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.