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.
Translation is also a form of specialised research. Choosing the mot juste requires a facility in the language you are translating from, and an ability to bridge the gap between two different worldviews. Every translation is an act of scholarly interpretation that requires the same degree of knowledge of the minutiae of historical, textual and literary issues as does producing a scholarly edition. Although some excellent versions are produced by professional poets who are also accomplished linguists, Classics departments also contain many people admirably qualified to produce translations.
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.
The REF’s Main Panel D Overview Report states that “world-leading quality was identified not only in scholarly editions, commentaries, and monographs…[but also] in translations with introductions and/or commentary”. So a translation might in theory be rated highly if accompanied by enough paratextual apparatus. In practice, though, even this was almost never attempted.
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.
Emma Gee is lecturer in Classics at the University of St Andrews.