TES article calls for translation of Latin, Greek, to be valid research goals

An important article by Dr Emma Gee of St Andrews University has appeared in the Times Higher Education supplement here.

Recently, an audience of “disadvantaged” 16-year-olds listened with rapt attention when I read from my translation of Lucretius’ On the Nature of the Universe.

Written around 55BC, this is the first surviving full-scale account of a cosmology based on atoms and void, dispensing with an active role for the gods. Lucretius’ hallucinogenic poem unpacks every aspect of the world, from the physics of colour to the anatomy of love. It is not a fossil: it is startlingly modern.

Any translation of it, therefore, must be punchy and immediate. In mine, Lucretius’ Latin hexameters play out in the rhythms of rap; the Roman goddess of love morphs into Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene”; birds rain down from the sky like satellite debris; and the catastrophic collapse of the structures of the universe leaves us stumbling around the ground zero of our exploded certainties.

At no stage did the kids listening seem patronised or alienated. Their questions showed a keen awareness that many ideas we might consider “modern” in fact have a long history.

Last year, Edith Hall, professor of Classics at King’s College London, complained in a newspaper article about the “apartheid system in British Classics”: the subject’s enduring role as an instrument of social differentiation, based on proficiency in ancient Greek and Latin. Yet translation can make powerful classical texts available to people well beyond traditional elite audiences.

You might expect, therefore, translation to enjoy high status among classicists. But you would be wrong. The Classics subpanel in the 2014 research excellence framework, for instance, offered no separate submission category for translations. They fell under the “other” category, which accounted for only 0.5 per cent of total submissions –and no stand-alone translations were submitted at all.

Furthermore, the REF guidelines were applied in a way that militated against translation. Universities played it safe, to the extent of introducing their own supplementary limiting criteria that actively discouraged translation. A former director of research for one of the UK’s larger Classics departments commented: “We worked on the assumption that translations…simply would not be deemed to constitute research.” Perhaps more surprising, translation was marginalised even under the banner of impact. Of the 65 case studies submitted, none obviously involves translation.

Nor does the problem appear to be confined to Classics. Modern languages too had no separate REF category for translations. Among the 4,943 submissions to the modern languages sub-panel, just nine were “other assessable outputs”, which may have included translations. Many colleagues around the country have told me that they either did not produce translations or did not submit them to the REF because they didn’t think they would be valued.

The unavoidable conclusion is that humanities research has become almost exclusively inward-looking in its privileging of academic discourse for academics. Of course, those of us at the coalface knew this anyway: research is a game not about truth. But it is a shame that classicists are failing to use one of the key tools for breaking down class barriers and giving people access to many of the life-changing documents that their discipline has spent millennia preserving.

This is very well said.  I hope that important ears are listening.

Agapius translation – great minds think alike

The Arabic history of Agapius was published with a  very simple French translation in the Patrologia Orientalis.  Since there is no English translation of this interesting work, I’ve been working on making one from the French.  The PO version was made by a Russian, so is not complex French and machine translators can make quite a good attempt at it.

I heard today from another online chap, who has been doing the same!  He’s suggesting we look at collaboration, or at least avoiding doing the same job twice.  That would be sensible, I think.

I never imagined that there was any risk of someone else doing this.  I felt a bit shifty about it; translating a translation is a bit rubbish.  But after a century it is clear that no-one was going to make an English translation of any of the five important Arabic Christian histories.  Maybe my efforts might provoke one!

In a way, we’re looking at a positive spiral here.  An amateur does a rubbishy translation of part of it from French, which provokes another amateur to do a better one, which provokes someone who knows Arabic to improve the situation again, which leads a professional to do an academic version.  That’s what is happening with Eusebius Chronicle (more or less!), and everyone benefits as momentum takes hold.

Of course there is a negative spiral possible, as Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie found out almost a century ago.  He produced some bad translations of Proclus, often from the French.  No-one took any notice.  The only person to take any notice was a now-forgotten academic, who published a review slagging them off as worthless.  So Guthrie was discouraged, no-one else was motivated to do better, and to this day the works he attempted have never received a proper translation.

Let’s hope that everyone who sees efforts like mine will think “I can do better” — and do better; rather than spend time debunking them.  Per ardua ad astra.