On actually reading texts

Duane Smith of Abnormal Interests usefully highlights on his blog a post by John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry:

Scholars are known to succumb to a grave and debilitating disease: that of spending all their days reading each other rather than the texts and other artifacts that are supposed to be the objects of their research. …

There is a pressing need for original-language editions of ancient texts with translation and commentary. Vast corpora of texts are out of reach of all but a few specialists. There are enormous quantities of texts in a dozen ancient languages which deserve to be presented to a larger public with the goal of allowing them to assume their rightful place within a larger corpus of ancient texts of interest to anyone who wishes to grasp the history of ideas and the course of human history over the long duration.

Well put indeed.

The focus of the remarks is concerned with Akkadian; yet the point about translation is true for Greek and Latin too.


4 thoughts on “On actually reading texts

  1. Not to mention Syriac and Arabic. There are still no English-language editions of key historical sources for the Syriac-speaking Churches. The Chronicle of Seert, the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum of Bar Hebraeus, Michael the Syrian, the histories of Mari, Amrus and Sliba, and the Chronography of Eliya of Nisibis, to mention only the most important texts, are still only available in their original languages or in Latin or French translations. In 1877, when Abbeloos and Lamy produced their Latin translation of Bar Hebraeus, all educated Europeans and Americans read Latin. Now, only a tiny minority of university graduates have any Latin or Greek. O tempora, o mores …

  2. Quite true, of course. But considering that we have been training people at university in Latin and Greek for 5 centuries, how on earth does a single text remain untranslated?

    Well, we all know the answer.

  3. Well, to be fair, even once you know Latin somewhat well, it is kinda slow to stop and start with making a translation, versus just reading it. It’s probably faster to write a book in Latin (if you know Latin well, anyway) than to translate one. The translation urge seems to have been channeled into poetry, mostly. And if you really really wanted to write something to reach out to the non-Latinate reading public, you would just write something yourself, probably.

    The whole theory used to be, “It’s a lot faster to teach large numbers of students Latin than to translate a massive existing body of books into each and every European language.” Which is probably still true; we just don’t do it.

    However… grump grump grump… the Early English lit database has A LOT of translations of Latin books in it, and I can’t get at it because I’m not a university student. It tasks me like Moby Dick tasked Ahab. I don’t want it often, but when I do want something and I can’t get it, it’s amazingly frustrating. I mean, sheesh, nothing like being four hundred years into the public domain but still behind a pay wall! Ack!

  4. I think that EEBO business is a scandal. It’s reasonably clear that public money is funding the whole thing — yet someone is being allowed to make money off it.

    Still, that’s UK.GOV for you.

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