How much would you be prepared to pay for a library of forged books? In 2011, the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University acquired (at an undisclosed price) the so-called ‘Bibliotheca Fictiva’, one of the largest collections of forged books ...

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The real thing: the thrills of inauthentic literature

How much would you be prepared to pay for a library of forged books? In 2011, the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University acquired (at an undisclosed price) the so-called ‘Bibliotheca Fictiva’, one of the largest collections of forged books and documents, which includes, among other gems (such as a ‘Letter from Heaven’ supposedly penned by Jesus Christ), ‘eyewitness’ accounts of the Fall of Troy.

Such fictitious accounts were very popular in the Middle Ages, and two fabricated histories in particular —the Chronicle of the Trojan War by ‘Dictys of Crete’ and the History of the Fall of Troy by ‘Dares of Phrygia’— are ultimately at the root of the retellings of the Trojan War one finds in, among others, Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. These make-believe accounts may have started life as little more than learned jeux d’esprit, to be appreciated by erudite audiences as bold and creative ‘alternatives’ to canonical literature. Still, they ended up virtually supplanting Homer, in the Medieval West, as authorities on the Trojan War.

Not all ancient forgeries were harmless amusements, however. At the time of the Hellenistic kingdoms (late 4th to late 1st century BCE), when the Ptolemaic and the Attalid kings were vying for the acquisition of books for the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum respectively, avaricious individuals reportedly tried to pass off forged works as genuine pieces by renowned authors (such as Aristotle). Several centuries later, the infamous ‘Donation of Constantine’, an 8th-century CE forgery, was repeatedly used to legitimise the Catholic Church’s claims to worldly power by recording the supposed donation, by the 4th-century Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, of the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I. (The forgery was exposed by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla in 1440).

‘Sylvester I and Constantine’, San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome (1247), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

And only a five years ago, short-lived excitement was stirred up by the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’, a papyrus scrap in the Coptic language purportedly referring to Jesus having a wife, and authenticated by leading authorities as belonging to the 4th century CE. It did not take long, however, for the papyrus to be revealed as a forgery, and not a particularly well-done one at that—despite having fetched, at one point, a $50,000 offer from a dealer.

Greed for money or for fame and privilege (or both), then, is a major motive behind literary forgery, both in antiquity and nowadays. Often, however, inauthentic texts are the end-product of motives and factors more complex than covetousness. Before the spread of literacy, and of the culture of the book in particular, pseudepigraphic literature was not necessarily part of an intention to deceive. In ancient cultures, in which notions of authorship and authority were much more fluid and malleable than in our own copyright-dominated times, it was relatively easy to misattribute literary works.

For example, epic poems other than the Iliad and the Odyssey tended, unsurprisingly, to gravitate around the illustrious name of Homer, but this did not always block out an awareness of other potential authors. In this case, uncertain or contested authorship is rather a reflection of the oral, traditional and impersonal nature of early epic poetry, and/or of different (and often antagonistic) guilds of epic bards.

‘Frontispiece and Titlepage of a 1752 edition of Alexander’s Pope’s translation of The Odyssey’ (1752), from the Private Collection of S. Whitehead, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In later times, works by Plato’s disciples or imitators (such as the little-known Axiochus or Clitopho) entered the Platonic corpus not as forgeries intended to deceive but rather as literary imitations or even pastiches.

The term ‘pastiche’ is partly appropriate also for another famous ancient pseudepigraphon, the tragedy of Rhesus, which is traditionally (and falsely) attributed to Euripides, and may have entered the Euripidean corpus because of its homonymy with Euripides’ genuine Rhesus, a work probably lost at a relatively early age. The extant Rhesus contains several passages that are little more than a potpourri of purple patches picked out from fifth-century tragedies. The unknown author’s purpose may have been to tickle his audience’s vanity by setting them up as consumers of high-quality theatre — or at least of theatre that was sufficiently redolent of the style of the old masters for some of their canonical prestige to rub off on their spurious descendant.

In a world of ‘alternative facts’, interest in inauthentic (or should one now say ‘post-factual’?) literature may look like an idle pastime at best, a reflex of reactionary politics at worst. But it need be neither. Serious study of literary inauthenticity can be an important historical tool illuminating assumptions, ideologies, and driving forces behind our (and our predecessors’) engagement with notions of canonicity and authority.

Featured image credit: ‘Old Books’ by DKrue, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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The conflicts of Classical translation

Any translation is bound to be only partially faithful to the original. Translation is, as the Latin root of the word shows, transference from one language to another. It is not, or should not be, slavish imitation. The Italians have a saying: “Traduttore traditore”–“the translator is a traitor” – and one has to accept from the start that this is bound to be the case. The trick is to betray the original text as little as possible, but that always involves compromise. A translator balances on a tightrope between several conflicting demands. Every sentence that a translator comes across presents all of these demands in various proportions, and he or she has to find the right balance.

First, there is the conflict between over-translation and crib-style translation. How exactly should one echo the phraseology, word order, sentence structure, metaphors, and so on of the original? Though one can think of a number of supposed translations of ancient texts where the translators have imagined that they knew better than the original author what he was trying to say, it is the other extreme which is all too common in this field: over-literal translation – translation that reads like the first draft of a schoolchild’s exercise, or a 1950s’ phrasebook for Eastern European tourists. Astonishingly, such translations do still get published.

This was all very well in the days when most of the audience for such translations were familiar with the ancient language, and were even using them as cribs to help them through texts, but that is not the case today. Over-translation tends to underestimate the intelligence of the original author: if they had wanted those extra flourishes, they would have put them in. Crib-style translations tend to underestimate the intelligence of the reader, by assuming, for instance, that they have to have the same Greek word translated every time by the same English word – which is to assume that readers cannot recognize family resemblances between English concepts with different names.

A second potential conflict facing the translator is more metaphysical. It is possible to programme a computer these days to come up with translations that are accurate, grammatically correct … and total abominations! Why? Because computers can’t tell the difference between translationese and real English; they can’t sense the weight of words and place them accordingly within a sentence, which is weighed within a paragraph, which is weighed within a chapter. Most surviving classical authors were capable of achieving this kind of harmony (as we may call it), and their translators therefore have to try to encompass as well. This is where sensitivity to English (or any other modern language) is as important to the translator as sensitivity to ancient languages. It is no embarrassment to a translator to absorb the English of Cormac McCarthy as well as Charles Dickens, of Robert B. Parker as well as Robert Graves. Extremely wide reading in both languages is an absolute prerequisite for a translator.

Image Credit: ‘Dog, Sleep, Sleeping’ by JuliaMussarelli, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

A third balancing act lies between the two languages and cultures involved. If one translates aulos as “flute” rather than “reed pipe”, how misleading is it? Should one use words such as “penniless” or “quixotic”, given that at the time there were no pennies and no Cervantes? There’s an ancient Greek proverb which says “Don’t move something bad when it’s fine where it is.” This clearly means the same as “Let sleeping dogs lie” – but should one use this contemporary English version? What connotations might it trigger in the English reader’s mind? If language consisted entirely of publicly accessible objects such as tables and dogs, a translator’s life would be much easier. But a great deal of language consists of abstract terms and ways of attempting to express less publicly available feelings and thoughts, conditioned by an alien culture.

From a personal perspective, my purpose as a translator is to perpetuate some of the greatest European books ever written. I try, then, to make them as readable and enjoyable by a modern audience as I can – obviously while sacrificing accuracy as little as possible. This is a controversial position. Many working academics prefer translators to produce more literal translations, which they can then annotate, so to speak, to their classes in their lectures. I would enjoy reading responses from both lay readers, untrained in the original languages, from students, and from working teachers at all levels.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Wonderland Walker 2’ by kevint3141, CC by –SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Life lessons from Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius

William Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius (the great stoic philosopher and emperor) have more in common than you might think. They share a recorded birth-date, with Shakespeare baptized on 26 April 1564, and Marcus Aurelius born on 26 April 121 (Shakespeare’s actual birth date remains unknown, although he was baptised on 26 April 1564. His birth is traditionally observed and celebrated on 23 April, Saint George’s Day). But aside from their birth month (and a gap of over a thousand years), what links these two venerated writers? Shakespeare’s plays are a famed source of creative and dramatic inspiration, but are also mined for their astoundingly insightful commentary on human nature. In a similar fashion, Marcus Aurelius is best remembered for his Meditations, a set of pithy aphorisms on Stoic philosophy and guidance on life.

We’ve delved into Shakespeare’s plays and the contemplations of Marcus Aurelius, to bring you six enduring life lessons. Tired of the worries of modern living, social pressures, or concerned you’re not following your true purpose? Then read on, help is at hand…

1. Live in the present

“Remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present” (Book 8, 36).

In this important meditation, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we can’t change what’s already happened, and are equally incapable of predicting the future. It’s a method of avoiding unnecessary distress caused by “picturing your life as a whole,” assembling the “varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future.” Paulina, the faithful friend of Queen Hermione in The Winter’s Tale would certainly agree with this. In true Stoic fashion, she apologizes for condemning King Leontes, whose insane jealousy caused the death of their beloved Queen: “What’s gone and what’s past help should be past grief” (The Winter’s Tale, 3.2).

“Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus’” from the Louvre Museum, photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

2. It’s all in your attitude

“All disturbances arise solely from the opinions within us” (Book 4, 3).

It is a key tenet of Stoic philosophy that external situations aren’t important, but it’s how you react to them. If someone has insulted you, instead of giving in to destructive emotions, rely on rationality and inner calm. Likewise, Othello agrees that if a wronged person can take his losses with grace, then he will be all the richer for it: “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief” (Othello, 1.3).

3. Live each day as if it were your last

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for both Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius, death was a common feature of everyday life. They both return to the theme of the transience of human existence, and the relatively short time we’re given as “players” on the earthly stage. As life can end at any moment, we should make the most of it, and live each day:

“As if you had died and your life had extended only to this present moment, use the surplus that is left to you to live from this time onward according to nature” (Book 7, 56).

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (Richard II, 5.5).

4. Be good to others

Given the limited time available, what should we be doing? Marcus Aurelius is very clear on this, stating multiple times that our purpose as social, rational creatures is to help our fellow humans: “Refer your action to no other end than the common good” (Book 12, 20).

Concurrently, the characters advocating goodness, mercy, and love are rife throughout the Shakespearean canon.This is perhaps most aptly summarized by the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well: “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none” (All’s Well That Ends Well, 1.1).

“Shakespeare, Poet” by WikiImages. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

5. Be true to yourself

Marcus Aurelius states that the only real tragedy is not being true to yourself. What others think of you is of no importance, but how you act and how you think are the only things of intrinsic value. He ponders on the significance of adversity: “If something does not make a person worse in himself, neither does it make his life worse, nor does it harm him without or within” (Book 4, 8).

Shakespeare’s characters are no strangers to this maxim. Indeed, Othello reminds Cassio that external praise (which is easily won or lost) is of little significanceit’s his own judgement that matters: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser” (Othello, 2.3).

6. Less is more

Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius are of one mind when it comes to the age old saying that “less is more.” We should focus on doing one thing well and thoughtfully, rather than rushing many things at once: “Do little, if you want contentment of mind” (Book 4, 24).

And as Friar Laurence fatedly chides Romeo: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2).

Can you think of any more Shakespearean Stoicism that we’ve missed?

Featured image credit: “The Storm, Shakespeare” by chaos07. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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Fake news, circa 70 A.D.: The Jewish War by Josephus

Concern about fake news is nothing new. Readers have long doubted the truth of Josephus’ contemporary history of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. to the Roman general Titus. Many have assumed that any author who could accept a post as a general on the side of the Jewish rebels in the war against Rome but abandon his comrades and end up writing an account of the war from the Roman side as a self-proclaimed friend of the Roman emperor could not be trusted.

It does not help that Josephus himself described in detail the process by which he swapped sides. According to his own account in The Jewish War, when he found himself trapped with forty comrades in a cave on the fall of Jotapata in Galilee, where he had been the rebels’ commander, he arranged that they would kill each other in turn, throwing lots to fix the order in which they should kill each other. But when, “by chance or divine providence,” he found himself alone with just one companion in a sea of corpses, he persuaded his fellow survivor to surrender with him to the Romans.

Why should anyone trust an author who so blatantly transferred his allegiances and tricked his fellow Jews?

The real answer lies in the fact that we owe our knowledge of Josephus’ tortuous political career entirely to Josephus’ own writings. Other ancient authors who refer to him know him only as the Jewish prophet who correctly predicted the rise to power of the future emperor Vespasian at a time when it would have been inconceivable to more or less anyone in the Roman world (including Vespasian himself). We may still debate whether Josephus was a traitor to his people—and the debate has been common among Jewish readers of his history for at least the past two centuries—but bad men can write good history, and it would be quite wrong to think of the Jewish War as Roman propaganda.

On the contrary, there was plenty in Josephus’ remarkable history which ran counter to the official message of the imperial regime in Rome in the seventies A.D., when Josephus was writing, not least Josephus’ reiterated claim that Titus had not wanted to destroy the Jerusalem Temple and that the conflagration which had consumed it had been an unplanned accident.

The public statements of the Roman state, as expressed on coins and in architecture (such as the Arch of Titus, which still stands above the Roman forum), revelled in the defeat of Judaea and the humiliation of the Jewish God. Josephus, by contrast, claimed that the whole course of the war, including the defeat of the Jews, had been brought about precisely by the Jewish God as a way to punish the Jews for their sins—a theological explanation for world events familiar from the biblical book of Deuteronomy. Indeed, it had been on the direct instructions of God that, so he claimed, Josephus himself had chosen to transfer his own allegiance to the Roman side.

In many respects, among the most surprising features of Josephus’ history was thus his decision to write it. He is explicit that he owed his life and his livelihood to Vespasian and Titus who had destroyed Jerusalem, but he does not disguise his own heartfelt passion at the disaster which had befallen the Jews. He draws his readers into every twist and turn in the fortunes of war, constantly reminding them that there was nothing inevitable about the dreadful climax in which the hills groaned with the cries from Jerusalem as the city and its famous Temple were burned to the ground.

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, by David Roberts (1796-1864). Oil on canvas. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We do not know whether many of Josephus’ contemporaries read his book, but we do know that there was enough dissent for him to feel the need to respond to his critics in his later works. But, so far as we know, these critics were all fellow Jews (who accused him of being keener on rebellion and more opposed to Rome at the start of the revolt than in retrospect he felt he had been), although Josephus’ book was aimed primarily at Roman readers – hence the title “The Jewish War,” which was Josephus’ own title for his history.

For the original Roman readers of Josephus’ eyewitness account of the war, interest in the violent suppression of an uprising in an obscure province in the southern part of Syria lay almost entirely in the role of the Roman commanders, Vespasian and Titus, who had used their victory over the Jews as the springboard to power over the Roman Empire: two thousand years ago, just as in the present, events in this small corner of the Middle East had huge political consequences for the wider world.

For readers in the 21st century, the literary force of Josephus’ testimony, with set piece descriptions such as the mass suicide of the Jewish defenders of Masada, has ensured that his narrative continues to draw readers to his dramatic narrative of these tragic events through which he had lived.

Featured image credit: “Wailing Wall, Jerusalem” by BRBurton23. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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The contemporary significance of the dead sea scrolls

Many people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but few know what they are or the significance they have for people today. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it gives us an opportunity to ask what are these scrolls and why they should matter to anyone.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 and consist of 900 plus copies of Jewish manuscripts of biblical books, sectarian compositions, and other writings. Several of these scrolls are thought to belong to a Jewish sect or school of philosophy called the “Essenes” who lived two thousand years ago. Some of these Essenes once resided at the site now called the ruins of (khirbet) Qumran, close to the location of the eleven caves where scrolls were found. Recently, there was an announcement of the discovery of the “12th Dead Sea Scrolls cave”, but the evidence of an uninscribed scroll fragment, linen wrappings, and pottery shards found in the cave is insufficient to support the claim.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has often been hailed as “the greatest manuscript discovery” for the scholar, but what significance do they have for the public? When the scrolls were first discovered, public interest was particularly piqued when it came to the light that the scrolls might shed on the origins of Christianity. Theories that posited a direct connection of the scrolls to Christianity, especially the messianic belief in Jesus, grabbed the headlines.

These sensationalist claims, however, turned out to be unpersuasive and highly speculative. It is now widely recognized that the communities reflected in the scrolls and the earliest followers of Jesus belonged to a subset of ancient Jewish society that shared ideas, cited the same biblical texts, and used the same terminology, all the while giving them different meanings. They are various groups that belonged to the sectarian matrix of late Second Temple Judaism.

More recent scrolls scholarship has also emphasized the Jewishness of these manuscript finds. They show that legal and interpretative traditions found in later Rabbinic Judaism were already present in Jewish writings before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

The contemporary significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, lies not in the association to early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, but to the Bible. The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is the canon of sacred scriptures of Jews and Christians alike, and it is also highly respected by Muslims.

There are some 220 biblical Dead Sea Scrolls that give us unprecedented insight into what “The Bible” was like two thousand years ago, and underscore the point that the writing, transmission, and selection of the books of the canon was a thoroughly human activity. Despite the claim of divine inspiration by communities of believers, then and now, the Bible did not drop down from heaven, nor is it inerrant as assumed by fundamentalists of different faiths. The composition of each book of the Bible grew over centuries as it was revised and transmitted by groups of anonymous scribes.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has often been hailed as “the greatest manuscript discovery” for the scholar, but what significance do they have for the public?

Before the first century CE, the biblical books were characterized by textual fluidity. There were different versions of a particular book. For instance, there were two versions of the same prophecy of Jeremiah, differing by as much as 14% with varying internal arrangements of the oracles. Other examples include the addition or absence of phrases and clauses, large and small, in the corresponding biblical texts.

The sectarian communities reflected in the scrolls were not troubled by the textual variants of their biblical texts. They saw different readings of the same biblical text to be indicative of the many meanings of scriptures that they considered authoritative.

The sectarians also did not have a clear delineation of the boundary between “biblical” and “non-biblical” books. For them, authoritative scriptures consist of the traditional biblical books, but also other ones that were left out of the Protestant and Jewish canons, but included in the Catholic and Orthodox canons (e.g. book of Jubilees, book of Enoch). Moreover, there were other scriptures, not included in any contemporary canon, that they considered authoritative.

Featured image credit: Dead Sea Scroll Bible Qumran Israel by Windhaven1077. Public domain via Pixabay.

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