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Translating our Cultural Heritage

By Charles Henry

Years ago, when I was teaching the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the class would compare at the outset of the course the original manuscript (a rather plain vellum codex that includes the occasional tankard ring stain, which suffered some damage in the 1731 Cotton Library fire at Ashburnham House in London, and also subsequently lost letters and parts of words from handling) with several modern translations. The translations were selected from different periods in the 20th and 21st centuries. From this comparison the students could easily see the at times significant differences in the approaches to translation: some hewed more closely to a word for word rendition of the original poem; others were more poetic and less interested in an exacting translation; others tried to capture a contemporary idiom to “relocate” the epic in terms the students were more likely to intuit.

Parcel to this exercise was a better understanding of the rather mysterious “space” between the original Old English epic and the modern translation. We could infer or extrapolate the influence of contemporary culture, the inevitable appearance of new words and the obsolescence of old ones, and guess at the intent and solitary decisions the translator may have made in creating a modern English version.

Defining the term translation by its Latin roots, “to carry across” or “to lead across,” one can expand the concept to be more inclusive than the traditional definition of rendering a written work of one language into another. Using this more expansive definition, a recent visit to the Library of Congress’s Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) was revelatory in that much of what is done in the workrooms and laboratories there is “carrying across” works of art and other forms of expression (film, video, photographs, music recordings, texts): identifying works that have been damaged or otherwise suffered a loss of information, and then reconstructing and restoring them as close as possible to their original state. For most media, the processes involved in this restoration utilizes an array of sophisticated technology and an equally sophisticated series of decisions and judgments on the part of the expert staff.

In the lab, a spool of nitrite film—brittle, combustible, and unusable—is evaluated and, with expert technical intervention and a trained eye, copied onto safe film stock. The final product, its information preserved and newly accessible, is of course not the original in a strict sense, but a thoughtful, often-painstaking replication. The great difference, however, in work that is undertaken at the NAVCC and the modern reconstructions of Beowulf is that the “middle space” where the technology and human expertise are brought to bear is minutely documented. Each step is described, often detailed in decision trees; the cognitive engagement with the object—the sometimes difficult choices made to make the original whole again—is often captured. The final product also can have layers of metadata incorporated into it, imbedding a deeper explication of the processes involved.

The National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in this respect affords an extraordinary window or lens onto the wonderfully complex act of translating a damaged object of our cultural legacy that would otherwise be lost or inaccessible, into a re-formed version, often with digital copies for exceptionally long-term preservation. This summer I will begin a research project, consisting of several essays, each devoted to a type of medium typical of NAVCC work, that delves into the “middle space” where our cultural legacy is so meticulously restored. I hope to arrange onsite meetings and interviews with staff, since serendipity and occasional guesswork is parcel to this enterprise: an essential exploration of a highly technical operation informed by talented staff trained in scientific and engineering procedures, viewed from a humanist’s perspective of the translation of culture over time.

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