E pluribus unum. That’s about the extent of my Latin knowledge, give or take a few words here and there. The same is probably true for the majority of people out there. That is of course because Latin is famously considered a “dead language”. But leave it up to the Pope to take a cue from Jesus by bringing it back to life.
Pope Francis has brought the Vatican into the 21st century by maintaining a Twitter account, but keeps it retro-cool by waxing 8th century BC style with Latin posts. And what’s amazing about it is that there are more followers (205,000 to be more exact) of his Latin account than his holiness’ German or Arabic accounts. But if not that many people speak Latin (comparatively speaking), what gives?
To give a little back story, two months after former pontiff Benedict XVI joined the social networking site, enthusiasts and purists alike persuaded him to open an account in Latin, without really thinking it would have much success. To their surprise however, the response was well, miraculous.
Latin is “an international language, a transnational way of communicating which is still very much alive”, said American priest Daniel Gallagher, an expert in the language and member of the team in charge of translating and posting the pope’s tweets.
For its fans, the language embodies “virtue and nobility of expression”, as well as “the ability to communicate across centuries”, he said.
While Latin is well suited to Francis’s messages in terms of their brevity, his phrases are “difficult to translate, because his style is so informal”, Gallagher said. And of course, after over 2,000 years modern language has changed a bit. For example, when the Pope used the expression “sourpusses” the team of translators had a hard time trying to come up with a proper translation. That is until someone thought to translate it as “vultu truci”, a term taken from Roman playwright Plautus.
Gallagher and his colleagues have fun coming up with inventive ways to translate the latest technological or web-based jargon.
“Welcome to the official Twitter page of His Holiness Pope Francis” became “Tuus adventus in paginam Papae Francisci breviloquentis optatissimus est”.
“We try not to stray too far from Cicero,” the priest said in reference to the great ancient Roman orator.
“If he saw our translation, we would want him to have at least a vague idea of what it said,” he said.
Isabelle Poinsot, a follower from Paris, said she found it “refreshing to read a small, pure thought each day” and found “the discrepancy between a modern medium and an ancient language rather amusing”.
You would think the only followers of a Latin language Twitter account would be language scholars, nerdy professors, or some new breed of hipster who only speaks languages in their truest, original form. But that’s not the case.
The largest cohort are German, followed by Britons, Americans and fellow fans from China, India and Africa.
“We have every reason to think that many are young students, from universities, schools or even younger,” Gallagher said, adding that some use the tweets as homework, setting out to translate them.
Others are journalists, lawyers, or people nostalgic for the Latin lessons of their youth, who get a kick out of translating a Francis phrase a day. Some get so involved that they even reply to the pope’s tweets in Latin.