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Alexandre Winston ’15, his wife Eliz­abeth, and their son Charles. Eliz­abeth Winston | Courtesy

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.