Six Classical Libraries: Challenges in Editing, Translation, and Beyond

On Monday, September 24, six editors held a public conversation on “the stakes, challenges, and rewards of editing and translating premodern texts from the world’s great literary traditions.” The Mellon Foundation’s Mariët Westermann moderated the panel, which brought together editors of six publishing projects that specialize in facing-page translations from the Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Old English, as well as India’s many languages:

“Future Humanities”

It began with the Loeb.

And, for nearly a century, the Loeb Classical Library was without a literary sibling. It was 1912 when Harvard began to publish the Loeb editions, which were meant to bring “all that is of value and interest in Greek and Latin literature” to a wide English-language audience. These English-language readers, they imagined, would have some Greek or Latin, yet wouldn’t be fluent enough to savor the works in the original.

It wasn’t until 89 years later, in 2001, that the Loeb’s first sibling was born: the I Tatti Renaissance Library, which is also published by Harvard University Press. The Tatti has a focus on works written during the Italian Renaissance in Latin.

Next came the Clay Sanskrit Library, which produced 56 volumes between 2005-2009, and then closed down. It was followed by the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, with a focus on Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old English. Then came the Library of Arabic Literature, which published its first bilingual volume in 2013. Two years later came the Library of Chinese Humanities, which published its first book in 2015. Also in 2015, the Murty Classical Library of India took up the remit of the Sanskrit Library and much more. Of all the projects, the Murty is dealing the most complex landscape, tasked with bringing out the “greatest literary works of India from the past two millennia to the largest readership in the world.”

Editors from all six of these ongoing projects met Monday night in New York City, at a panel moderated by Mariët Westermann.

Westermann started the evening with an anecdote about Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) General Editor Phil Kennedy. When she first tried to recruit him to NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, she said, he told her he’d go, but on the condition that a “Loeb for Arabic” sort of project was started up.

“I couldn’t believe it didn’t exist,” Westermann said.

But it was a long time that the Loeb was the only such project in English. As by far the eldest, it was also the most self-sufficient. General Editor Jeffrey Henderson said that, as an endowed foundation, the Loeb avoids the pressure of sales, and their volumes “stay in print forever.” For the last 15 years or so, the Loeb has been in a position not only to fund itself, but also to give out fellowships to scholars in related fields.

Yet, even after after 106 years, the Loeb still hasn’t finished bringing out the Greek and Latin classics.

“When will the [Loeb] library ever be complete?” Henderson said. “Hard to say.”

What makes a good translation (and how)?

Although the art of translation was not a major focus in most of the editors’ presentations, it was a focus of audience questions.

Henderson said, in his presentation, that the Loeb was looking neither for literal nor literary translations, but “fidelity.” While he said he spends a great deal of time coaching translators, he also said they weren’t looking for an Ezra Pound-esque adaptation.

Dumbarton Oaks General Editor Jan Ziolkowski said their project was, “Trying to hit the sweet spot between scholarly exactitude and comprehensibility to general readers.” Certainly “comprehensibility” is not quite literary beauty. Library of Chinese Humanities’ Senior Editor Paul Kroll said their books are “meant for readers who have some knowledge of Chinese,” and that they “try to produce renderings that are also pleasing as English” although “some are more successful than others.”

Whitney Cox, Associate Editor of the Murty, said the Classical Indian Library is making “an attempt to combine scholarship and something resembling literary art.”

The Library of Arabic Literature’s (LAL) Kennedy was the most tilted toward the English-language reader. “We do insist on faithfulness…but we also insist, more and more, on a kind of English that speaks to a broad audience.”

LAL Executive Editor James Montgomery, whose translation of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad’s War Songs was just publishedadded from the audience: “If we were doing a scholarly [translation of ‘Antarah], we could’ve done it in six months. But this book took seven years.”

Part of the LAL process of translating War Songs involved intensive workshops with translators Peter Cole and Richard Sieburth. “As scholars, we’ve never been taught” the translational arts, Montgomery said. “It’s really something that I’ve worked at since the inception of LAL.”

Finding Dr. Right: the editor-translators

All the series editors focused on the difficulty they’ve had finding people with all the necessary skills—and time—to both edit and translate.

One complicating factor for most of the projects was how translation won’t help scholars achieve tenure. Editors of both the Chinese and Murty libraries said they have shied away from using untenured translator-editors. “As far as younger people go,” Ziolkowski said, “if they were thinking of editing-translating, do not commit career suicide.”

“Without the emeritus professor,” Ziolkowski said, “we would be in trouble.”

It wasn’t just a problem finding people who could edit manuscripts, Ziolkowski said. There’s “a whole problem in the Anglo-American world in describing to administrators what editing is.”

James Hankins, General Editor of the Tatti, said, “We have so many unedited texts, we’re struggling to get them into print.” He added, “It’s harder and harder to find translators who can edit the text, and vice versa.”

Henderson, General Editor of the Loeb, said that even for them, “The tradition of textual editing is becoming a little shakier than it had been for classicists,” while Kroll said the same of Chinese: “Chinese studies has not been good about carrying on philological tradition, this is something in danger in my field.”

Kennedy echoed the same concerns, and yet, in the end, “The greatest challenge [for LAL] has been to communicate the kind of English we want.”

What is the (a) canon?

Loeb had, of the six projects, the most settled canon. Yet, Henderson said, “What’s of value and interest changes over a century,” and thus the classical canon of Greek and Latin work has shifted somewhat.

Ziolkowski, General Editor of the Dumbarton Oaks, said that, for their project, “one challenge is to locate the canon,” as they “don’t have the canonicity that the classical period does.”

The Library of Arabic Literature series was, meanwhile, the most self-consciously eclectic and anti-canon of the group. “And we’re happy with that,” Kennedy said. “The texts select themselves, in so far as we take proposals from scholars who prove their qualifications.”

“Whatever we choose establishes a base,” Kennedy said. “Not the canon, although ultimately perhaps a canon.” 

Who reads these books?

Westermann tried to pin the general editors down about readership data: who, what, where, why, and how much. None seemed to have a profile of their readership, although some offered anecdotes and guesses.

Hankins, General Editor of the Tattisaid he was “most conscious of professors assigning books to their students,” although he also said the books had a secondary audience in China.

Ziolkowski, General Editor of the Dumbarton Oaks, knew what their bestsellers were. But as for who was reading them, he was less sure. “This will sound deplorably unscientific,” but “I check whether anything’s being written about them in places like Amazon.” He said that many of the readers are teachers and students, “but other people as well.”

Now that they have over 50 volumes, Ziolkowski said, “we can start thinking in a more knowledgeable way about how to do metrics.”

…and the search for funding

Since 2001, the Tatti has produced 86 volumes and, according to Hankins, has sold over two million copies worldwide. Yet survivability is still an urgent question. “The Tatti is not a foundation [like the Loeb]; it’s basically my office,” he said. “My main assistants are my right and my left hand, and we’re dependent on the generosity of strangers.”

The Library of Chinese Humanities, Kroll noted, also finds itself in a difficult position. Originally funded in large part by a Mellon grant, they’d come close to securing ongoing funding in China. But then the current trade war between the US and China blew up. This, Kroll said, “has left us in limbo.”

In the short time available, the six translation projects shared similar concerns (a shortage of good editors; a lack of appreciation for translation; the difficulty in finding or training good translators; the challenges of securing funding). All six had markedly different ways forward and different attitudes toward audience. A future event could focus more on overlapping and shared solutions.

You can watch video of the event at the Library of Arabic Literature website.

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