Classics’ elitism should be lost in translation

In giving short shrift to the production of modern interpretations, classicists consign their work to narrow academic circles, says Emma Gee

March 17, 2016
Old books arranged on library bookshelves

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.

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Print headline: Share the odyssey

Reader's comments (6)

I am very glad to see Emma Gee raise this issue. Few will be aware of this, but the vast majority of Greek and Latin literature does not exist in any modern language. This means that it is inaccessible to nearly everyone. One need merely think of the 300 volumes of the Patrologia Graeca and Latina. Then there is languages like classical Armenian, Syriac, Christian Arabic - all full of material which might be of use, and very little of which exists in English. A well-intentioned billionaire could solve this relatively easily, simply by creating an institute and employing a few dozen academics to do nothing but translate. But surely we, the taxpayer, already do this: we pay for all these colleges. We need to change the structure of research funding such that creating the first English translation of some text is itself worth funding. We don't need the 2999th version of the Iliad or Odyssey; we do need the very first version of most ancient texts.
Greek and Latin literature is our common heritage. Relegating it to some academic elite is nonsense.
I have to say that, from a personal viewpoint, what attracted me to the classics was the majestic language of Homer in translation. It exuded a loftiness that somehow lifted me into another dimension. The classics do require work to engage with, but that is part of the thrill of the journey. We place far too much emphasis, these days on accessibility. However, much of this emphasis is not for reasons of establishing equality and justice, but for propping up a consumerist society, whose sensibilities are manufactured by a corporate elite. Elitism itself is a word that has been subverted to imply anything that falls outside the realm of bourgeois consumerism. Rather than dumbing down a literary text through translation, it would be better to devote time and resources raising students' thinking, so that they can embrace a deeper sensibility.
Wish I could hear it.
1.Translation is not dumbing down. Is any language 'dumber' than another? We don't make any text 'dumber' by rendering it intelligently in another language. 2. Re 'consumerism', translations are not consumer articles. Publishing a verse translation (for instance) is very difficult, firstly because verse publication is more competitive than academic publishing, and secondly and more importantly because of a lack of funding (good presses struggle for funding from the Arts Council and elsewhere). There is no necessary equation between translation and commodification - in fact the reverse. 3. Translations are not always intended for student audiences - students are already a highly privileged group who have the means to embrace whatever sensibilities they want. Most people have literally no other access to the material - the vast majority of people attend schools with no tradition of the Classics, no conceivable rationale for teaching them, and no money to do so. Readers who might pick a pamphlet off a shelf in a bookshop, or off a table in a doctor's surgery, but have never been exposed to either Classics or poetry, who don't have a university degree, also have a right to Plato or Lucretius. if it's a way into the languages for them, so much the better. But that's not the point.
Roger Pearse, with characteristic modesty, does not mention his magnificent website, which has links to a vast number of editions and translations, most of which are open access. But the answer is surely to teach Greek and Latin. Some of us can recall when Oxbridge required this, and grammar and direct grant schools taught it, now Anglolexia prevails. I have never met a mathematician who regretted having to learn Latin, and Edith Hall's present employer has a fine record of teaching Latin in schools across London. To pretend that translations are anything more than a crutch is to insult those authors who wrote in Greek, Latin, Arabic or Sanskrit. But HMG and most vicechancellors enjoy cutting language departments, in the name of progress and UK imperialism.

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