In defence of academic translation

Reading time: 6 mins

When I was 14 years old, like tens of generations before me in Latin classrooms, I read for the first time those words: “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.”: All Gaul is divided onto three parts, of which one is inhabited by the Belgae, other by the Aquitani, and the third by those, who in their own language are called Celts and in our Gauls. You see what Julius did there? He translated. He understood immediately the value of speaking to his audience in terms familiar to them. He had them hooked. He had me hooked also. I ended up becoming a translator and a historian.

Unfortunately what Julius Caesar seemed to have understood instinctively is now hugely undervalued in academic circles. While there is more and more emphasis on learning languages (both classical and modern and, it should be noted, that is a good thing), there is not enough being done to promote the virtues of academic translation.

Translation has been seen as a tool not as a goal. In undergraduate courses of classics and history alike students are translating texts to teach them the languages needed for their course. If they are lucky they have a teacher passionate enough to make them fall in love with the language, but very, very rarely with the act of translation itself. Later, if they decide to pursue career in academia (and are lucky enough to get in), they realise quickly that translating carries with it close to zero academic merit. As the story of Emily Wilson (whose radical and innovative translation of The Odyssey is due to appear shortly) shows they might even be directly dissuaded from pursuing translation.

This is detrimental to scholarship.

Translation in academia should be a duty on par with publications in journals and writing books. Those of us who engage in it should be appreciated, praised and encouraged. There are important reasons behind it. First and foremost translation of primary texts (whether historical or literary) is not a simple act of jumping code from one language to another (as if this was already not an achievement). Translation itself is an act of interpretation, it entails enormous amount of research, because to translate well means to research well. And the impact of translations is often far greater than journal or book publications as it serves not only academics but also wider public.

Every well translated source or text is invaluable - it dispels misconceptions, it attracts and encourages. It changes the world and us. Proper, well-researched translations of primary sources are essential in meeting the challenges posed by the extremist, right-wing movements. They are the tools we so desperately need, especially now, in the age of digital reproduction.

Texts should be retranslated again and again. Every new one brings new insights, changes our perceptions. Translation is a process that sometimes stretches generations and never really ends. Sadly very often funding is unavailable for work on pieces that have been previously translated. But translation, even without such additional apparatus, is also a research statement. It allows one to put in the open the scholarship and the work that went into de-coding the text. (Re)translating is engaging in conversation. Every student of Old English has, stacked somewhere in the drawer, their go at Hwæt!, the opening of Beowulf. All those hundreds of ways in which this has been translated (or left untranslated) form a great scholarly conversation that has furthered our understanding not only of the text that it opens but also of its author(ess) and of the people that listened to it. Our knowledge of early medieval society would be so much poorer if we did not engage in translating it, because through that very act we brought it nearer to us, we transcended the barrier of centuries that divides us from it. We opened new avenues of research. And lastly, maybe most importantly, it is through those translations we were encouraged to study the subjects we love.

The sense of discovery and joy that one experiences when translating a text is incomparable. It is like a hand stretched into the past. We need to help our students to understand that translating texts stands at the very centre of their work. It allows them to communicate outside their academic bubble. It allows them to make a statement.

This is especially important in case of texts written in languages that are scarcely known outside their communities, in languages that have been marginalised, in languages that need support, especially from academia. Those translations not only help to understand those texts but also serve to present their heritage. There is no global history without this effort.

Translations will never replace a close philological reading of the text, but this is neither their role nor their purpose. They should exist alongside scholarly editions and be appreciated on their own. This also should include fostering collaborative translation, especially involving teams comprising of researches across disciplines.

Apart from translating the original texts we cannot forget about how important it is to translate secondary literature, especially in the humanities. Teaching without those translations will forever doom every single course in the humanities - and this is not an exaggeration. One cannot teach a course on Byzantine history without the works of Ostrogorsky or about women in antiquity without those of Hatoon al-Fassi. As much as it is possible to learn a set of languages to read secondary literature necessary in one’s field, it is impossible to expect that from our students from day one. In other words: our daily work, our teaching, depends on translations of academic literature and the people who make them. My own engagement in translating academic work of my colleagues made me better in my job. If we can, we should try to help to enrich the corpus of translated secondary literature as much as possible.

If we are to achieve humanities that are more inclusive and more global we simply have to foster translation. We should fight for it to carry academic merit (similarly as we should fight for public outreach to carry one, but that is another matter). By academic merit I do not only mean recognition for scholarly editions - which are important on their own right and also under-appreciated - but also of translation aimed at wider public.

A well executed translation can be the crowning of years of research, hard-work and an important contribution to understanding the text itself. Sometimes we need to wait and witness centuries of translators conversation to witness true beauty emerge - like with the first lines of Wilson’s Odyssey. Let us keep this conversation going.

Written on November 8, 2017

Cite this post:

Fafinski, Mateusz "In defence of academic translation." History in Translation (blog), 08 Nov 2017,