Frayling, and I think this reading is absolutely spot on. But in the course of pursuing references to the adultery theme through the story, Frayling picked up on the family crest which is visible over the fireplace in Dracula’s castle:

Dracula fidelis et mortem fireplace

Between two sea-creatures and underneath a shield surmounted by a sailing boat, the motto reads ‘Fidelis et mortem’. In case we are any doubt about what it says, the same motto is also visible on the letter which Dracula leaves out for Harker when he arrives at the castle. Here, the ‘F’ on ‘fidelis’ is just out of shot, but there is enough to see that the motto is spelt the same way:

Dracula fidelis et mortem letter

In his documentary, Frayling makes a point of saying that ‘Fidelis et mortem’ means ‘Faithful and dead’. The same translation is also repeated (presumably on the basis of Frayling’s statement) by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the commentary track.

However, they are all wrong.

In fact, the motto is not even good Latin in the first place. That’s no great surprise. Film and TV productions are full of mangled Latin phrases – indeed I’ve written about a similar case in Doctor Who before. But it’s when people start offering up incorrect translations of the mangled Latin, which then in turn get treated as though they are authoritative, that the Classicist in me feels the need to step in and call a halt.

So what do we have here? First, the motto as it stands: ‘Fidelis et mortem’. ‘Fidelis’ does indeed mean ‘faithful’ (an adjective), as Frayling says. But ‘mortem’ is not an adjective – it is a noun, and thus means ‘death’ (not ‘dead’). At best, then, we have ‘Faithful and death’, which is already a bit meaningless.

But ‘mortem’ also has an accusative ending. This should normally mean it is the object of a verb, but there is no verb within this motto, or any very obvious absent verb which we can understand. The wrongness of this can’t really be conveyed very easily in English, since we use word order rather than word endings to show how the parts of a sentence relate to one another. But the best way of getting it across would be to translate the motto as something like ‘And death faithful’. That’s about how much sense the Latin makes.

So someone’s Latin was a bit shaky – probably production designer Bernard Robinson‘s. It’s likely that what he was actually aiming at was something more like ‘Fidelis ad mortem’, which is perfectly good Latin, and means ‘Faithful unto death’. This is the motto of (amongst many others) the NYC Police Department.

But to my mind, that still doesn’t suit the Dracula story, or its main character, very well. After all, Dracula is immortal and undead, so nothing needs to stop with death for him – not even fidelity. And in fact, part of the reason why Frayling mistranslates the motto in the first place is that this is the point he’s making about the Dracula character – that even in death, Dracula is attempting to pursue his own tragically-distorted form of fidelity.

The film begins after all with him in what might well be the vampire equivalent of settled domesticity – he has a(n unnamed) vampire bride, and possibly even wears a wedding ring (though it may just be a signet ring) on the little finger of his left hand. We might surmise that all is not well chez Dracula, since at the first available opportunity the vampire bride begs Jonathan Harker to help her escape, tells him how awful Dracula is, and then bites Harker, very obviously against Dracula’s wishes. But it’s reasonable to assume that at least at one time, Dracula liked having her around. Certainly once she has gone his entire motivation for the rest of the film is the attempt to replace her – first with Lucy, and then, when that is scotched by Van Helsing, with Mina.

So that’s why amending the motto to ‘Fidelis ad mortem’ doesn’t work for me. Dracula is not merely ‘faithful unto death’. In his own way he is ‘faithful and dead’, just as Frayling says. But that still isn’t what the Latin over his fireplace says.

Thinking this over, I came up with another solution. It’s obvious that there’s an error here, but what if it isn’t the substitution of an ‘et’ for an ‘ad’? What if instead we knock the final ‘m’ off ‘mortem’ to get ‘Fidelis et morte’? Once we’ve done that, it puts ‘morte’ in the ablative case, and this allows it to mean ‘in death’. Meanwhile, the Latin word ‘et’ is actually quite flexible. It doesn’t just have to mean ‘and’, but can equally cover ‘also’ or ‘even’. So we can translate ‘Fidelis et morte’ as either ‘Faithful also in death’ or ‘Faithful even in death’ (both are essentially the same).

That works for me as a Classicist, and I’m ready to guess it would work for Frayling as a film critic, too. Maybe it’s even what Bernard Robinson actually intended?

This is as far as I got with the motto under my own steam, anyway. But when I asked a few friends on Facebook about it, the briliant Peter Olive (who is available for Latin tutoring) came up with an even better solution. Remember how I said that the ‘mortem’ in ‘Fidelis et mortem’ has no good reason for being in the accusative case, since this is normally used to mark out the object of a verb? Well, Peter pointed out that there is another rather specialist use of the accusative known as the accusative of respect (no, really!), which allows a word to be translated as meaning ‘with respect to’.

If we apply this to ‘Fidelis et mortem’, we can now translate it as ‘Faithful even with respect to death’. Suddenly, everything falls into place! It has the merit of preserving the motto as we actually see it on screen, which is something I’m definitely in favour of. Otherwise, we have to assume that Dracula isn’t very good at Latin, which is at odds with what we know about his historical counterpart. It also suits the character of the Hammer Dracula perfectly, preserving Frayling’s idea of the lonely immortal who is really just after a vampire bride to call his own – doggedly faithful to the pursuit even in death.

In the end, Frayling is still wrong to translate ‘Fidelis et mortem’ as ‘Faithful and dead’; and I also very much doubt that Bernard Robinson knew about the accusative of respect when he designed the props and sets for the film. But by applying the collective talents of a few Classicists, it’s turned out that we can smooth over the gap, and get the Latin as it appears on the screen to make sense grammatically, as well as to work in service of the story. Now that is satisfying indeed.

Posted in films, horror, latin | Leave a Comment »

The Latin in Murray Gold’s ‘Vale Decem’

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on September 9, 2010

On Monday evening, I watched the one-hour cut-down version of the 2010 Doctor Who Prom broadcast on BBC3. It was a great programme, hosted in effervescent style by Karen Gillan, featuring lots of behind-the-scenes interviews with Steven Moffat, Murray Gold and the cast, and complete with an in-character cameo appearance by the Eleventh Doctor. He did this really sweet scene with a small boy chosen from the audience, who had to help him ‘defuse’ an alien explosive device using invisible psychic wire – and the look of rapture on the boy’s face was absolutely fantastic to see.

The highlight for me, though, was the performance of ‘Vale Decem’ – Murray Gold’s composition to mark the death and regeneration of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, and indeed the whole of the Russell T. Davies era. There are a lot of things to love about this piece for me. I am an unabashed Tenth Doctor fan, so it seemed only appropriate to me that he should be sent off accompanied by the full emotive impact of swirling strings and choirs of angels. I was also very impressed by Mark Chambers, a countertenor who sang the main vocal line with enormous presence and musical sensitivity.

Perhaps best of all, though, the lyrics he was singing are in Latin – and from my perspective as a Classicist, that’s a very cheering example of the language’s ongoing relevance today. In fact, in its original context as soundtrack music for part two of The End of Time, ‘Vale Decem’ was heard by around 10 million people, while another 5000 witnessed the live performance at the Prom in the Albert Hall in July, and 0.5 million watched the same broadcast as I did on Monday evening. It’s also soon to be released on a ‘Specials’ soundtrack CD, taking it into people’s homes and letting them listen to it over and over again. So this is definitely reaching a wide audience.

What’s more, fans across the internet clearly loved the piece from its first airing, and have wanted to engage actively with both the music and the Latin lyrics. At first, this resulted in some rather nonsensical attempts to transcribe the lyrics orally, and then translate them, all apparently done by people who didn’t actually know any Latin. But then Murray Gold himself very thoughtfully posted the sheet music up as a series of Twitpics here, here and here in June. Eager fans were then able to transcribe the actual lyrics, and again have a go at translating them. (There may just possibly be video clips of the Tenth Doctor’s death scene with the same transcription and translation on them out there too, but obviously I am not going to link to those because of how distributing copyrighted material over the internet is Bad and Wrong). But the translation still seems to have been done mainly with the aid of Google-fu and a bit of lucky guesswork:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Fan translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell Ten
Eternally
Heaven send you better times
Eternally
Farewell Ten
Heaven send you better times
Happiness
Peaceably
Farewell Ten
Heavy with wings
To the perpetual memory
Farewell Ten
I give thanks
Eternally
Never alone
Never
While you breathe, trust
Farewell…

Part of the problem facing would-be translators, even if they do know Latin, is that Murray Gold’s original lyrics don’t actually entirely make sense anyway. Now that they’re available to read, it’s obvious that he (or possibly a lyricist whom he commissioned?) composed them by drawing together a collection of appropriate sayings and phrases to create the right sort of mood, but without really aiming for grammatical accuracy or a coherent narrative thread. The result sounds fantastic, and definitely conveys the right sort of epic, tragic feel that was needed for Ten’s death scene. It’s got all the right sorts of words in it: words that we expect to hear in a piece of soaring choral music, like ‘aeternam’, ‘beati’ and ‘perpetuam memoriam’. But those words and phrases don’t really add up to a meaningful set of lyrics.

There is at least one straightforward mistake in there: the phrase “Gratis tibi ago”, should be spelt “Gratias tibi ago” (meaning “I give you thanks”). More common are phrases which might once have made sense, but seem to have had words chopped off (probably for rhythmical reasons), and no longer do. A good example is the line “Alis grave”, which seems to be a truncated form of the saying “alis grave nil”. That would mean roughly “nothing (is) painful / burdensome / heavy (for those) with wings” – an appropriately consolatory sort of phrase for a character facing death. Except that it’s already a bit epigrammatic, and without the ‘nil’, it pretty much loses its meaning altogether. You just end up with two words meaning “heavy with wings”. Either that’s a clever paradox – or it just doesn’t really mean anything.

Similarly, the line “Ad aeternam” appears to have something missing. ‘Aeternam’ here is an adjective, but it has no noun to modify. The phrase as it stands means “to the eternal” – but we are left asking, “to the eternal what?” Perhaps Gold really meant “to eternity” here, but if so, the Latin he actually wanted would have been “ad aeternitatem”. That would have needed a different rhythmical setting, though, as it’s an extra two syllables – and I’m guessing that a generally appropriate sound mattered more to him than achieving grammatical closure!

Anyway, allowing for the oddities in the original, I thought I would try to have a go at offering a slightly better translation than the ones which have appeared on the internet so far. I’ve done an entirely literal one for those who want to know exactly how Murray Gold’s Latin would actually translate. But I’ve also done a much looser one which captures something more like the mood I think he was actually aiming for, is more meaningful and grammatically coherent, and furthermore could still (more or less) be sung to the same tune:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Literal translation Mood-appropriate translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell, Ten
To the eternal
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
To the eternal
Farewell, Ten
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
Blessed
(Are) the peacemakers
Farewell, Ten
Heavy with wings
To perpetual memory
Farewell, Ten
I give you thanks
To the eternal
Never alone
Never
While I breathe I trust
Farewell…
Farewell, Ten
On to eternity
The fates be with you
On to eternity.
Farewell, Ten
The fates be with you.
Oh, blessed he
Who brought us peace.
Farewell, Ten
Lay down your burden
We will remember you forever more.
Farewell, Ten
We give you thanks.
On to eternity
You are not alone
Never
Trust to the last
Farewell…

The one-hour cut-down Prom from Monday is available on iPlayer now, but a fuller version will also be shown on BBC3 on Friday at 7pm. I’d highly recommend watching it – but have your tissues handy for ‘Vale Decem’…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, latin, music, television | 54 Comments »

The quinquennium of Clegg and Cameron

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 13, 2010

The full Con-Lib coalition agreement has now emerged, Cameron and Clegg have held an extraordinary press conference, and we now know who’s in the cabinet

I thought the press conference was brilliant, and am not surprised that everyone and their fish was likening it to a civil partnership ceremony – a piece of social vocabulary, of course, which we must remember that we have the Labour party to thank for. As a Classicist, though, I also couldn’t help but see it in terms of the inauguration of a pair of consuls. Consuls were more equal in rank than our new pairing, but there was an acknowledged ‘senior’ consul, who took up the office first and got to speak first in debates – just as Cameron did yesterday.

Consuls also knew full well that they would have to serve together once they were elected – that, in fact, was the whole point of having two of them. The system was designed to ensure that no one person had a monopoly on state power, and for that reason, either consul could veto the actions of the other (‘veto’ simply being Latin for ‘I forbid’). Clegg and Cameron don’t seem to have any such formal mechanism for stopping one another’s actions, but of course in practice they do both know perfectly well that if either of them does anything which the other one seriously disapproves of, their coalition will fall apart, and both of their political careers will be over. So that’s a pretty strong motivation to work together, even if it’s not what they anticipated before the election.

Consuls served for only one year, not five – and that certainly did lead to catastrophic short-termism of the kind David Cameron assured us yesterday that he wants to avoid. In particular, it encouraged consuls to rush headlong into military campaigns, since they knew that if they didn’t score a victory during their short time in office, that honour would go to their successor instead. But the five-year period was also pretty important in Roman politics. It was known as a quinquennium, which just means ‘period of five years’. (Isn’t it a lovely word, though? Any word with two Qs in it (and Latin has a fair few) has got to be good value for money.) In Rome, censors (whose responsibilities were different from what our modern word ‘censorship’ might imply) were elected every five years in order to perform a census of the general population and revise the membership of the senate – which is part of what’s just happened to parliament, of course, though not quite so directly at Cameron and Clegg’s initiative. Meanwhile, five-year periods of special military command became increasingly common in the late Republic, though they were never an official part of the system and always required extraordinary legislation to be passed. More on those in a moment.

Not all consuls got on, of course. They were not like American presidential and vice-presidential candidates, running on a joint ticket for the same party. Roman politics didn’t actually have parties, anyway – the closest it came were factions, which were basically like modern political parties would be if they were only about tribalism, nepotism and power, and didn’t involve policies or (heaven forbid!) principles at all. Factions would, of course, try to get their boys into both offices whenever possible, but it didn’t always work, and sometimes bitter rivals shared office together. And if you think the Tories and LibDems can be described as ‘bitter rivals’, then let me tell you that the greatest gulfs which you can identify between them are as NOTHING compared to the rivalries of late Republican politics.

Perhaps the most famous example of ill-matched consuls is Caesar and Bibulus in 59 BC. Caesar already had very powerful friends behind him – particularly Pompey and Crassus – and basically saw his consulship as a chance to secure everything that these three men and their cronies were after: land for their soldiers, preferential treatment for their legislation and lucrative appointments for the following year. Bibulus hated Caesar and everything he stood for. He began by trying to veto Caesar’s actions, but quickly found that his veto was actually meaningless, because Caesar’s supporters simply attacked him (with literal physical violence) when he tried to interpose it. So he then fell back on his position as an augur – a priest who divines the will of the gods by watching the behaviour of birds. Bibulus spent the rest of the year standing on the roof of his house, proclaiming that the omens were bad, and that therefore all Caesar’s legislation was contrary to the will of the gods – and, hence, invalid. Caesar just ignored him.

Back to Clegg and Cameron, thankfully, they seem to be getting on rather better than this – so far, at least! We certainly don’t want their time in power to end the way Caesar and Bibulus’ did, anyway, because it was in 58 BC at the end of his consulship that Caesar headed off across the Alps to take up one of those five-year military commands I mentioned earlier on, and use it to conquer Gaul. I mean, I know Cameron’s a Eurosceptic, but I’d hope that is going a bit far, even for him. Meanwhile, though, I did notice a couple of points during the joint press conference, particularly towards the end, when Clegg looked up at the skies:

Could he have been checking the omens? If he was, the birds were certainly all singing very nicely, and he doesn’t seem to have felt the need to declare that the meeting should be adjourned on grounds of being contrary to the will of the gods. So they must have been good ones. I hope they stay that way – but I also hope he remembers to keep checking.

Posted in birds, julius caesar, latin, politics, roman history, roman religion | 6 Comments »

 
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