Like many others, I'm trying to funnel the anger and frustration that I felt at our panel on the "Future of Classics" at the Annual Meeting in San Diego toward taking action that can make a difference, even on a small scale. At the panel Professor Sarah Bond and Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta promptly condemned the comments a speaker from the audience made about Dan-el as well as her intellectually and politically regressive defense of classical studies. My thoughts here are intended to carry forward their energetic advocacy.
Literary translation is a scholarly and a creative act in which a reader of the Greek or Latin becomes the writer for new readers. Like all readers, translators interpret the text, and in the field of classics, apply their scholarship and their poetic abilities to put the text into a modern language. Since many readers of our translations cannot read the original, they depend on us to transmit the voice of the original writer and to be transparent in our choices. By that I mean that the translator should proclaim whether the translation is aiming for accuracy (and what that means in particular), whether it adds or subtracts from the source text (such as Richmond Lattimore inserting his own lines into Sappho’s fragments), whether the work is an adaptation rather than a translation (clearly proclaimed in Luis Alfaro’s “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angelos”).
I love Classics, but it isn’t my first love; that was art, specifically Pre-Raphaelite art. A visit to my local museum with school introduced me to them, and my eight-year-old self thought it was fate when I found a painting with my name that I thought was by Edward Burne-Jones (Amy by Arthur Hughes; it wasn’t spelt right but it wasn’t often anyway, and still isn’t). A postcard sent shortly after the museum visit by a relative, featuring A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse (but wrongly attributed on said postcard to Burne-Jones) cemented my love of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Burne-Jones in particular.
On Thursday evening at the annual meeting of the SCS, together with about 150 others, I witnessed, experienced, and participated in something beautiful. With the enthusiastic support of the SCS, Classics and Social Justice, and the organization I work for, the Onassis Foundation USA, playwright and activist Luis Alfaro shared with a captivated audience his heart, his brilliance, and his creativity, a shining example of the good that can be done with and to Classics, and the reach our discipline can have to new, perhaps unexpected audiences. I resist here the urge to discuss some of the painful ugliness we saw at our meeting, leaving only a hint of it in the title I originally thought of for this piece, because I do not want to take away from the light Luis brought to us.
As Arum Park has recently written about, a number of new initiatives at Princeton University and the University of Michigan have sought to diversify and support the field of Classics, particularly for students of color transitioning from undergraduate to graduate study. However, such initiatives can and should start much earlier. When students’ impression of Latin is that it is for white, affluent people, and that impression is reinforced by the demographic of the Latin program, lack of diversity becomes a self-perpetuating problem that spills over into postsecondary Classics departments and the field as a whole. Diversification efforts must start with the first levels of Latin in middle school and high school.
Last year the Classical Studies Department at the University of Michigan announced the launch of its Bridge MA, a fully funded program designed to prepare scholars from diverse backgrounds for entry into one of Michigan’s Ph.D. programs in Classical Studies or related fields. There are few programs like it, particularly at public universities. One of its architects, Professor Sara Ahbel-Rappe, recently received a competitive award for her diversity efforts. I connected with her along with Dr.
Princeton University’s Department of Classics has launched a new pre-doctoral fellowship for promising young Classicists who would contribute to the diversity of the University. Premised on a recognition that access to Classics is not equitable, the fellowship provides both preparation for and admission to Princeton’s Ph.D. program. I reached out to Professors Michael Flower and Dan-el Padilla Peralta to learn more about the concerns and conversations that gave birth to this fellowship. Below is our exchange, lightly edited for clarity.
In the 6th century CE, a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus was sent to Rome. Dionysius may have taken the monastic nickname of "the small" (exiguus), but his humility sheathed both his incredible abilities as a translator of Greek and Latin and his mathematical skills. He wrote and translated numerous saints lives, transcribed debates on heresies, and was known for his work with canon law. However, what Dionysius would be remembered for was his modifications to the dating system used within the Church and his attempts to use tables, called a computus, in order to track the date of Easter.
In the thirteen years I have been active as an independent scholar, I have learned that the independent scholar is in effect the mirror of an independent scholarly readership composed of individuals who are dedicated consumers of scholastic literature without being either presently matriculated students or academics themselves. I have come to believe that we cannot speak of the genuine flourishing of independent scholarship without taking this into account.