Publishing a translation of an ancient text ain’t at all like writing a book about the text.

When the editor at Harvard Press asked me if I would be interested in doing a new edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loebs, she wasn’t offering me the opportunity then and there.  She was suggesting that I write up a prospectus that she could take to the board of the Loebs, in which I described the need for a new edition and explained how I would go about making one.  After I thought about it for a while, and got advice from my friends, I decided to go for it.  I had never (ever!) planned doing a serious translation project for publication.  I had lots of other things I wanted to write – scholarly monographs, textbooks, and so on.  But I thought it made sense to do it, both personally and professionally.  So I wrote up the prospectus and the editorial board agreed it was a task that needed to be done – and so they offered me a contract.  This project would be unlike anything I had tried before.

The deal is that I like to write all sorts of books because doing different kinds of things makes my scholarship always alive and interesting for me.  I have friends in the profession – some of my closest friends, in fact – who want to write scholarly monographs.  And that’s it.  They are scholars, and they want to write for scholars.  And so they do.  When they finish one highly erudite piece of scholarship that generates knowledge and advances scholarship, they launch into writing the next one.  And then the next one.

I, on the other hand, prefer doing a variety of things.  And it occurred to me at the time I was contemplating whether I wanted to do a new edition of the apostolic fathers that even publishing scholarship can involve a range of things besides simply writing one monograph after the other (even if I did get in good variety by occasionally writing textbooks and trade books as well).  I could, for example, produce a new edition of a group of ancient texts!  That is very, very different from writing a scholarly monograph.  It requires a different set of skills, it involves a different kind of research, it entails a different approach to the material, and it engages a different set of tasks.

The short story is that to produce a bi-lingual edition of an ancient text (that is, one in which the original language – in this case, Greek with a bit of Latin – on one side of the page and an English translation on the other side), one has to perform a number of tasks, including, most obviously, the following:

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  • You have to decide what the original-language text is going to be.  What Greek words, sentences, and paragraphs will be in the text?  What do you do when different manuscripts have different wording for various passages?  How do you decide which wording to follow?
  • You have to choose from the wide range of textual differences among the manuscripts not only the ones to include as the text, but also which ones to cite in the apparatus at the bottom of the page.  In an edition like the Loebs, the apparatus is quite sparse, and so you have to choose only those variants that can make some kind of difference either to the meaning of the passage or to the history of its transmission (that is, the history of how it was copied by later scribes – since we don’t have the original writings for any of these authors [or indeed for any ancient authors]).
  • You have to decide which principles of translation you want to follow.  On a basic level, for example, do you want to give a literal word-for-word translation that might sacrifice readability in English, but that gives the reader a fair idea of what the original language text says?  Or do you go for a more readable translation that is harder to line up closely with the original language side of the page? Roughly speaking: do you want a more literal or a more idiomatic translation, and how do you decide?
  • Then you need to translate each text, carefully, very very carefully, one paragraph, one sentence, one phrase, one word at a time. It’s painstaking work and can be agonizing, trying to decide among a wide variety of options for rendering a text from one language into another.
  • You have to write an Introduction to each of the documents (in this case, the ten or eleven apostolic fathers), in which you discuss all the matters of relevance to users of the edition: who the author was alleged to be and whether that person really did write the text, when it was written, what its overarching themes are, difficulties in its interpretation, how it was copied over the centuries by scribes, what surviving manuscripts we have, and in which ancient languages, and so on.
  • Finally, you need to write an introduction to the entire collection of texts (if it’s a collection, as the apostolic fathers are).

It is a very challenging and difficult form of scholarship, not for the faint of heart or for anyone fearful of painstaking work involving endless detail.  When I finished the Loebs – the Apostolic Fathers is in two volumes – I swore I would never ever do another translation, to the end of my days (or the end of time).  Ever.  It turns out I broke my oath (to publish an edition of the Apocryphal Gospels)  As might have been expected  in the midst of that next translation project, I really regretted not sticking to my guns.  It was as hard as the first one and in some ways worse.  I may return to that other project in a later post….