Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Read the Original - If You Can

Translated sources attract errors just as translated scriptures foment heresies, and when the inexperienced attempt their own translations, the results can be even worse.

Although it is off the topic of this blog, the review from which the quotation above was taken may be of interest. It exposes recent amateurish histories of Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and John Cabot--all explorers of the New World. The critique has distinct similarities to critiques found here of amateurish theologians who attempt a coherent historical narrative of "how we got here" without bothering to read the original sources. The problem is similar for both groups: pastry-makers posing as scholars convince others by the tastiness of their concoctions. The author concludes his book review:
I could multiply the dispiriting litany of errors, but it is more interesting to try to understand what drives these writers to parade their inadequacies in the marketplace. It is tempting to blame postmodernism, which has blurred the difference between drivel and truth; or the popularity of television-history, where no standards of veracity or scholarship apply; or the temptations aroused by vulgar sensationalists, who have made fortunes by proclaiming the peripeties of the Holy Grail and "proving" that the medieval Chinese discovered Rhode Island. I suspect, however, that the very virtues of my discipline are responsible for the vices of the writers who abuse it. Because history is the people's discipline, books about it are relatively salable—invitingly so, to indolent cupidity. History's accessibility to non-specialists makes it seem dangerously, delusively easy.

Academic historians tend to welcome recruits from other ranks, like owls nurturing cuckoos, and applaud the intrusions of neophytes with a glee that physicians, say, would never show for faith-healers or snake-oil salesmen. I am afraid it is time for historians to wipe the smiles from our jaws and start biting back. If escape from the poverty of your own imagination is your reason for exploiting the stories history offers, or if you are taking refuge from another discipline in the belief that history is easy, without bothering to do the basic work, you will deserve to fail.

--Felipe Fernández-Armesto


Lee Faber said...

Doesn't surprise me one bit. This guy made some pretty stupid comments at a Marenbon lecture on abelard a few years ago. He kept criticizing Marenbon about a perfectly reasonable translation and went on and on for ages and it had nothing to do with any actual point Marenbon was trying to make.

Lee Faber said...

Naturally, I like his crack about "amateurish theologians", however.

Anonymous said...

In my experience the very opposite is the case: academic historians absolutely revile popular writers, authors of "social studies" text books for primary and secondary education, and glib academics from other fields. While an undergraduate in History, nearly every historian we read in a course on Historiography evinced such a view -- and often with a good amount of bile. Frankly, I didn't blame them. They spend countless hours straining their eyes over half-faded fragments of texts only to be outsold by some boor peddling rags he wrote in a fortnight.

And while I do not sympathize with Fernández-Armesto's own glib dismissal of all things postmodern -- nor even, if you will forgive me, every point that those affiliated with Radical Orthodoxy make -- he is right to argue that such people make gross and embarrassing errors when it comes to history. Frankly, this is odd when you think about it. With their abandonment of Enlightenment reason as tradition-transcendent, you would think it would mean more of an emphasis on good historical work, not less.

Lee Faber said...

Ironically, I had a history grad student complain to me about FFA because he is always jetting around the world giving popular talks and writing trendy popular histories.