A plea for prioritisation of translation of foreign literatures

The world is wide and the languages within it, living and dead, are numerous beyond counting.  None of us can know enough to read more than a fraction of what has been written.  But if the texts are not in English, then few of us will ever read any of them.

The first step in understanding any culture is to read the primary sources.  In particular, we must read the histories written by themselves, and any catalogues of their own literature.  From there any study can broaden out.  But these are the pathways into the land.  Without them, any explorer finds himself in a pathless jungle.  This means that, for most of us, these texts must be translated into English, our own language.

This is not a profound observation.  I would hope that it is pretty obvious.  Yet whenever I come to look at some new language group or culture, even one studied widely, I find that this basic principle is neglected.

When I came to look at Arabic Christian studies, I learned that there were five major historical texts; Agapius, Eutychius, al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus, and one other.  I quickly found that not one of them existed in English.  Translations did exist of the first two, into other western languages.  It has been left to me, an amateur with no Arabic sitting in a bedroom, to prepare an Engish version of these.  The third item, al-Makin, has not even been printed.  Yet there are quite a few scholars of Arabic Christian literature.  They do a  valuable job.  Yet … what the heck is going on here?  Why has the edition and translation of these texts not been prioritised?

Yet Arabic Christian literature is a small subject.  Much may be excused to scholars working in a severely underfunded subject.

But what on earth can excuse the failure to translate the historical literature of China?  This evening I find that the Hou Hanshou, the “Book of the Later Han”, does not exist in English other than in short excerpts.  I have not conducted any serious biblographical search, but it looks to me as if it doesn’t exist in French or German either.

Why does it not exist in translation?  Our universities swarm with scholars of Chinese.  There are a billion chinese out there, a very large percentage of whom can speak at least some English.  Western nations, laughably, even give the Chinese regime cash under one pretext or another.  Western megabusinesses draw heavily upon the manpower and factories of China.  It can hardly be argued that the problem is one of resources!

Some of this may be due to scholarly malfeasance.  I can think of one scholar whose career has involved writing books about patristic works for which no modern-language translation exists, without ever creating one. It is perhaps good to be the expert on a book that nobody has read.  I doubt that this man is alone.

Some of this is certainly due to academic culture.  To create a translation is to open yourself to the sneers of your peers.  To be identified as a “translator” is to degrade oneself, to be seen as someone incapable of “serious research”.  The funding model in some nations indeed actively discourages those who create the tools by which scholarship can be done.  It is not that long since that a bright young scholar created the first ever handbook on the ancient scholia, only to be punished by losing her post and being forced to emigrate to England.  Yet her work was of infinite value.

I have no influence over how the world is run.  But if you read these words, and you do, please do what you can.  We need complete translations of all the key texts in major language groups.  Without them we are all in the dark.


23 thoughts on “A plea for prioritisation of translation of foreign literatures

  1. I agree totally about the need for translations and the dysfunction of the system that actively discourages those capable of doing them from undertaking such work. Our main hope is the now-rapid development of AI-assisted machine translation. I’m very impressed with the accuracy of DeepL (I’ve used it for Dutch to English). Of course, there must be expert human oversight, and there is still a long way to go for ancient languages and those without large lexical corpora to refer to, but this seems to be the path that is opening up.

  2. I know translating Arabic texts opens you to more than criticism– it opens you to death threats. (And attempts.)
    Hard to do your best scholarship when you’re considering if you’ll be made unable to travel in Arabic countries because of your work… or if you’ll be killed in the streets because some crazy decides your translation isn’t very good.

    China is less directly violent, but… well, they do have a history of burning books that are no longer correct for the rulers, along with the scholars that know them.

    I second Mr. Chandler’s hope that AI assisted machine translation may help– having a bad translation you can’t silence means you have to overwhelm the translation, instead of just removing it.

  3. A major contributor to this problem seems to be the incentive structure created by universities, at least in the United States, where translations, commentaries, and editions of texts are excluded from tenure considerations — which has a domino effect later on in an academic’s career as well, leading many of them to look down on that type of desperately needed work.

  4. Another issue is when translations are made they are priced so high that they are out of reach for the average person.
    Take Brill’s recent translation of the complete works (a political tract, a geographical tract and an extensive chronicle ) of al-Ya’qubi (died 898). It is worth over a hundred euros for each volume in hardcover and only a little bit cheaper in paperback. At least Brill released a paperback – often translations stay in only in hardcover.

  5. In some fairness on your remark on the historical literature of China being untranslated, while it’s true there are a lot of people who speak Chinese and English, that’s about modern Chinese. The difficulty is that we’re not necessarily talking about something written in modern Chinese; indeed, the work you mention here (Book of the Later Han) was written in the 5th century. Languages can change considerably over time; the famous English poem Beowulf, written about 500 years CLOSER to the present than Book of the Later Han, is about as comprehensible to a modern English speaker as the original German text of All Quiet on the Western Front is.

    Now I’m hardly an expert on Chinese so maybe it hasn’t shifted quite as much as English has (some languages do shift slower–the New Testament came about a thousand years before Beowulf but apparently is more comprehensible to a modern Greek speaker than Beowulf is to a modern English speaker). Still, I recall reading this bit from a snarky essay on the difficulty of learning Chinese:

    “Then there’s classical Chinese (wenyanwen). Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you’ll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you’re sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure… Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway.”

    Source: http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

    So despite the high number of people who know regular Chinese, the number of people who know 5th-century Classical Chinese well enough to translate a lengthy work of it into English is probably rather low.

    And while this may have been a bit pedantic, I still find that “Why Chinese Is So Hard” essay amusing enough I thought I might as well use this as an excuse to share it.

    At least it’s a lot better than it used to be. A century ago we didn’t even have Journey to the West (one of the most popular and influential Chinese stories ever written) in English. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the full thing was translated into English… prior to that, the standard translation was an abridged version of the work brought out in 1942.

  6. This is very interesting – thank you. It highlights how the problem is more complicated than it seems to people like myself with no knowledge of the area. All the same, it still ought to be turned into English.

  7. I confess that I do not. I used to post invitations to translators on this blog, and sometimes people would write to me. It was always a rather stressful experience, and many of those who offered were not good. These days I am retired and so I don’t do these things. What’s needed is someone with lots of money to create an institute or something, offering full-time jobs.

  8. I think that, unfortunately, the reasoning a lot of people have may be “well, anyone who would really get much out of this would have probably learned the language.” It’s kind of like how if you look at older books (as in, 19th century or earlier) the citations are often in shorthand that’s basically indecipherable, presumably due to the authors wanting to save space but more importantly figuring that anyone who could actually look them up back then would be someone who would recognize what they were referring to. Which unfortunately makes it utterly maddening nowadays to try to figure out what in the world something like “Cef. de Bell. Gall. lib. I” refers to, and by the way that’s not a hypothetical, that is an actual citation I saw.

    The much more frustrating thing is works that exist only in manuscript form and aren’t even printed, as you alluded to. For those, you can know the language perfectly and can’t actually read it.

  9. I’m sure that this is part of it. (Those highly abbreviated 19th c. “references” are infuriating, I agree) But nobody today can assume that level of language knowledge.

  10. “De Bello Gallico” would seem likely, so either it’s Caesar or a commenter on Caesar. Try Google Books, if the search engine is feeling amenable.

  11. Ahaha! I was spending a lot of time looking for people named Ceferinus and the like. I should always remember that f can be s!

    But yeah, that’s why it’s good to look at the actual text, not just the digitized search results.

  12. There is a danger here, though, in that all translation is to a certain extent interpretation, if not commentary. Take, for example, ἡ γλῶσσα πῦρ, ὁ κόσμος τῆς ἀδικίας. We all know what ὁ κόσμος means, don’t we? Stop! It can also mean “comeliness, fair appearance”, and this is precisely how it is translated in Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic and, I think, Syriac. The Vetus Latina preserves the ambiguity beautifully with mundus, but Jerome plumped for universitas, and has been followed by the vernacular translators of the Reformation and since, and so, to the modern Western European mind, “that is what it says.” If this can happen with a language as thoroughly studied as NT Greek, think of the pitfalls in languages that are less well known.
    I’m not an enemy of translation (I’ve done enough of it…), but I do feel very strongly that a translation should never be allowed to supersede the original. (The old Jewish tradition that a targum is always interpretative, never definitive, is a good model.) Ideally, if a text is sufficiently interesting to people who don’t know the language (and by no means every text is), the translation should be published alongside a good edition of the original (unless one is already readily available), so that the reader can check that he agrees with the translator. English may be the new Latin, and a generally accessible medium of communication is undoubtedly a good thing, but only as long as we prevent the emergence of a monoglot culture in which we think we know what everything means. We don’t.

  13. I’d like to see the translators kept relatively honest, by the publication of interlinear word for word translations, with facing page literary translations.
    I have seen a trend in modern academia, where publications tend not to refer back to the original text, but have become exercises in recursive meta critism discussing prior works about prior works and so on, about the original text. Original work appears to be discouraged, and that includes creating new translations, because, injecting new ideas into a field would force hoary old professors to rewrite their decades old lectures in order to include new discoveries. In such an environment, an orginal translation has less value than a meta critical study.
    Transcriptions and translations of new materials would make previously sequestered materials available to people outside the closed academic circles, and create the risk of generating conclusions not vetted by the academic consensus makers (the publication reviewers).
    There is also the problem that the liberal arts establishment, having whole heartedly adopted the doctrine of cultural relativism, has no mechanism for evaluating the quality of a new translation or its interpretation, since all things would be equal were it not for the values imposed by the white patriarchal power structure.
    Ancient texts are not politically correct, and a translator might have second thoughts about translating and publishing non PC materials if it means risking “cancellation” by a student Soviet, and end to their academic career, because they translated a text that did not pander to the multicultural bias of its futurity.
    Case in point: modern gender free Old and New Testament translations that are either bowdlerized or replete with trigger warnings. I also very much doubt if we will ever see a new unexpurgated translation of Juvenal’s 6th Satire.

  14. Are there really bowdlerised OT and NT translations? Certainly the urge to see Chrysostom’s homilies against the Jews as “against Judaizers” indicate a certain trend, even longer ago. But this is perhaps outside of the point at issue here.

  15. The broader picture that emerges is a reluctance to translate old classics for what they are and let readers think for themselves. The dearth of Arabic Christian texts exemplifies the malaise that afflicts Arabic-to-English translation in general. Take, for example, Ibn Hazm, who is widely read in Arabic but unknown in English, except for his famous book about love – The Ring of the Dove. His Kitab al-Fisal, a thorough critique of the Jewish, Christian, and other Scriptures, threw a wrench into interfaith dialogue a millennium ago and does not exist in English. There seems to be little stomach for controversy, much less for plurality of thought. I would also like to see Kitab al-Miraj by Ibn Arabi, not only for its valuable content but to understand a book that inspired Dante’s Divine Comedy.

    About Bar Hebraeus, some of his work exists in English, notably his popular joke book, “Laughable Stories”. The first rescension of his world history in Syriac has been around for a while if you know how to look: “The Chronography of Gregory Abul Faraj, the son of Aaron, the Hebrew Physician commonly known as Bar Hebraeus.” Recently published is “Bar Hebraeus: the Ecclesiastical Chronicle,” translated by David Wilmshurst in 2015. Still missing in action is his improved Arabic rescension of world history, “al-Mukhtaṣar fi-l-Duwal,” which he penned in the closing days of his life. And of course, we would all like to read “Awsar Raze,” “Storehouse of Secrets”, a commentary on the entire Bible.

  16. Arabic is indeed another black hole. In fact the guide to Arabic literature, Brockelmann’s GAL, is quite inscrutable, even without being in German. Why is there no proper guide?

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