TRANSLATION: future imperative?

Lorna Hardwick

  1. Current trends in language study
  2. Perspectives on the relationship between ancient and modern
  3. Classical subjects and other disciplines
  4. Future steps
  5. References

My starting point is the optimistic assumption that the study of Classical subjects is entering a new stage of development. This is a healthy state of affairs yet also brings the need to look carefully at the implications of changing patterns of recruitment and learning. Underlying these, there are also changes in the way that the ancient world is perceived, both inside and outside universities. There are also exciting possibilities in the mediation into teaching of the results of new research, which have in a variety of ways both enhanced the content of the undergraduate curriculum and challenged some of its traditional orthodoxies and priorities. I suggest that one further nettle should now be grasped. The time has come to consider more systematically how the theory and the practical aspects of translation may best be addressed in undergraduate courses. The issue is conditioned by three main aspects of our current condition - students' study of classical languages; perspectives on the relationship between ancient and modern cultures; the nature of the relationship between Classical subjects and those of other disciplines.

Current trends in language study

An increasing percentage of students entering universities to read Classical subjects does so without A level passes in Greek and Latin. This has been recognised by the development of ab initio courses in one or both languages, including fast-track learning aimed at the achievement of Hons. standard. Quite apart from any praiseworthy desire to enable students from all types of schools to be admitted, this trend seems likely to continue, given the decline in the numbers of A level entrants, even in schools which are centres of excellence in the teaching of Classics.

All this means that many students are initially attracted to Classical study by reading works in translation. In other words, the nature of the sandwich has changed. It is no longer the custom to study Greek for many years before being admitted to the delights of Thucydides. Nowadays, translations of Thucydides (and of the tragedians and Homer) come first and may stimulate curiosity about the language. The same is increasingly the case for Vergil, Tacitus et al. Fortunately, there is considerable expertise available from school and university teachers to ensure that the language filling in the new sandwich is both tasty and nutritious.

Nevertheless, it follows that a considerable proportion of sixth form and undergraduate reading is now done through the medium of translation. Of course, I do not cast doubt on the well known propensity of undergraduates to read all texts, both ancient and modern, in the original language even if this is not specifically required. More important, however, is the likelihood that the brightest of the fast-track ab initio language students will not wish to confine his or her reading to texts suitable for the early stages of language learning, nor to postpone study in depth of works which were probably the initial source of interest in Classical subjects. Furthermore, the substance and diversity of many modules and special options is supported by the prescription or recommendation of suitable translations of complete texts and collections of sources.

This situation has its positive features. There is already evidence that enhanced language awareness at even a basic level enhances the capacity to read critically in translation and that this in turn increases motivation for further language study. More might be done to develop this interaction if the sometimes entrenched distinctions and divisions between `Classics' and `Classical Civilisation'-type courses were re-examined. It is, of course, easy to see why language based courses were `ring-fenced' when their very existence was under threat. However, the new initiatives in language teaching and the large numbers of student applicants should now permit confidence and enable the review of the old divide between language and non-language based courses. This divide seems in any case, for the reasons outlined above, to be in the process of being dismantled in an ad hoc way and, while it is not my aim here to comment on the syllabus in schools, I believe that some teachers have ideas about the potential advantages of more integration between language and non-language work, provided that this could be achieved without diluting the language achievement of the more able pupils.

If the relationship between language and non-language courses is in the process of reconstruction, the time may be right for the removal of the taboos which have hindered the recognition of the importance of reading translations and have therefore tended to prevent proper attention being paid to the relevant critical processes. Of course, this would not and should not detract from the importance of language learning nor of opportunities to develop expertise in textual criticism and the other vital specialisms. In fact, a stronger emphasis on language awareness, including a critical approach to reading in translation, should strengthen linguistic expertise in general.

Perspectives on the relationship between ancient and modern

Recent research on the appropriation of Greek and Roman cultures by intervening societies has, fortunately, liberated the ancient world from the naive tendency (strongest among some sociologists) to identify Greek and Roman values and ideas with those of the appropriating groups or cultures. The processes of appropriation have been shown to be complex and conditioned by the cultural politics of the receiving society . We now have a clearer idea of how and why Arnold's Homer differed from Newman's. We are attuned to the effects of ` universalising', `domesticating ` or `distancing' tendencies in scholarship as well as in politics and it is now commonplace for a comparison between a David and an Alma-Tadema to open up a discussion of Roman society as well as of art history.

The current upsurge of interest in the Reception of ancient texts, images and ideas has been fostered by a variety of research projects, ranging from the study of the performance histories of particular plays to analysis of the impact of ancient texts on the literatures of subversion and on the construction of post-colonial identities. All these initiatives necessarily engage with issues of translation, not only between source and target languages but also across cultures, in terms both of time and of place. Study of the semiotics of performance, for example, also requires attention to the way in which the director, designer, choreographer and players have responded to the text, whether that is in the original language or in a translation.

As a result of these trends both scholars and `lay' people have an increased sensitivity to the fact that, however expert the readers' or audiences' knowledge of the ancient languages, they cannot respond in a way which is purely that of an ancient Greek or Roman (even if it were possible to generalise about that elusive being). There is also increased interest in issues of reception and appropriation within antiquity, together with a greater sense of the dynamics underlying the translator's interpretation and refiguration of the ancient text.

Classical subjects and other disciplines

The relationship between disciplines combines aspects of the environmental and intellectual issues outlined in the two preceding sections. Almost all study and research in Classical subjects requires some engagement with the content, methods and theories of other disciplines. Equally, those based in departments of philosophy, theology or literature, for example, frequently need to work on ancient texts in a way which seeks to avoid closing the debate about meaning, always a danger if a translation is used uncritically. Currently, there are welcome signs of the emergence of new kinds of edition which include text and a commentary giving basic linguistic help as well as more sophisticated discussion of textual aspects and ideas. Sometimes a translation is also included. However, more might perhaps be done to comment on the translation itself within the same volume. Important recent initiatives also include accelerated learning materials to enable postgraduate students and researchers from other disciplines to encounter in the original language philosophical, medical and koine texts, which they would otherwise read only in translation. Such studies inevitably involve some focus on translation issues. Nor is this trend confined to work on ancient languages. The welcome broadening of the international academic community of students, researchers and critics also raise questions about the use of translations of works of scholarship and about comparison of translations from Greek and Latin into various modern languages.

Future steps

All these trends suggest that the existing level of work done via translations will continue and even increase. It is also clear that this will increasingly be carried out by students alongside or in closer conjunction with their language work and reading of texts in the original. As yet there has been relatively little research done into how the two activities might be developed in ways which enhance one another. A doctoral thesis by Jan Parker, currently a Research Fellow in the O.U. Institute of Educational Technology, included analysis of the achievements of groups of students in different universities who read translations in which some words were kept in the original . As a result of this work it is hoped that a handbook of glossed readings will be published. enabling students to consider a range of contexts and meanings and thus to debate for themselves some of the issues on which translators have to make decisions. In addition, however, there is an urgent need for research into the learning and reading patterns of those who are on fast-track language learning schemes.

On a broader front, Translation Studies is developing considerable vitality as an area of specialist research and study. There have been important studies of the manipulative aspects of translation (Hermans 1985, Lefevere 1992). However, most of the discussion of translations from Greek and Latin has been confined to historical studies, from Kelly (1979) to Venuti (1995), or to descriptive surveys (Bassnett-McGuire 1980), although the 1960s interest in translation of Greek plays (Arrowsmith and Shattuck 1961) has been refreshed by recent journal articles. The current trend seems to be to adapt purely descriptive models to focus more on the interaction between source and target languages and cultures (Toury 1995). Translators sometimes discuss their approaches in Prefaces, Introductions and Epilogues, while some special seminars and projects have brought together scholars and practitioners from Classics, Theatre Studies and other specialisms as, for example , in the seminar on Theatre and English translations of Antigone at the University of Sydney Centre for Performance Studies (Allen 1994).

Although there is a growing number of specialist conferences on aspects of translation, the contribution of classicists to discussion of the broader issues raised by translation has been rather muted. A recent major international conference attracted several hundred participants from all over the world. They vigorously debated the historical, moral, political and future roles of translations in the construction and reshaping of cultural identities. Yet Greek and Latin texts were virtually ignored. The comparative reticence of classicists about these issues is quite surprising, particularly since the main impact of recent literary theory has been to question the stability of language and meaning and to foster interest in the effect of, for example, narratological and other techniques in a range of genres. When such developments are placed alongside the acknowledged role of translations in mapping, directing and valorising in areas of cultural tension and change, it seems essential for students at all levels to develop a critical awareness of the impact of the processes of translation on their own learning and on scholarship in general. Professor Venuti's work forthcoming work on the unpredictable effects of translations should add spice to the debate.

Of course, many university courses and seminar discussions address at least some of the issues set out above, although some do so more overtly than others. It might be useful to exchange views and ideas about the future role and importance of translation issues in the Classical curriculum and to get a sense of the varieties of approach and their motivation - whether based on the realities of the language teaching environment or on the intellectual exigencies of discussing interpretation and meaning. Perhaps, too, some classicists intend to contribute to the wider academic discussion of Translation. I would be glad to hear from colleagues interested in participating in a Colloquium on these and other related issues.


C. Allen (1994) in `Translating for the Stage', Didaskalia, vol. 1 issue 3.
W. Arrowsmith and R. Shattuck (eds. ) (1961) The Craft and Context of Translation, Univ. of Texas Press.
S. Bassnett-McGuire (1980) Translation Studies, Methuen.
T. Hermans (ed. ) (1985) The Manipulation of Literature, Croom Helm.
L. G. Kelly (1979) The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West, Blackwell.
A. Lefevere (1992) Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame, Routledge.
G. Toury (1995) Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond, John Benjamin's Publishing Co.
L. Venuti (1995) The Translator's Invisibility, Routledge.

Lorna Hardwick (

Dept. of Classical Studies, The Open University

CUCD Bulletin 26 (1997)
© Lorna Hardwick 1997

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