Translating to Resist Betrayals

Amy Ogden, Department of French, University of Virginia

How would modern ideas of the Middle Ages shift if every member of the Hagiography Society,
alone or working in groups, published a translation of a hagiographic text? In my field—French
literature—such an effort would, first and foremost, vastly increase non-specialists’ access to
premodern sources that feature women and people from the eastern Mediterranean and from
Africa. With such access, more people could see for themselves how early texts can challenge
modern misconceptions of the past. Think of all the studies HS members have published showing
how sources in many traditions challenge common ideas about medieval social groupings and
relationships, reveal concerns about daily life absent from other types of texts, and communicate a
rich diversity of perspectives even within seemingly homogenous communities. The audiences for
these studies, however, usually do not include many non-specialists.

Writing this in Charlottesville just after the trial of those who, in 2017, incited violence here
among a mob bearing medieval-inspired symbols, I am acutely aware that medievalists bear a
large part of the responsibility for what the public knows about the Middle Ages. The stories told
about the past to give authority to stories about the present depend significantly on the primary
sources the general public can access. The more people hear and read for themselves the plurality
of voices from earlier times, the harder it is for white supremacists to claim that their ideal society
of simple racial, gender, and religious hierarchies ever had a stable, realized past. Having more
readers from more backgrounds engage with hagiographical sources leads to new ways of
understanding history, illuminating not only the complexity of human relations over time and the
harm of romanticizing the past, but also the historical depth of non-normative ideas that may be in
line with more people’s aspirations now.

Hagiography Society members have already published a number of translations of texts about holy
people, but there is a lot more work to do. If we in the HS know how fascinating and challenging
the full range of our sources are—and how useful they could be in our classrooms and beyond—
what keeps us from putting more of them in more hands? The foremost cause, I suspect, is the
perception that translation is impossibly hard: traduttore, traditore – traduire, c’est trahir – the
translator (inevitably) betrays. My experiences translating The Life of St Eufrosine and consulting
on a translation of Wace’s Lives of St Margaret and St Nicholas have convinced me both that the
dictum is valid and that it hides the delights and rewards of the challenge.

It is undeniably true that no translation ever fully captures the original. However, a facing page
format to show the original and plenty of annotations to explain choices can overcome many
limitations. Even when these options aren’t possible, a thoughtful translation contributes enormously
to broadening knowledge of the source. Collaboration can also make longer and more difficult works
much easier to translate.

A second cause for hesitation is likely that this hard work risks remaining unrewarded in our
profession, with its continuing worship of the scholarly monograph. This situation necessitates two
courses of action. Untenured and non-tenure-track scholars can inquire about their institutions’
policies: it may well be that a university is more enlightened and would welcome translations as
scholarship. If not, translation is an activity that can benefit from slow progress, and putting in
fifteen minutes every so often can lead to a publishable piece (and complement work on an analytical
study of the source) without detracting from “countable” publications. Tenured scholars can work on
their own translations and they can strive to ensure that promotion and tenure committees and upper
administration officials understand, first, the scholarly effort involved in translating medieval texts
and, second, the long contribution of translations to the scholarly community and beyond. After all,
how many of us teach translations published decades ago while we rarely cite criticism more than
twenty years old?

Translating necessitates some betrayal, but not translating allows even greater betrayals. If we want
our sources to reach the widest audiences, we can’t just write about them: we need to make the texts
themselves accessible. A number of publishers are keen to help us do so, including our own
Hagiography Society Book Series, which welcomes translations from all traditions and time periods.
You can find more information about our series at

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