Babel: Adventures in Translation at the Bodleian

On a recent trip to Oxford, I took in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation‘, mostly because I expected there would some nice multi-lingual manuscripts. I was definitely not disappointed about that – the display started off with some lovely texts like this codex from Mexico, written in Nahuatl and Spanish (left) and this Bible which includes multiple different versions in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (right):

Other cases focused on religious translation – so, more Bibles, including one annotated by one of the scholars who produced the King James version of the Bible, but also texts from other religions, like this beautiful Buddhist manuscript in Tibetan with translations into Mongolian and (apparently added later) Sanskrit (below left) – and on the quest to make translation unnecessary through the creation of a ‘universal language’ – whether an entirely written one intended mostly for scholarly communication, like John Wilkins’ “Essay Towards A Real Character And A Philosophical Language” (below right), or one that was constructed as a language to be spoken everyday, like Esperanto (Tolkien fans will be excited to see that there’s a notebook of his in which, aged 17, he created a new alphabet to function as a code, and explained its workings in Esperanto).

For classicists, there’s a whole case on translating Homer, starting with a beautiful papyrus of part of the ‘Catalogue of Ships‘ (below left) and ending with one of Christopher Logue’s drafts of War Music (below right) – fascinating to see how he used Post-Its laid out on printer paper to rearrange and rework episodes of his retelling. (Also, I can’t recommend War Music highly enough!)

Of course, any kind of linguistic translation also necessarily involves some form of cultural translation/interpretation as well, so I liked that the curators chose to interpret ‘translation’ as widely as possible: there were displays about the ways in which stories like fairy tales or fables are not just translated between languages but also transmitted between cultures and adapted into different media (e.g. movies, plays…) – not to mention the obligatory display of various translations of Harry Potter!  Plus, a nice bonus for me, there was a case with Linear A and Linear B inscriptions, to think about issues in deciphering – or not being able to decipher – written texts. Finally, there was a case on translation and multilingualism in everyday life in the U.K. now – everything from multilingual versions of public information leaflets, to illustrations of urban sign language, to this Welsh-English bilingual road sign – one of many reminders that we live in a very multilingual country!

2019-04-20 15.12.35
Sign reads: “GWAITH WEDI’I ATAL TYWYDD ANADDS/ WORK SUSPENDED UNSUITABLE WEATHER”

‘Babel: Adventures in Translation’ is free and open to all; for opening times and location see here.

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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