Lost in Translation
One afternoon in early December, as the day turned into early dusk, six history graduate students gathered in the basement of Wood Hall to pore over a peculiar primary source: the first chapter of Harry Potter y la piedra fiosofal. The book was a translation of J.K. Rowling’s international bestseller Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and the students were reading it to brush up on their Spanish.
Each semester, several such groups meet throughout the History Department as tenured professors, first-year grads, and students and scholars in between join together in the humbling process of learning a foreign language. At present, there are five groups pursuing reading fluency in French, Irish Gaelic, Latin, Ecclesiastical Latin, and Spanish. Some, like the French group, have been running for several semesters, while others, such as Spanish and Ecclesiastical Latin, were started more recently by graduate students who needed particular language skills for their research and exams.
For Maureen Harris, a third-year PhD student focusing early Modern Ireland, these groups are a mixture of pleasure and professional development. “In part, I study languages because I enjoy them,” says the Maryland-native, who currently attends the Irish, French, and Ecclesiastical Latin groups and co-leads the Spanish one. “On a more practical note, some of these languages will be necessary for my academic career. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland, much was written in Irish and Latin, instead of English, so I will miss out on significant elements of my work if I cannot read the languages used by my historical subjects.”
That problem is not unique to scholars of foreign countries. Kevin Finefrock, a third-year early Americanist, has used the language skills he developed in the French reading group to conduct research into the United States’ diplomatic relations with France in the eighteenth century – a project that yielded the surprising discovery that some of the new nation’s first consuls were actually French!
Learning how to hear those distant voices is no easy task. One or two weeks before each group convenes, a text is circulated amongst the members and everyone attempts to translate it on their own, drawing on dictionaries, grammar textbooks, and their own knowledge of the language. Then, the group meets to discuss vocabulary, conjugations, and the nuances that transcend literal meaning.
In the Irish group, which is led this year by Cuán Ó Flatharta, a visiting Fulbright scholar from Ireland, participants are sometimes given a previously unseen reading during the meeting and then must translate it collectively on the spot.
Choosing which text to read can help a group acquaint itself with writers and thinkers more canonical than Rowling. “We started by translating the Book of Jonah out of the Vulgate,” recalls Hilary Bogert-Winkler, a second-year PhD student who runs the Ecclesiastical Latin group, “and now we’re moving onto some of Augustine’s Confessions.” After that, the interdepartmental cohort, made up of students from History and Medieval Studies, plans to tackle Bede, Anselm, Aquinas, Erasmus, and Calvin.
While Bogert-Winkler, who studies early modern religion, founded her group in order to acquire a working knowledge of languages she would need for her research, many of those who participate in her group and others will not be combing through foreign archives any time soon. Instead, they are preparing for their proficiency exams, a required component of the doctoral program. Graduate students specializing in British, Latin American, and U.S. history are obligated to learn one language, and those focusing on Modern Continental Europe or Medieval history must learn two.
“Proficiency in a foreign language is fundamental to the graduate study of history,” observes Charles Lansing, associate professor of modern German history and currently the Director of Graduate Studies in the History Department. In addition to qualifying students for research in foreign-language sources, “knowledge of a foreign language will enable the historian to engage with a non-English language body of scholarship, something that should help prevent the historian taking too parochial an approach to a particular subject.”
It is for these reasons that the many language reading groups, which rise, fall, and reemerge semester by semester according to the interests of students and faculty, are so important. They broaden their participants’ horizons, offering each member the opportunity to draw from a deeper pool of ideas in their work, whether they study medieval monks or twentieth-century American homemakers. And it may come in handy if anyone transfers to “el Colegio Hogwarts.”2012-02-16