Indiana University Bloomington
Choose which site to search

The Peculiar Lives of Texts in Translation: Common Challenges in Medieval Studies across Cultural and Disciplinary Boundaries

The broad intercultural scope of Medieval Studies is probably not the first thing that comes to mind in relation to this field. However, with the growing recognition of extensive cross-cultural exchanges during the Middle Ages, the field has expanded beyond its traditional boundaries.

In this aspect, the Medieval Studies Program at IU stands apart from most programs in the U.S., which tend to focus on the European and Judeo-Christian traditions. This is largely due to its ability to draw upon IU’s unique convergence of area studies departments such as Central Eurasian Studies, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and East Asian Language and Cultures. As Rosemary McGerr, Director of the Medieval Studies Institute and Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, observed:

 “Some in the past have associated the concept of ‘the medieval’ with Europe… But I think we’ve gotten beyond that and have recognized that the movement of people has never been restricted by geography, by politics, even necessarily by language or religion, and that people have been in contact either directly or indirectly for thousands of years.”

To engage directly with the challenges brought by the global scope of Medieval Studies, on January 18th, 2013, IU’s Medieval Studies Institute brought together scholars whose work spanned the Eurasian continent to discuss their common challenges as well as their common grounds for cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Panelists included Asma Afsaruddin (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures), Christopher Atwood (Department of Central Eurasian Studies), Christopher Beckwith (Department of Central Eurasian Studies), Manling Luo (Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures), and John Walbridge (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures). The panel was moderated by Rosemary McGerr, Director of the Medieval Studies Institute and Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature.

The work of the panelists represented a broad array of topics: pre-modern Islamic religious and political thought, the history of the Mongol Empire, the history of the Tibetan Empire and Central Asian Buddhist contributions to science, classical Chinese literature defying traditional categorization, and Islamic contributions to philosophy and science.

In spite of the vast geographic, cultural, and sociopolitical distances that often separated the areas where the panelists worked, a common challenge for them all was one of translation. As Professor McGerr summed up:

“Either the difficulty of getting translations made that we would like to have made or the difficulty in the way the translations have been read at different times by different groups as they have looked back…we see translation as having affected how ideas have moved, but we see that they have moved and changed sometimes through the process of translation.”

While we think of our own day and age as being one of communication and travel, the Middle Ages was clearly one as well. As Professor Walbridge noted, ideas traveled across the most unlikely of borders, necessitating the cooperation of Medievalists of different specializations to interpret texts whose ideas were not bound by the same intellectual and geographical domains that they are today:

“All of us who do Islam get asked questions by European Medievalists. This is particularly true for those of us who do Islamic philosophy…this is philosophy we are talking about, and philosophers can talk to other philosophers. They can talk across civilizational boundaries.”

Because of the mobility of ideas in the Middle Ages, many of the scholars commonly came across texts whose difficulties lay in the composite nature, and thus obscure origins, of their authorship, a product of intercultural translations which Professor Atwood called “inter-ecumenical writing”:

“So what you actually find is that all of these sources are copying other sources. Basically what we’re talking about is translation, but a translation that moves from one cultural context to another that is so different that, in a sense, the translation acquires a life of its own.”

Such a mode of writing was very common in the Middle Ages. In light of this, Professor Atwood illustrated the importance of working across cultural and regional boundaries:

“Rashiduddin’s Jami’ al-tawarikh…the world history of the most famous Persian historian, cannot be understood from within the Persian tradition. It can’t be understood apart from the Persian tradition…it is a work that is within the Persian tradition, but it is fundamentally, comprehensively based on straight translation from Mongolian.”

Another reason these interculturally produced texts prove such interpretative challenges for scholars today lies in our limited understandings of the broader contexts within which these texts were originally produced, as well as the particular contexts of their transmission into vastly different cultural worlds. Professor Beckwith discussed how, in the case of Chinese translations of Buddhist texts, such contexts are often lost or misinterpreted in the movement from one language and culture to another:

“Firstly, those Chinese words are translations from Indic words…but they translated it in the same way…sort of a meta-language, which if you don’t understand the meta-language, you cannot understand it even if it is translated into English. It is really incomprehensible, unless you know all those key terms, and odd locutions and peculiar ways of mistranslating things that have been passed on from language to language.”

Even in tracing the multiple meanings of a single concept, jihad, through history in texts within the Islamic tradition, Professor Afsaruddin noted the importance of the sociopolitical context in the creation of different meanings for the same term. Thus, she highlighted the importance of drawing on a variety of literary genres and sources, even those not typically used as historical texts, to gain multiple perspectives on the different interpretation of words even within one cultural domain:

“This type of anchored, diachronic survey disabuses us of essentialism when it comes to the study of key historical terms and concepts associated with Muslim majority societies, as remains far too common in both academic and popular discourses. I think this is where we can bring in transcultural perspectives.”

Professor Luo also discussed the importance of marginal genres of literature in providing important perspectives that are often excluded from official historical sources. Additionally, she provided an important reminder that the political contexts of the times play an important role in shaping the kinds of texts we have access to now as well as what is absent. A case in point is China during the Medieval period:

“This time period is also the transition from the manuscript culture to print culture. So the texts we are dealing with are basically filtered by the Song Dynasty literati.”

Given the multiplicity of languages, cultures, and histories that texts moved through and were transformed by, a major challenge is that of acquiring the linguistic tools needed to study them. A doctoral candidate in Religious Studies, who had already studied Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic, posed the question to the panel:

“When is it ok to use translation in research?“

Most of the panelists agreed that one had to find a balance between learning the languages that would sufficiently enable research and knowing when to call on others for assistance.  This common challenge was also a common ground for collaboration. As Professor McGerr concluded:

“Not everybody owns everything to fix a roof or fix a car. But you have some things in your own house that you can use, and when you don’t, you bring in others to help you. Sometimes you even pay them.

 I’d like to think of scholarship as a team effort, whether it is our own teachers who have shaped us, or our students who have inspired us, or our colleagues who talk to us. And that is the kind of teamwork that I hope we can build from here on in.”

To listen to a podcast of this event, please go to: