Translation as Public Writing

I’ve been thinking about translation more and more over the past several years. Partly, this is because I find myself needing to translate more obscure texts for my own research. But one of my goals with some of my projects has also been to make obscure or lesser known medieval texts accessible to broader audiences. More medieval texts need to be more accessible to more people.

In many of my endeavors, translation has become important to how I think about my work in terms of public writing. I previously wrote about ways I’m considering public writing lately, and translation pushes me to consider it in a different way. This approach has been key to my project looking at the biblical story of Judith in Anglo-Saxon England; some of the translations of Old English texts that I’ve posted here; and my current work on the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. I also hope, in the future, to do more translation work like this.

Eadwine Psalter folio 243v detail
Detail from the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1; c.1160, Christ Church Canterbury), folio 243v (Psalm 136): containing translations of the Psalms into multiple Latin versions, French, and Old English, with commentary.

Much of my work in my first book has to do with thinking about translation broadly conceived: the afterlives of texts in new languages, adaptations, and across media. The broader concept of translation, from Latin translatio, encompasses much more than presenting texts in another language. In the medieval period, the idea of translatio was conceived of beyond linguistic transfer, and we still use it for broader meanings in contemporary English. And built into the wider use of translation is the carrying across, transportation (trans-port), transference (trans-fer) of knowledge. The translatio, or transfer of knowledge, is a fundamental aspect of teaching in the medieval period, and it’s no wonder that so many texts meant for teaching are translations from Latin into vernacular languages.

We might also consider (following Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation) the invisible work that goes into translations, the ideological decisions that lie behind them. My own ideological reasons for engaging in translation reflect my aims to pass on knowledge that readers might not otherwise encounter. Perhaps my main ideological motivation with translation is to present the texts that I find interesting for others who don’t have access to them.

The broader conceptual idea of carrying across–in this case, across time and cultures–is also part of why translation as public writing matters. On the one hand, readers who want to explore medieval literature can’t do that if they don’t have the language skills. Similarly, on the other hand, readers who want to explore medieval literature can’t do that if they don’t know what’s out there.

A major part of generating interest in medieval texts through public writing (for me) is to open up literature that poses interesting questions about the intersections between past and present. I don’t just want to write about medieval literature for others; I want them to be able to read it for themselves. Yet so much of the literature of the Middle Ages remains inaccessible without advanced training in languages. I want to see this change.


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