A reader has e-mailed to ask about the correct Latin translation of the phrase ‘is nothing sacred?’, made famous in Wes Anderson’s classic Rushmore as ‘nihilo sanctum estne?’
The problem with that translation was discussed here previously, but I thought I’d post my reply to this latest question, which may be inadequate so feel free to add your two cents on the issue in the comments.
It’s almost a philosophical question. You have to think about the meaning behind the idiom rather than the literal translation.
Nihilo sanctum estne is close to a literal translation, but it’s grammatically incorrect. A literal translation might be “nihilne sanctum est?” The interrogative particle (-ne) attaches to the first word (which is why “estne” would be a question unto itself in the Rushmore version). The verb “est” isn’t technically necessary, so: nihilne sanctum?
This could work, but it’s not said anywhere in Latin literature, though similar statements exist, e.g., “dictitat … nihil esse tam sanctum quod non violari … possit,” i.e., “he asserts that … nothing is so sacred that it can not be violated” (Cicero, In Verrem I. 2). This same thought is expressed elsewhere in nearly identical terms.
So it’s possible to use “nihil sanctum (est)” to say “nothing’s sacred.” But still, the question “is nothing sacred” isn’t asked.
It can be difficult to pinpoint the essential meaning of an idiom and then to translate it into the idiom of another language in a way that would be culturally relevant. In the same context that an English speaker says “is nothing sacred?”, a Roman might have said, “mehercule!”, an exclamation like our “my god!” which originally meant “by Hercules!” It expresses disbelief, maybe even disgust. But then again, there are probably better Latin idioms that I can’t think of that would suit in different contexts.