Should we expect a translation when a scholar prints a previously unpublished text?

At the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, cataloguer Adam McCollum has written an interesting article on whether scholars publishing newly discovered ancient texts should be obliged to translate them as well. (H/t Paleojudaica)

… the optimum scenario is to have texts and editions. No question: that way, those closely involved with the language and literature and those outside this group can both get some benefit and have opportunity and even incentive to interact with the text. And even for the eventual case of every text edition, an included translation or translations is not too much to wish for. But in our own meantime, are translations always necessary?

…  translation is always time-consuming and often hard work …. Now, producing useful editions of texts is also hard work, but not in the same way. In some cases, this latter labor can even come down to reading and transcribing manuscripts, or sometimes even a single manuscript, making perhaps some emendations here and there to correct the text, but doing so all the while having also recorded the manuscripts’ real reading…

Dr McCollum then points out that one motive for printing a translation in the past was sales — that people were reluctant to buy text-only volumes, so it was necessary to include a translation, just to make the book commercially viable.  He responds:

Electronic texts, even a PDF that can be both electronic and then physical with the push of a button, are relatively easily and very cheaply made, … they also mean more potential readers, since these resources are discoverable so simply via searching and linking.

Where would be in terms of material for Jacob of Sarug, the Syriac Martyr Acts, etc., had Paul Bedjan (or his publisher) decided that French translations were requisite for the thousands of pages he edited? I fear we would hardly have so many thousands of pages in Syriac edited by him anymore! What about Wright’s editions of the Travels of Ibn Jubayr, the Kāmil of Al-Mubarrad, and the later Syriac translation of Kalila wa-Dimna. What of Paul de Lagarde’s numerous text editions? We would be better off if all of these texts had translations, and indeed some of the texts just mentioned eventually have found their translators, but if the necessity of translation had loomed over the head of Bedjan, Wright, or Lagarde, it is hardly likely that we would have the texts edited by them that we have, and we would thus have much less within reach so much literature. …

The question for now is simply that of the title above: should scholars be required, by their own or external compulsion, in every case to produce a translation alongside any newly edited or re-edited text? My own answer, as will be obvious by now, is “no”, but I think discussion of the question may prove fruitful for the fields concerned.

These are interesting points, well made.

I think the key point being made is fairly simple.  Translating whole texts is hard and time-consuming.  It is considerably simpler and quicker simply to transcribe the manuscript, adjusting for some of the more obvious typos along the way.  If you have a lot of unedited material, and you have limited time and resources, then you can put out a lot more stuff if you do the latter, than if you do the former.  You’ll be able to make accessible to scholars a load of stuff that they could not otherwise access.  On the other hand, few people will ever be able to read the stuff you publish.

Dr McCollum’s point is obviously that of a man with a pile of manuscripts in front of him, wondering what to do with them, in any reasonable period of time.  What should he do?

Certainly publication is the most important thing.  For instance there are two scholars sitting on a Greek mathematical papyrus, which they can’t be bothered to publish, and which they alone have access to.  Doubtless the reason why they don’t publish the text is that they want to do a “commentary” and thereby enhance their own reputations.  Such behaviour is by no means novel in the world of papyrology, and is utterly poisonous.

But on the other hand, texts that are edited without translation are really only half available.  They can sit there on library shelves, untranslated, hardly used, for centuries.

It’s all a question of time and resources.

If a scholar is sitting in his ivory tower, editing one text, then I expect him to supply a translation.  Any scholar who has the time to produce a text and commentary but doesn’t include a translation is being a jerk.

Likewise an enterprise with several hundred scholars and translators should certainly include translations.  Migne managed it, after all.

But if it’s a lone scholar (or two) editing masses of stuff, I think we can cut him some slack.  Don’t worry about the translation.  The priority is to get the stuff out there in multiple copies — yes, definitely on the web, where automated translation tools make using it easier all the time — and worry about the translation later.  The burning by the mob of the Institut de l’Egypte in Cairo this week is a reminder that no text is safe sitting in an archive.  If Addai Scher had remembered this, when he discovered Theodore of Mopsuestia’s De incarnatione in a complete Syriac version in the hills of northern Persia in 1905, and had published a transcription, we would today be able to study that interesting text.  Instead it perished in the sack of his residence by Turkish troops in 1915.

Go to it, Adam.

2 thoughts on “Should we expect a translation when a scholar prints a previously unpublished text?

  1. “Today we have reasonably inexpensive means of scanning manuscripts and storing those scans. If everything is scanned (which does not happen often enough) then (1) we have a backup in case of destruction of the originals, and (2) the potential exists for professionals and suitable amateurs to work on the manuscripts anywhere in the world, with the originals only needing to be consulted when there the reading is unclear – and this could significantly reduce the massive backlog of unpublished texts.

    The downside widespread acess to the scans would be:
    (1) “interesting” texts attracting a lot of unsuitable amateurs (including crackpots) who would glut the web with error filled transcriptions and translations, while at the same time they would ignore the other 99% of texts that often build up a context wihtin which the interesting texts are understood, and
    (2) in the world of electronic self publishing the texts published by those who focus on self promotion – so they may dress the text up to make it more interesting – may gain more widespread notice than those who focus on the hard work of careful analysis

  2. Thank you Matthew for these thoughts. I think these are problems that can be overcome, tho. It all comes back to needing some electronic version of academic publishing.

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