Live Digital Translation for Dead Languages

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Eduardo A Escobar, Near Eastern Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016

The problem of translation remains one of the most enduring challenges for scholars of literary cultures. Translating texts from any historical period can be a challenge, but reading texts from the “dead” civilizations of the ancient world, including those of the ancient Middle East, amplifies an already monumental task. In a language classroom, translation is often the result of a negotiation between students and instructors. When reading cuneiform texts from ancient Iraq, for example, one is often faced with the issue of discussing whether to translate lines literally, i.e., following the word order of Akkadian (a member of the Semitic language family), or else producing a translation that attempts to capture the sense of the line without feeling beholden to archaic syntax. Neither option is superior, as both offer different methods of understanding a text. In fact, much of what makes translating ancient texts exciting is the pluralism of the activity, particularly within Cuneiform Studies, wherein a single sign can hold a range of meanings; the problem, in sum, is that there is simply no single translation that says it all.

Cuneiform 101B is an intermediate language course that offers selected readings in the Akkadian language, as well as an introduction to research skills essential within the field of Cuneiform Studies. As instructor of record for Spring 2016, my aim was two-fold: first, to read the Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish) in the original language, and second, to address the plurality of translation using the “Collaborations” tool in bCourses (an integration of Google Docs). Every week, my students and I utilized a large HD display in order to examine fragmentary cuneiform sources from photographs and line drawings while producing a live translation of the text. In these sessions, each participant read a set of lines and provided a translation based on their research. Simultaneously, students and the instructor used footnotes to annotate the reader’s translation with semantic disagreements, textual variants, and a range of philological commentaries. The document is testament to a dynamic classroom environment, wherein students are rarely left waiting for their turn to read, and are, instead, in constant dialogue with the text and the other participants in the lesson. I have concluded that the bCourses “Collaborations” method has been a success for the following reasons:

It encourages active participation: Translation can often be intimidating, particularly for students learning a language for the first time, or even intermediate students unfamiliar with philological research. By providing a platform wherein multiple readings are encouraged, students demonstrate an active willingness to engage in a conversation with both the text and other readers. Furthermore, as instructor, I am able to regularly assess their progress throughout the semester using the collaborative document, and, in many instances, become an active participant myself.

Learning technical skills becomes less daunting: The technical aspects of philology are best learned by means of practice. Using the “Collaborations” module, students are able to try their hand at lexical research, proposing variant readings, or simply asking broad questions for further inquiry. In doing so, students gain a working familiarity with textual research in the classroom well before they undertake their own individual research.

It produces a “flipped-classroom” learning environment: When students are tasked with creating their own commentaries on a text at the end of term, they are able to build upon the collaborative techniques learned in class. In many cases, these skills are acquired through interaction with peers, thus challenging, and, to my mind, enriching, traditional classroom dynamics.