in Bad Latin, Pop Culture, Technology

Good Psych, Bad Latin

Sarah and I love Psych, a comedic take on Sherlock Holmes, which appears on the USA network.

Gus and Shawn from USA's Psych.

Shawn Spencer, a slacker with daddy issues, pretends to be psychic so that he can do the detective work his father trained him to do from boyhood without having to fulfill his father’s dream of actually becoming a cop (and having a boss and responsibility, and all the rest).

His best friend Gus (Burton Guster) is his Watson and provides the transportation (his little car, affectionately called the Blueberry), the common sense, the awareness of the outside world, the credit card, etc., (as well as ‘the super-sniffer’: his superior sense of smell, which helps the duo from time to time).

Detective Lassiter is Lestrade, and you might stretch things to say that Shawn’s father (played by Corbin Bernsen) is a sort of Mycroft Holmes, whom Sherlock consults when he’s stuck, but that’s gone far enough. If you think the psychic detective bit sounds like CBS’s the Mentalist (also worth watching), Psych came first and never tires of making fun of the similarity.

I bring this up not only because we’re fans of the show but because the latest episode, set in a town eerily like Twin Peaks (and populated by its cast), features Latin used by a teenage girl as a kind of code to keep her last diary entries private. (You can watch the episode online.)

Here’s a bad photo of the diary page in question:

And here’s a transcription:

EGO sentio sit absens haeres non erit.

Coepi seeing R quod sum valde gavisus. Must non dico J ut is mos non exsisto gavisus. Volo EGO could dico quispiam.

R est sic populus EGO cannot puto sit interested in mihi, totus meus amicitia es jelus.

Hodie EGO sermo ut R quod is said nos postulo impetro

It’s not Latin, but a kind of cypher that can be frustrating for a Latinist. Actually, it’s not really a cypher either, which I’ll explain in a minute.

I initially liked this a pseudo-macaronic code. It seemed that it wasn’t meant to be grammatical, but rather what a teenager might actually do with the help of a textbook or dictionary, using what she remembered from class or could pull from the glossary, and falling back on English when she was at a loss.

The choices, though, are improbable for anyone with the smallest amount of Latin, and impossible for anyone with more. Notice, for example, that quod has to be taken to mean ‘and.’

This is because they used an online translator.

Attention, movie and TV people: In the future, please contact me for your Latin needs. I’m serious, and I’m good.

Now that that’s out of the way, online translators do weird things like capitalize EGO (which was dutifully reproduced by the copyist) and assign arbitrarily distinct and ridiculously incorrect meanings to inflectional forms of the same word.

Nearly all of the text came from a translator, but much of the first line is the old Latin proverb absens haeres non erit. I won’t translate since it has significance for the plot, but this proverb was clearly their starting point, and the script originally would have looked like this:

I sense that absens haeres non erit.

Started seeing R and am very happy. Must not tell J as he will not be happy. R is so popular I cannot believe he is interested in me, all my friends jelus [sic].

Today I talked to R and he said we need to get …

The most important part of the coded text must have been on the next page, which wasn’t shown.

Now here are my two biggest issues with the use of an online translator in this particular case:

(1) The character had no access to an online translator in her remote town. (The sheriff mentioned early on that they have neither cell phones nor internet access in town.)

(2) The priest whom they consult to translate the text has no difficulty reading the Latin.

While some of the text can be understood with careful analysis, much of it is meaningless without understanding how the online translator has abused the language.

Good show, bad Latin.