Beyond Translation — new possibilities for reading in a digital age (NEH DH Level 3)

Gregory Crane
Professor of Classics
Tufts University
September 3, 2019

I am writing to report that the Perseus Digital Library had the honor of receiving support for an NEH Digital Humanities Level 3 Project: “Beyond Translation — new possibilities for reading in a digital age.” While this is just one project with limited funding, it reflects a larger potential shift for the study of Ancient Greek and other languages. When I began my career as a graduate student, more than a generation ago, specialists in languages such as Ancient Greek could only direct full scholarship at other specialists. Now, however, we are in a position to frame our understanding of such languages in a form that makes sources immediately accessible to non-specialists. From my perspective, this reflects a fundamental shift in the audience and the realizable goals for those of us privileged to earn a living as specialists on earlier languages from the human record.

The basic premise of the funded project is simple: the rapid evolution of reading environments has begun to open up a third path for reading, one situated between mastery of a language and dependence upon translations. For me personally, the need for such a third path weighs on me every time I log into Netflix and confront offerings not only in French, German, (various forms of) Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and other widely taught languages but also in languages such as Turkish, Korean, Malaysian, and Hindi. Even if I had access to classes in each one of these languages, I would never have time to master them — and there is always another language. 

Of course, this programming is (for the most part) designed for an international audience and this entails a certain cultural leveling: while Netflix needs content that appeals to local audiences, it needs content that will also engage audiences with many different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. It would be interesting to explore the transnational elements to which these local productions appeal (and this is, of course, an academic enterprise in itself) but for me at least I find myself constantly drawn to inevitably local context. When I watch the Protector, I find myself wondering how I might, if I had grown up and been educated in Turkey, understand explicit references to Ottoman history and the implicit associations with particular scenes? What would I understand about the historical Korean landscape that provides the setting for the Zombie series Kingdom? What elements of class and cultural background are lost as I follow the subtitles of Diablero, a kind of dark “Ghostbusters” set in Mexico City? My training as a philologist makes me ache to push beyond the subtitles that flash across my screen but I feel only discomfort and a kind of vertigo as I scroll the offerings online. And, of course, even though Netflix may include content produced in far more languages than any normal human being can master, these will nevertheless constitute a relative handful of languages with large potential audiences. If I move to a venue such as YouTube, the range of content grows even more broad and disorienting.

There is, of course, an entire industry centered around localization. As my wife and I watch Americans decide where to live on International House Hunters, we don’t think about the fact that the Discovery Channel itself aims for a global audience and, reportedly, translates more than 100,000 hours of content a year. A&E translates into more than 20 different languages. On the industry forum, the driving question is how far rapidly evolving machine translation can augment — and even replace — the work of human translators. Given the scale at which new content is produced and the dizzying range of languages spoken by potential audiences, the pressure for automation is immense and will surely drive technical improvement. I may well find my way to an industry meeting on localization in Amsterdam at the end of November. After all, what else should a philologist with a particular focus on Ancient Greek do?

The preceding rhetorical question is not facetious.  When vertigo takes hold as the range of languages and cultural contexts available in modern media begins to overwhelm me, I turn back to Ancient Greek and, for now, to the Homeric Epics. The reason why I feel such anxiety when I view cultural commodities from around the world is because I have a deep sense of how limited the best translations can be. Languages do not frame the world in the same way and our cultural linguistic backgrounds shape how our experiences affect us. When I turn to Homer, I see an optimal space within which to experiment with ways audiences can push beyond translations to engage with a complex cultural product from a profoundly alien context.

  • The vast majority of readers who engage with the Iliad and Odyssey do so — and will always do so — through translations in languages that they understand (ideally their native languages).
  • Where the immediate audience for series available in venues such as Netflix may be limited, the half-life of those audiences is uncertain — is it worth spending a decade to develop intellectual infrastructure for a series for which the immediate appeal may grow rapidly dated? The Homeric Epics may never have mass appeal (although Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey provides an exception to that within the anglophone world), but poems that have commanded human attention and emotions for centuries, if not millennia, have a track record that suggests that they will continue to engage audiences in the future. I see this every year when I have a chance to introduce these poems to a new cohort of students. 
  • A rich body of information about the Iliad and Odyssey is available in various digital forms in the public domain and/or under open licenses. This includes specialized lexica, commentaries, at least one critical edition of the Greek text and one diplomatic transcription of a major manuscript (with ancient commentary), multiple translations in multiple modern languages, grammars of Homeric Greek, and explicit analyses of the morphological and syntactic function of every word in each epic.
  • A dynamic, collaborative and international community of Digital Classicists has emerged that contributes data, software, and ideas of all kinds.

We are in a position to develop a new mode of reading, one that challenges audiences to see in translation a starting point rather than an end. What is the relationship between the literary translation and the Odyssey or between the subtitles on your screen and the words you are hearing? What are you missing? How much can you understand on your own? These are the questions that we can ask as we work with ancient Greek? A century ago, a handful of students had an opportunity to study Ancient Greek and Latin from childhood and to benefit from an academic infrastructure that offered extended linguistic training. In the twenty-first century, virtually no one in the anglophone world (at least) has access to such training. From my perspective, as my head spins at the linguistic variety of online content, I see the lack of extensive training as an opportunity. The grand challenge before us in a complex world is not (simply) to master one or more languages but to understand how — and, of course, how far — we can engage with the languages that we can never learn and the cultures in which we can never immerse ourselves. 

Of course, we are at the very beginning of a larger process. We need to absorb questions and ideas from a wide range of disciplines. We need to engage with others not just in the usual established universities but with colleagues around the world and with points of view from beyond academia. But we have an opportunity to rethink — and rearticulate — the value of what we learn from studying languages such as Ancient Greek (or Latin or Coptic or Classical Chinese or Sanskirit or Classical Persian or any historical language). Every time I turn back to Netflix and think of industrial localization, I catch glimpses of what we can contribute to our students and to the world beyond academia.

Returning now to the NEH project, the proposal opens with the following paragraph: “Our goal in this project is to promote a fundamental change in how human beings view translations and the cultures of which their original source text is a product. In a period where marketers and the popular press focus on artificial intelligence, machine translation has become increasingly important. But for us as humanists in general (and as philologists, focused on understanding the human record as deeply and broadly as possible), translation is only one instrument among many and, if seen as a final goal, a barrier to understanding others whose parents spoke to them in languages other than our own and who look back upon cultural traditions very different from those of most Americans. At some level translation obscures more than it reveals, offering a deceptively simple equivalent. Even when we translate between European Spanish and North American English — languages that evolved together within Europe —  research shows that terms such as “shame” and “vergüenza” mean fundamentally different things to speakers in the United States and Spain. Our goal is to allow readers to push past the translation and to explore for themselves how original sources frame human experience.” 

I will end by emphasizing the mix of continuity and innovation that I personally see in this project.

  • For me this project began in fall 1975 when, as a first year student in college, I discovered that Gregory Nagy was having his students learn the Greek alphabet, look up forms of a word in the print concordance and then compare the Greek to the Richard Lattimore English translations of the Iliad and Odyssey (which followed the Greek line numbers). I was one of the lucky students who had had a lot of Greek before college and I have never forgotten how surprised I was at how much students, with no knowledge of Greek, learned with this (now primitive) combination of print resources. I never forgot the impression that that made upon me and that impression shaped my earliest work with Perseus. Already in the late 1980s, students were using side by side translations in the Hypercard version of Perseus to explore the meanings of Greek words on their own. I have had the privilege of working on the Open Greek and Latin Project  ( with Greg Nagy, Lenny Muellner and colleagues at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies. The Center is now partnering with us on Beyond Translation. We now have an opportunity to make what was possible for Homer because of the concordance and Lattimore translations become a core component for ambitious readers working with a far wider range of sources.

This project builds upon preliminary digital work by many people over many years. In particular, we are extending work that David Bamman, now an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at Berkeley, began when we had the privilege of working with him at Perseus a decade ago. The proposal that we submitted in 2019 allowed us to carry forward the work that David began but it also depended in large measure upon work done by Sophia Sklaviadis, in fall 2018, her first semester after joining the Computer Science PhD Program at Tufts. She came to Tufts to learn how to apply language technologies to Ancient Greek and she, like David Bamman (and David A. Smith and David Mimno) represents a new role that did not exist when I began work on what we now call Digital Classics: Computer Scientists who are committed to, and deeply conversant with, issues in the humanities. The funded proposal also built directly upon work on the Scaife Digital Library Viewer ( developed by James Tauber, CEO of the Eldarion Web Application Development company and long-time student and supporter of Biblical Greek. While we have been able to find support to help James pay his bills and his employees, his contributions went far beyond the contracts that we were able to offer. Here again, we find a new role for contribution that I don’t think existed or could have existed when I began work with Digital Classics in the 1980s. A century from now, students of Ancient Greek and other historical languages will, I believe, see work by dedicated researchers from the computational sciences as among the most important — perhaps essential — contributions.

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