From this strange year of 2021, which has tarnished or ended so many lives, we all do our best to salvage moments of comfort and uplift. For me, such a day came just a few weeks ago, in November.
The background is that Marvel’s film “Eternals” was the first major production to feature characters speaking the language of ancient Babylon, and it was little me who did the translations (not something I anticipated when I took my first class in Babylonian, back in September 2000!) It proved a very interesting endeavour, not least for the creative workarounds required by differences in idiom between Babylonian and English.
But anyway. On the morning of November 9th, I was woken up by a phone call suggesting I go and talk about the translation experience on the Radio. Dazed, delighted, and giddily unbreakfasted, I flagged down a taxi and watched the lines of buildings wake up at the touch of the morning sun.
The Radio station were very well organized, and wanted to know the exact time I would get there. So they rang several times to ask how far away I was. Each time, I put the question to the driver – an amiable and very relaxed individual, whose answers I dutifully passed down the phone line. The first time I asked he said “Ohhh, maybe … five? ten? minutes”. The second time it was “Ohhhhh, maybe … ten? fifteen? minutes”. Having gauged from this that his estimates were less than precise, the Radio station decided there was not sufficient time for me to reach them, so the interview would be done over the phone. “Stay on the line”, they said. So I did.
But when we arrived at their premises, and I got out of the car to look for a nice spot where to sit, I saw there was a lady standing, and obviously waiting. I approached her, phone still in hand, intending to say “Good morning, and nice to meet you. Does your being here mean the interview is going to be held in person after all?” But I didn’t get to say any of it, because before I could open my mouth she said “Come with me. We have one minute”. So we rushed into the building, up a blur of stairs, down a hallucinatory corridor, and into a room where there were several smiling people catapulted me through a brown door so that I landed, like a shuttlecock, at a table in front of a microphone, just as the person opposite me was saying “… Martin Worthington, from Trinity College Dublin”. Phew!
It was only when I came out of the recording studio, and they gave me my phone back, that I realised they had (and quite right too) taken it out of my hand before I went in.
But the day had only just begun. For one thing, I still had to finish the PowerPoint for my 11am lecture. This would take about two hours, and since the same taxi driver delivered me to Trinity shortly after 8am, there was all the time in the world. Right?
Heck, I had underestimated the degree of interest which the media would take in the matter. The first phone call arrived from the Irish Enquirer. Then the Irish Times wanted to know how a Babylonian would say ‘Soft day, thank god’. My inbox was pinging like a stock-market monitor. Appointments transpired for later that day. And for other days. My head spun.
Then there came a momentary pause. Glancing at the time crashed me down from daze to reality. It was 10.53. The PowerPoint for 11am! I could give the lecture without, but it wouldn’t be the same: much better if the students can see exactly what one is talking about. Indeed, this is a point I am very keen on; my own (amazing) Undergraduate teachers were constrained by technology in what pictures they could show us. It was usually black-and-white photocopies of photocopies, and sometimes one could hardly make out a thing! As we are now free of such constraints, I feel a responsibility to transmit something to my students of the visual feasts which the ancient world offers, in all their polychrome glory.
What a pity, then, to turn up with just a few measly plain slides. But…my brow cleared as I formed A Plan. This was a module which included quite a lot about the history of Babylon, so the morning’s news was not irrelevant: we might spend a few minutes at the start talking about the film, which would dull the subsequent ache from the threadbare slides.
On entering the lecture hall, therefore, I made my way not to the podium, where one logs into the online system, but to the table which sits on the middle of the stage, and – still somewhat dazed from the morning’s rushes – collected my wits. Then I croaked “I … erm … uhm …”. Not the most eloquent start ever to a lecture, and I sensed the students peering at me, concerned. It goes without saying, I could hear them think, that anyone who specializes in the languages of the Ancient Near East must be more than half-way to crazy, but this particular specimen seems to have finally lost it completely!
But I yanked my voice out of the desert well into which it seemed to have fallen, and added: “There is really no other way to say this: Eternals”. At this, a massive wave of applause and cheering went up, and it was at that moment I realized, with an even bigger wave of relief, that nobody was ever going to find out about the wonky PowerPoint: we spent the entire session talking about translations between ancient languages and modern ones, the representation of the ancient world in modern media, the economics and politics underpinning academia’s ‘directions of travel’, and many other topics. The students had such great questions – I think it ended up being the best session of the year!
The elation stayed with me for weeks, and something of it probably lingers on even as you read these lines, dear reader, whenever that may be…