Generations of Dickinsonians have toiled on a massive, international translation project
by Sherri Kimmel
April 1, 2010
How many letters have you written in your lifetime? A couple hundred? Several dozen? Since the digital age began, maybe only a few.
Even if you were prolific, it’s safe to say your output didn’t approach that of Desiderius Erasmus. The Dutch priest, known as the Prince of Humanists, left behind more than 3,000 letters when he died in 1536—1,600 written in Latin by him, the rest written to him by printers, patrons, princes, scholars and religious leaders throughout western Europe.
English translations of these letters are collected in 22 volumes, representing just a quarter of his canon that hundreds of scholars worldwide have been translating for more than 40 years in a project based at the University of Toronto. The other 64 volumes contain Erasmus’ satires, poetry, writings on Christianity and adages—his personal, and often sly, takes on sayings by ancient authors. And to think Erasmus liked to write standing up.
Through a winding maze of offices in a high rise on a corner of Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street resides the nerve center of The Collected Works of Erasmus (CWE) project. Presiding over U of T’s flagship publishing project is Ron Schoeffel, who has the dignified look and affable air of another distinguished editor, George Plimpton. Schoeffel imagined the project in 1968 and, with only 50 of its 86 volumes published thus far, doubts he will see its conclusion.
He’s sure of one thing. In Erasmus circles, Dickinsonians have been major players. Next to the University of Toronto, Dickinson has had perhaps the most scholars (alumni and professors) involved in the project, he says. “For a place of Dickinson’s size and location, it’s been amazing.
“Dickinson is really strong in the humanities, and it’s hard to find people who have such a well-rounded education,” he explains. “If you’re strong in the liberal arts you can translate and do anything. You have the ability to communicate and write, and you have a perfectionist streak. You’re just not great at meeting schedules,” he concludes with a grin.
Craig Thompson ’33, honorary doctor of letters ’66, was the first Dickinsonian involved. The Schelling Professor of English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania helped map out the CWE project and took on the translation and annotation of two volumes of colloquies (dramatic narratives in conversational style). “No one else could do them, because no one else had the background,” says Schoeffel.
Thompson served on the CWE editorial board, which along with an executive committee that Schoeffel chairs, plans and directs the project. Current editorial board members include Jane Phillips, who was a sabbatical replacement at Dickinson in the 1970s and now teaches at the University of Kentucky, and Dickinson’s Robert Sider, the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies, who lives in Saskatchewan.
Since 1978, when Thompson and another scholar introduced him to the project, Sider has been a translator, annotator and editor for several volumes, but his greatest role has been as general editor of the New Testament Scholarship series, which he anticipates completing in 10 years.
“Sider is key,” says Schoeffel. “His part of the project involves the most people and takes the most time. This kind of scholarship doesn’t get the credit it deserves.”
Translating a volume, on average, takes a decade, says Sider. “It’s very complex work and takes lots of time for scholars to do properly. Most who do so are classicists. You need to know Latin and Greek. You also need big blocks of time open. You can’t go in at 3 p.m. after finishing teaching and do translating and annotating.”
For his work on the 20 New Testament Scholarship volumes, which he began in 1981, Sider has enlisted Jane Phillips as well as her distant cousin Ed Phillips ’67, professor of classics at Grinnell College, and Dean Simpson ’74, who chairs the classical-studies department at the University of Richmond. Both men majored in Latin and English at Dickinson.
Translating and annotating Erasmus’ paraphrases on the epistles to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians was a 27-year commitment for Ed Phillips, which ended with publication of his co-authored volume last year.
“I drew upon my [Dickinson] academic background,” he notes, “the Latin and Greek I learned from Phil Lockhart and the religious study that I began with Dan Bechtel and Harry Booth.
“I was trying to get as close to Erasmus’ eloquence as possible but within the limits of acceptable English,” Phillips explains. “Erasmus would construct elaborate sentences that make sense in Latin and Greek but if translated into English have the danger of losing your reader. I would be as true as I could be to the beauty of the Latin periodic sentence but present it so an English reader can follow along. If I succeeded it’s due to Bob Sider and his suggestions.
“He is the reason so many Dickinsonians got involved,” Phillips adds. “Bob had the connections and friends who think the world of him and had a way of attracting us into it.”
Sider also recruited Simpson. “The alignment between Craig Thompson and Robert Sider worked to influence others [in the Dickinson sphere to join the project],” Simpson remarks.
Though he enjoyed getting to know Erasmus better through 17 years of translation and annotation of the paraphrases on the book of Matthew, published in 2008, Simpson, like Phillips, has no desire to tackle another volume. He’d rather teach the man revered as the greatest intellectual of the Renaissance and does so in what he calls his “signature course, The Classical Tradition. Erasmus is there in his “Praise of Folly.” Then I move on to Thomas Jefferson and James Joyce, everyone I like.”
Though Erasmus doesn’t permeate Dickinson’s curriculum, he is present. Christopher Francese, associate professor of classical studies, uses “Praise of Folly” for his Latin sight-reading classes, and Professor of History Steve Weinberger includes Erasmus in two sessions of his Renaissance Europe course.
“Erasmus represents the beginning of modern political thought,” Weinberger explains. “I talk about his modernness.” He also has students read part of the witty “Praise of Folly.” “They like him and can relate to what he’s doing. He is really the key figure in the northern Renaissance.”
While professors like Weinberger, Francese and Simpson strive to keep Erasmus alive in the classroom, the world can thank Dickinson’s Thompson, Sider, the Phillipses and Simpson for bringing some of his previously untranslated work to readers of English.
Though the cost of a volume is steep, about $150, the scholarship behind it comes cheap. “There’s a ton of prestige but no money attached,” says Ron Schoeffel of the University of Toronto Press. “There are royalties, but they aren’t great.” Robert Sider, shown with volumes from the Collected Works of Erasmus project, says the translations “are complex work and very demanding. Even good classicists often fail the test, because Erasmus’ Latin had its own idiom.” Dean Simpson enjoys teaching Erasmus at the University of Richmond. “Erasmus is a genius,” he marvels. “His grasp of everything seems to be absolute.”