From desert monks and medieval scholars to modern philosophers, three Hillsdale alumni are translating the works of thinkers in French, German, Greek, and Latin.
It’s remarkable then that only one completed a foreign language major while at Hillsdale. Each is pursuing a philosophy or theology degree, but reading scholars, whether ancient or modern, in their original language is crucial to a post-grad education.
In the basement of Catholic University of America’s library, Carl Vennerstrom ’14 studies Coptic and Syriac, ancient forms of Egyptian and Aramaic. Coptic used the Greek alphabet with a few added letters, and was Egypt’s common language in late antiquity. Syriac, a form of Aramaic, lasted longer, and is still used in Eastern churches, the way Latin is implemented in the Western Church.
“They have a bunch of old manuscripts. It’s like a library and a department,” he said. “They keep it really cold for the manuscripts and they’re all just like funny weird people who wear turtlenecks. It’s just an amusing place.”
Vennerstrom is pursuing a doctorate in Early Christian Studies, which includes multiple languages. Beside Coptic and Syriac, he also studies Greek and Latin, which he also teaches.
“People stopped composing stuff in Coptic after the rise of Islam when the language of everyday use became Arabic, but it’s still used in the liturgy of the Coptic Church,” Vennerstrom said.
Vennerstrom studies monasticism and scriptural exegesis in late antiquity, and has translated Evagrius, the 4th-century desert monk who founded the tradition of the seven deadly sins. The desert monks were part of a movement to live in communities on the Nile River or more remotely in the Egyptian desert.
“He also has some pretty funky originist stuff that was eventually condemned in the second Constantinoplean Council,” Vennerstrom said.
Alexandre Winston ‘15, a fellow Hillsdale graduate and Catholic University student, noted the eccentricity of Evagrius and the challenge of Vennestrom’s work.
“It’s crazy because it’s pretty difficult,” Winston said. “And there aren’t too many people who are working in his area. It’s also crazy because the content of the author he’s translating is — he’s a desert monk, 4th century or something.”
“Alex probably didn’t tell you that he’s already translated a whole book by Remi Brague,” Vennerstrom said.
Vennerstrom may continue to translate Evagrius’ work, specifically scriptural commentary. He also teaches Latin, but hopes to teach theology in the future. He said his professors at Hillsdale influence the way he teaches, remembering them as wonderful people.
“I use a lot of the stuff that I got from the great professors in the Classics department to make class fun…Dr. Holmes did ritual complaint Wednesday I think, so I do that with my students. I let them complain and then I write it up on the board, and then I erase it and then they’re not allowed to complain,” he said.
While Winston was completing his undergrad at Hillsdale, he started translating Remi Brague’s “Aristote et la question du monde” or “Aristotle and the Question of the World.” from French into English. Now married and completing his doctorate in ancient philosophy at the Catholic University of America, he’s still translating Brague’s book and and looking forward to publication.
When he was a senior, Winston drove to Chicago with Professor of English Dwight Lindley and Professor of Philosophy Lee Cole, where Brague was giving a lecture. They met and talked. Winston said Brague was kind, and they have emailed back and forth for a few years now with questions.
According to his personal website biography, Brague is Emeritus Professor of Medieval and Arabic Philosophy at the University of Paris I, but has held visiting professor positions at five colleges in France and the U.S. He also teaches at Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität of Munich and is also a member of the Institut de France. The book Winston is translating is chiefly about Aristotle and German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Winston said that he was lucky enough to have Brague speak to university presses and recommend his work, leading the presses to ask him if he would be interested in publishing his translation through them.
“It worked out fortuitously,” he said.
Cole said that being bilingual and an excellent philosophy student made taking on the project beneficial.
“Because Alex had aspirations to study the history of philosophy at the doctoral level, the translation project made a good deal of sense: he was able to work through a text that could inspire further reflection – a text that proved relevant for his senior thesis – he could demonstrate to graduate programs his ability to carry out a significant scholarly project, and he could position himself to have a publishable manuscript down the road,” he said in an email.
Since meeting Brague, they have maintained a correspondence, meeting more than once on the East Coast or in Washington, D.C., where Winston lives. While Winston has the occasional question about his translation, they talk more about ideas than Winston’s work. From Belgium, Winston grew up speaking both French and English, and did not have to learn the language to translate. Surprisingly, he said this posed a challenge.
“It’s hard actually to translate stuff when you grew up with two languages,” Winston said. “It can make it more difficult to translate and not less difficult because you can be so comfortable in each language that when you read the original, you’re so embedded in the original language — in my case French — that it’s difficult to shake yourself out of it in order to then be able to rearticulate what was said in French into English.”
He contrasted his experience with Timothy Troutner, ’16, who is translating German at the University of Notre Dame.
“His experience of German is, in a way, always filtered back directly into English so that English remains the dominant language,” Winston said. “Whereas, when I just read the French, it’s straight French, and you have to somehow use this mental crowbar to then flip it up into English, and that can actually make the translation very difficult and awkward.”
Troutner, pursuing his Masters in Theology, studies German and Latin, and is translating a Latin work by Alaine of Lille, a French theologian, also from the University of Paris, about 800 years before Brague. But Troutner focuses on 20th-century German theology, and he has translated Gustav Siewerth, an obscure German philosopher interested in Heidegger.
Working on Siewerth taught Troutner to try at more achievable translation projects. He even thought it was over his head, especially since Heidegger would make up words as he wrote.
“Gustave was above my ability to translate,” he said.
In his field, German, French, and Latin are the most important languages. Most of the books he reads are in these three languages, particularly Latin, since people in Catholic circles wrote in Latin into the 20th century. As a theology student, though, German remains the primary language.
“I don’t know about most but the dominant strands — of both Protestant and Catholic theology in the 19th and 20th centuries — are German-language speaking.”
He said that whether liberal or conservative, Germany was the center of academic theological life, and he has translated smaller selections of Pope Benedict XVI, Carl Ronner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Translation isn’t just about knowing vocabulary, though. There are multiple correct English translations of a word, but each translation can change the meaning.
“Then you start realizing all the different resonances that a word carries and you start realizing that by picking one English word you’re choosing some of those resonances and some of them are carrying over,” Troutner said. “But some of them aren’t.”
Troutner didn’t plan to pursue German and Latin when he was at Hillsdale.
“I ended up taking Spanish, which is not helpful to me,” he said. “So I had to learn German at the end on top of my language requirement at Hillsdale after senior year, and then I had to learn Latin here at Notre Dame when I could have learned it at Hillsdale.”
An earnest pursuit of many studies leads to learning foreign languages, and Troutner said that he would advise Hillsdale students to think about the languages related to their studies if they continue their education at the graduate level.