Editing old translations

A little while ago, I scanned the 1882 English translation made by William Wright of the Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite.  The text is of great interest, recording the war between the Romans and the Sassanid Persians in the reign of Anastasius I ca 507 AD, and written from the perspective of a resident of Edessa.  Those who wish to read it will find it here.  

But there was a problem.  The translator had chosen to render the Syriac term for the Eastern Romans, ‘Rom’ as ‘Greeks’.  This makes sense in 1300; does it make sense in 500?  He had also rendered the name of the city of Edessa as ‘Urhay’, which is the name of the modern town on the ruins of Edessa; and Amida as ‘Diyarbekir’ (where the bombing took place recently, where there is a substantial library of Syriac texts, and where there is also, I believe, a US airbase).  Again, do these names make sense at this period?  Finally there was the usual profusion of Jacobean English: “what befel”, “thou”, etc, which the reader must mentally translate as he goes.  The footnotes were studded with Syriac, which I could not sensibly transcribe, so much had to be changed to put the text online.

What should we do?  There is always a case for leaving the text alone, and this is the course that I normally prefer.  But in this case I chose otherwise; I fixed all three of these things.  Was I right to do so?

2 Responses to “Editing old translations”

  1. Ben C. Smith

    Were you right to do so? I think you were. The translation is out of copyright, for one thing, and you clearly explained your changes in the online preface, for another. The modernization of the language is a good thing, since many modern readers stumble over the archaic pronouns and such.

    Good work, and thanks for the update.


  2. Kevin P. Edgecomb

    Yes, particularly since to many, Urhay is more obscure than Edessa, and so on. You noted what you changed, so all’s fair.