27 November 2008

orbis pro vox doesn't mean anything

The plot of last night's episode of Pushing Daisies featured a secret society of bellmen dedicated to helping the poor. Their motto, "Ring for Right", is their rallying call; they ring their bells in fundraising campaigns, to do the right thing.

The motto also appears in the story in a supposedly Latin form, Orbis pro vox. This makes for a great story, since secret societies are always more nefarious when they have mottos in ancient languages. Of course, this is a brutal mistranslation ... I was tipped off by the appearance of nominative vox instead of ablative voce, which would be required by the pronoun pro.

Probably the show's writers tried online translators to get a Latin rendition of "ring for right". These translators give only orbis for "ring", without explaining that this is limited to the notion of a physical circle. orbis means globe, sphere, circle, or ring.

"for" is well translated: pro means for. It is a preposition in Latin, as for is in English.

"Right" is mistranslated, as vox means "voice" or "cry". There apparently is also a phrase vox vocis which has more to do with right as in "power" or "authority" rather than the "right" (i.e. correct or appropriate) thing to do.
Given a list of translations of different senses of the word, they probably settled on vox vocis, thinking vox would be sufficient, and that of the Latin words meant the same kind of "right". A better word for the "right" they wanted in the episode would be iustus "justice" or rectum - literal "right" as in straight.

In short, this is sheer laziness. Does the world suffer because of this corner-cutting? No. But this show has a decent production budget - could they not put a little more effort into this, like call someone who took Latin in school? It's just indicative of the profoundly ungrounded confidence we sometimes have in linguistic matters.