Conference Report: Ilya Sverdlov on Found in Translation

By Dr. Ilya V Sverdlov, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
December 2019

On October 19, 2019, I had the pleasure to take part, in the “Found in Translation: Interpreting Reworking and Reinventing Texts”, organized by the recently-established Greene’s Institute, named after late Edward Greene, the founder of Greene’s Tutorial College, Oxford. The location – one can see Old Tom and the tower of Christ Church Hall, as well as other Oxford landmarks from the Institute’s tall windows – as well as the line-up of speakers (20 presentations, no less, including one interactive keynote lecture, three sets of two parallel sessions, and one plenary session) promised a full and thought-engaging day, and quite lived up to expectations. The Institute’s director, Dr Daniel Gerrard, offered a heart-felt and enthusiastic welcome, after which the participants dived straight into the discussion that touched on many subjects. Unfortunately, one couldn’t split oneself into two (even though Dr Gerrard managed to partially succeed at that, having been seen at all parallel sessions), and I was particularly restricted at the choice of parallel session, being a presenter at one session and a chair at another (although of course I would have at least attended my own paper if I were me) – and therefore had to miss a few papers that held much to offer, inter alia one by Dr Vicki Blud on being “Gayer than a Treeful of Monkeys on Nitrous Oxide”. The compensation was, however, quite worth it.

My co-panellist, Dr Brian McMahon, discussed the intriguing issue of whether the social narrative of Old Norse saga texts that survive is skewed, indeed if there is, so to say, a survivorship bias in the way the extant MSS depict medieval Icelandic society after making the transition from oral medium to written one – or even a conscious censorship, something that could have been the case at least in the case of Sverris saga, one of the first to be written down on parchment and dealing with the ascent of one Sverrir from an unknown pauper from Faroe Islands to King of Norway and the founder of a dynasty in late 11th century. I myself chimed in on the subject of Icelandic place- and saga names, arguing that the multi-stem compound noun names that we see on maps of Iceland from 16th century to today are not fixed and immutable (as a modern map reader expects) but rather represent, in each case, an expression event where a native speaker, queried by a place-name collector, often a foreigner, would express not the entire place-name stored in his memory but a longer or shorter version of it, requiring a survey of the tradition to identify the name’s entirety – an operation necessary for correct translation of such transparent place- and saga names into a foreign language.

Following was Dr Julie Dresvina, the Institute’s Deputy Director, with much to say about medieval misericords – the carved images under the bottoms of the raised chairs in churches’ choirs, on top of which the monks could half-sit while still pretending to stand – and the use of that imagery in medieval narratives, such as not-quite-sermons of Margery Kempe, whose storytelling techniques owed much of their success to the efficient transition into words of visual images that were well-known to her audience. Next up we heard from Dr Godelinde Perk on religious and liturgical practices in place at not-quite-nuns’ communities in what is today Belgium and Netherlands known from the so-called “Sister Books”, involving several translation/transition issues at textual level of liturgy and a sister’s life narration as well as at the spiritual level of embodying holiness in daily community practice. The session closed with a multimedia presentation by Dr Sander Vloebergs who in his research combined medieval mysticism and dance, but to report on this paper I would have to dance about it (an experience one should perhaps be spared).

Next up was the keynote lecture by Professor Henrike Lähnemann, tackling the eternally thorny issue of translation of the Old and New Testaments during the entire history of Europe but concentrating on Luther and post-Lutheran translation projects; the keynote had a rarely-seen interactive format where Prof Lähnemann would invite the audience to comment upon choices made by translators she used as examples as well as upon the motivations that such translators would provide for their choices, and act as Bible translators themselves for a few select passages. Among issues discussed was Luther’s own published defence of a number of particular passages in his translation whereby he purported to illustrate his method, and the approach of a new German translation that feels it must still rely or use Luther’s text as it occupies such a prominent place in German language but provides an electronic apparatus for the readers to go deeper into details of relations between the source, Luther’s 16th century German, and modern German.

Professor Lähnemann has kindly made the video of her interactive keynote address accessible here, her slides can be downloaded here, and her handout is accessible here.

After lunch first was the session where I had the luck to be in the chair to have the best seat in the house to hear three great papers, by Drs Graciela Iglesias Rogers, Maria Artamonova, and Robert de Brose. Dr Iglesias Rogers talked about the many versions of Constitution of Spain and the congresses that approved each, as well as constitutional congresses in wider Spanish-speaking world and the relations of texts of these constitutions with each other and with US Constitution and travel of concepts between them. Dr Artamonova presented a most unusual and curious case-study of a large-scale back translation project where she herself acted as the translator, from Russian into English, of texts written by Russian emigrants and visitors to England and wider UK in late 19th and early 20th century where they would describe the social arrangements and daily life in Britain. The reality these people were observing had a language and vocabulary to describe itself – English of the time, and the Russians had to render the various “untranslatable” pieces of it as best they could into their mother tongue, the vocabulary of which was not quite up to task because not least of major differences in life and social arrangements of the then Russia and Britain (including the fact that the very terms “British”, “English” etc, while existing in both languages, had, and still have, non-overlapping meanings). Now Dr Artamonova had to render these texts – that offer a unique “outsider’s perspective” into the British life of the time – into English and had to face and tackle the same problems all over again, in a most unusual cultural, linguistic, and historic journey. Finally, Dr de Brose offered a most compelling explanation of a number of otherwise difficult to understand passages from a probably somewhat less known work of Walter Benjamin on the task of the translator, quite persuasively showing that the very language used by Benjamin implies relying on the Kabbalist theory of creation, especially in the version of the school of rabbi Isaac Luria that he was introduced to by his friend Gershom Scholem, the founder of academic study of Kabbalah and future Professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The task that Benjamin assigns to translators, as Dr de Brose demonstrates, is not simply rendering the sense of the original but, in committing the act of translation, to “liberate the light of creation” that is trapped in words – words, in Benjamin’s thought, of any language being sparks of the original divine light that emerged from the Kabbalistic “shattered vessels” and each translation adding to the original (= present at the event of creation) abiding sense, not simply converting a text into another text; Benjamin therefore appears as one rare commentator who elevates translation, often regarded as mundane and not very creative activity, into one that brings the world closer to the Divine, “repairing the word” in the Kabbalistic act of tikkun olam.

The conference concluded by a plenary session that concentrated on digital aspects of dealing with texts and translations. Dr Bastien Dubuisson discussed at length the difficulties in automatic character recognition of medieval MSS and early printed books that use MSS systems of abbreviations, especially non-conventional ones, as well as various statistical methods available to a scholar aiming to identify authors of anonymous texts, testing authorship hypothesis, and detecting difficult-to-see quotations and influences within a known corpus of texts. Dr Nicholas Cole reviewed the successful and less so achievements of various digitization initiatives and projects, including many done under the currently adopted TEI 5.0 standard of encoding MSS, deploring the currently inevitable reduction in the scope of information that may be extracted from a text if consulted directly from an MS when the said MS is replaced with a digitized “equivalent”, be it even provided with encoded text – or rather because it is provided with one, losing a lot in this translation, as well as the slow speed of actually scanning and making MSS accessible on the part of the various institutions that hold them. Finally, Dr Stephen Pink, moving in an opposite direction, while pointing out the gaping holes in survival of medieval material, not less due to destruction during religious upheavals in Europe and elsewhere, announced the arrival of the bright new future where, thanks exactly to digitization efforts, e.g. MSS that have been split into parts now in possession of different and sometimes rival institutions may be put back together in the virtual space, gaining a lot with this translation – and creating a reality for Jorge Luis Borges’ imaginary Library of Babel, thereby making the gaps he mentioned visible and possibly reconstructible.

The concluding discussion went on a while and concentrated on the issues of necessity to avoid compartmentalization of disciplines within humanities, the opportunities presented by new technologies which should not, however, remove the old approaches but complement and be complemented by them, and on the general need for more scholars being engaged in research of new and old material made more accessible through various scholarly efforts. “We need more medievalists” was one sentiment that united all the presenters and participants, as well the sense that conferences such as this one are one venue where barriers between approaches, academic systems, and languages can be removed or at any rate made easier to overcome. Indeed, participants expressed their wish that this gathering should be the first of the many to come.