Classics in Translation? A Personal Angle (Part II)

Translation in Anglophone Universities

Wolfgang de Melo

This essay forms the second part of my thoughts on Classics in translation. The two parts can be read independently from each other, but they are connected. In the first part, I explained that a large part of Latin literature, as well as a smaller but still significant part of Greek texts, consists of material translated from the other language, and that it is helpful to have some translation experience when studying such texts. I also examined the question of what place translating into Greek and Latin as well as from these languages should have in language teaching. The answer to this question depends very much on the students’ level and on our teaching goals.

But now that we have talked about how to learn an ancient language, a more fundamental question is inevitable: does everyone involved in Classics really need to learn Latin and Greek? Isn’t reading the texts in translation good enough for some? And secondly, why are the calls that we should teach Latin and Greek literature only in translation growing louder and louder? This second question is particularly pertinent to the English-speaking world; many readers from continental Europe and elsewhere have not yet been confronted with such issues. My answer may thus be less relevant to them, at least for the time being; moreover, this second essay has a more personal touch to it and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of my Oxford colleagues.

The Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, issued in Greek and Aramaic, c.260 BC (dicovered just outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1958, and now in Kabul Museum, Afghanistan).

1 Who needs language skills? Different strokes for different folks

Without further ado, let us now turn to the question whether every student of the ancient world has to learn Latin and Greek. There is a debate to be had, but unfortunately, like so many things today, it is all too often presented in stark terms, as if there were no nuance. I believe that there is something of a spectrum here. Let’s look at some cases.

1.1 The student of Latin and Greek literature

At one end of the spectrum, there is the student of Latin and Greek literature. I don’t believe that if you’re specialising in Latin and Greek at university level, you can do so in a meaningful way without devoting a significant amount of time to acquiring a high level of competence in these languages. The student who wants to study Latin and Greek at university needs an excellent command in the languages; translation practice; a good knowledge of metre; and an equally sound grasp of textual criticism. These skills go hand in hand, and without this technical foundation the student will fail to grasp the intricacies of a text studied for literary analysis. Those who say otherwise usually do so for ideological reasons, reasons to which we will return below.

Suffice it to say here that no one would dream of studying French or German, or, for that matter, Chinese or Arabic, without being willing to learn the languages; no one would demand that these cultures should speak to us in English; no one would think of claiming to have studied French or Chinese literature if no texts had been read in French or Chinese. Why should it be different for Latin and Greek?

Comedic actors portraying a quack doctor, Franza de Paula Ferg, early 18th cent. (priv. coll.).

1.2 The student of world literature

At the other end of the spectrum is the student of world literature, who has to learn about the most significant pieces of writing from many different cultures. This kind of student cannot be expected to learn Latin or Greek; the Romans and Greeks make up no more than a small part of the curriculum, and it would be impossible for anyone to master ten or more different languages in the short span of a three-year course.

Here it makes perfectly good sense to rely on translations. Problems only arise if people start pretending that what they are doing is equivalent to reading texts in the original. Students must be made aware of the shortcomings of the approach used in their course: they must be taught, ideally with plenty of examples, that translations may not be accurate, or that they may get the tone of the original wrong, or that translators may emphasise issues that were of minor importance to the authors of the originals; after all, translations are always a product of their time and place, and translators stamp their vocabulary, experiences and identity on the work. The students must also learn what makes a piece of literature a work of art within the culture where it originated, must learn about rhymes or metre or other devices; that is very hard to do in translation, but these aspects are essential to our understanding of literary works.

In effect, then, the student of world literature sacrifices depth on the altar of breadth. This is entirely defensible so long as no one labours under the illusion that such students become genuine experts in Classics, or Chinese literature, or whatever else is studied.

Scholars suffering from hardship, Fu Baoshi, 1944 (British Museum, London, UK).

1.3 What about archaeologists?

Here we enter the grey zone in the middle of the spectrum. Ideally, of course, a Classical archaeologist should be able to read Latin and Greek; when you work on vases or temples, you will always encounter inscriptions, and although there is normally a language expert on the team, it is always helpful to have knowledge of the language. But does it need to be at the same level as that of a literary scholar? Probably not.

The multi-layered ruins of the ‘Schliemann Trench’ in ancient Troy / modern Hisarlik, Turkey.

2 Ideology-driven hostility towards translation

If I had written this piece a decade ago, it would have ended here. But Princeton and other Ivy League universities are not turning their back on translation practice and language teaching because they want to train more archaeologists or students of world literature; the increasing hostility comes from ideological world views and goes far beyond translation, but always includes it. The proponents of such ideas believe that specialising in Latin and Greek literature in the original languages, rather than doing world literature in translation, is a dangerous pursuit that breeds white supremacists.[1]

Let us first look at claims that Classics is some sort of ‘hostile environment’ for students of colour, for sexual minorities and for those from less privileged backgrounds, and that translation and language study is so elitist that these groups are excluded from Classics at best and actively harmed at worst. I will then turn to three personal anecdotes; none of these would even have been imaginable a decade ago, but in the last five years such experiences have become quite common, so that I could easily present many more incidents. But I do not want to end on a negative note: I also want to show what criteria can usefully be employed when one encounters such views or engages with them, because there are some exponents who are well-intentioned; and I want to point to possible solutions, to ways of stemming the ideological tide in the longer term.

2.1 Classics as a hostile environment?

Some vocal activists claim that the study of Classics results in a hostile environment for people of colour, sexual minorities and people from less privileged backgrounds.[2] My own background should not matter in this discussion, but sadly, in this age of identity politics, it needs to be stated, as if it could add anything to, or take anything away from, what I am about to say.

I came to Britain as a foreign student of mixed heritage; my mother is German and my father was from Goa in south-west India. I don’t belong to any sexual minority. And I was educated in a state school, but this was done within the German system, where virtually everyone is educated in state schools. Although I have experienced some racism, especially in my younger years, I have never encountered any in a university setting. People have been curious about my background, but always in a respectful way. That, of course, is my personal anecdote, and others may have different experiences.

Indo-Greek statue of Hercules with the Nemean Lion, 1st cent. BC (found in Pakistan, and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

The main argument why Classics should be seen as a hostile environment comes from the fact that ethnic minorities and students from less privileged backgrounds are underrepresented at a university like Oxford. Unequal outcomes are often cast as evidence of systemic racism and endemic snobbery. Such an argument is not typically made for LGBTQ students in these terms.

To me, the argument from statistical representation simply does not hold water. We want to provide equality of opportunity, but why would (or should) equality of opportunity necessarily translate into comparable numbers of students from all ethnic groups applying? For instance, you will always get a disproportionate number of Italian and Greek applicants to such a course; is that surprising, when Classics is about the cultures that many of them associate with their ancestors? Similarly, when I talk to my relatives in India, they find other subjects more relevant to their interests, such as Indian literature or history; I wish it were easier to enthuse them about Latin and Greek, but it seems bizarre to insist that everybody must be equally keen on our subject, otherwise it’s evidence of racism.[3]

The same goes for the numbers of state-school students. Would you be interested in studying French literature if you didn’t have French at school? Quite possibly, but you’d have to admit that learning the subject at school will increase the chances of pupils developing an interest in the first place. Well, Latin is taught in 49% of independent schools, but in only 3% of state schools. And yet we expect the percentage of state-school applicants to mirror the percentage of state-school pupils among all school children? How and why?

Statistical method courtesy of Chris Morris’ Brass Eye (1997).

All universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, do a great deal of outreach work to get more underrepresented pupils into the field. While public discourse often blames the universities for the inequality of their intake, this time might be better spent taking to task the failures of the school system, so often not the fault of the schools or the teachers themselves. It is also worth pointing out that students from underrepresented groups who do apply for Classics have as good a chance of being admitted as those from more privileged backgrounds;[4] and that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have provided a brilliant response to the changing student demographics by providing ab initio language programmes. Such programmes are, in effect, an acknowledgment that language skills as an entry requirement would be discriminatory, but that giving up on language requirements after admission would be setting up academic hurdles later in life.

Proposed solutions to inequality that start as late as university are generally unhelpful; by that stage, one has to rely on quotas and similar measures, but that only results in further, individual injustices, this time to potential students whose qualifications and talents are overlooked because they do not belong to historically disadvantaged groups. Injustices in the past cannot be compensated for by committing a different set of injustices in the present. And do we really believe that people’s group memberships are more important than their individuality? Are we now meant to admit students for what they are, racially or socio-economically, rather than for what they have the ability and potential to do?

The uncomfortable conclusion I draw from all this is that there are hostile elements in society and within Classics. These elements are not interested in constructive discussion; they are raring for a fight.

The Inquisition Tribunal, Francisco de Goya, 1808/12 (Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid, Spain).

Likewise, I cannot see any other explanation for the outlandish claims that study of the Classics is in league with white supremacist movements, even if those movements, especially in the US, have usurped and misappropriated elements of Greco-Roman antiquity and its reception. Usurpations of this sort make the contextualised study of the Classical world and its afterlife all the more important. These outlandish claims became more frequent in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of American police officers in May 2020. But seeing a causal connection between Classics as practised in universities in the 21st century and American police brutality or various fringe far-right movements is not only far-fetched, it also reveals a hubristic sense of self-importance; Classics just doesn’t hold that kind of sway in the outside world.

The often self-proclaimed anti-racists and saviours of the working classes use a variety of tactics to undermine academic rigour. For instance, they demand measures to mitigate the supposedly toxic influences of the subject: more and more option papers about identity and ethnicity, or gender and sexuality; and fewer and fewer about the ‘elitist’ subjects of language, translation, metre and textual criticism. To be clear, I have no objections to courses on ethnicity, gender and sexuality, so long as they are not taught instead of the technical disciplines and so long as they are taught as academic disciplines, not with the aim of ‘finding oneself’; what I object to is the displacement of the technical disciplines for ideological reasons. Never mind that the attitude behind this is incredibly patronising, or that it is quite disturbing when people are meant to appreciate Terence or Augustine only because of their ethnicity; it also deprives minority and working-class students of the opportunity to learn the foundations of their subject, and it breeds a new generation of Classicists that cannot handle the ancient texts with confidence. Would you trust a medical professional who hasn’t studied anatomy? If not, why would you trust a Classicist who can’t read Latin or Greek? Ultimately, such misguided ideologies create and perpetuate stronger inequalities than the activists’ caricature of the traditional system ever could.

Pandora, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1871 (priv. coll.).

2.2 Three anecdotes

Three anecdotes can perhaps illustrate the situation better than any theoretical discussion. My aim here is not to air personal grievances, but to show what we are up against if we want to preserve Classics as a serious discipline with a secure future. I am truly grateful that fora such as Antigone exist, where it is possible to speak frankly without regard for the climate of opinion.

In January 2008, I attended the annual conference of the American Philological Association, now the Society for Classical Studies. At that time I also became a lifetime member. The SCS still does plenty of good work, but I doubt whether I would choose to become a lifetime member these days.

When I read the 2022 candidate statements for major offices in the SCS, I was taken aback. There was endless talk about race, inclusion and diversity, marginalisation, and so on; and virtually nothing about the academic achievements of the candidates, even though they are good scholars. You would be forgiven for thinking that the SCS was looking for a group of social workers instead of academics; in which case we should hire actual social workers, who have been trained to do this work properly.

One could argue that in the past, many American Classicists did not talk enough about such topics; but now they seem to talk about little else, feeling an urgent need to apologise for the horrors committed by Ancient Greeks and Romans. Personally, I have never felt such a need; I study the Greeks and Romans because I enjoy their poetry and philosophy, not because I think of them as my role models, and I train my students to become Classicists, not Romans.

My goal as a philologist is to teach my students a deep understanding of the languages and their history, not to make them less racist or to get them involved in politics; I certainly do not want my subject to be assimilated to any specific ideology or political theory. And, if I may speak as a Classicist with a mixed racial background, I cannot look at these candidate statements without deep cynicism. Candidates are parading their diversity credentials, but the only people who really seem to be benefiting from all this are the candidates themselves. Should ethnic minorities not be more than a tool for candidates’ career advancement?

The badge of the American Philological Association, which changed its name to the Society for Classical Studies in 2013.

My second experience took place in 2021. The Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Oxford issued ‘recommendations’ for ‘decolonisation’, a very vague term that means vastly different things to different people. The document, sent to all faculties, was probably well meant, but shocking in content and underpinned by some surprising and at times extraordinary assumptions. I wrote a detailed response to it, and I am relieved that many concerned colleagues across disciplines rejected the recommendations in the form in which they were submitted to us.

Here is one statement from this document:

“We know that curricula which do not fully represent the value of the cultural and social backgrounds of our students result in these students feeling alienated and excluded from learning.”

And here is my response:

“Do we really know that? Or is that a lazy assumption? I will believe it when I see robust data. Right now, to me this is simply the racism of low expectations; as if ethnic minorities could only excel at things connected to their ethnicity. There are plenty of white British students at Oxford who study Chinese and Japanese and who seem to excel even though the subject does not relate to their ethnic background. We teach Latin and Greek. We do not need to make the subject more palatable to people who are more interested in other languages and cultures – they can and should study those other things they are interested in. At some point, we really need to stand up for ourselves and say that this is a subject that we believe to be intrinsically valuable, and that we don’t have to turn it into something else in order to justify our existence.”

And another statement:

“This includes (but is not limited to) representing BAME[5] and non-Western authors on reading lists, particularly those located in the Global South. Crucially, it also involves ensuring that BAME and non-Western perspectives are included and visible in teaching content, thus recognising that a researcher of a particular race, ethnicity or nationality does not always specialise in scholarship that relates to their identity.”

To this I responded:

“I have learnt a great deal from Kazuhiko Yoshida, a colleague and friend in Kyoto, and a specialist in Hittite and Anatolian more generally. I mention his work when appropriate. But I detest putting people on a reading list just in order to have diversity, and I can guarantee that once such a system is implemented, many, perhaps most, students will see a name like Yoshida and think of him as the ‘token ethnic guy’ on there, as someone who wouldn’t have made the list were it not for his ethnicity. The second point, that researchers of a particular race do not always specialise in scholarship that relates to their identity, used to be a given. It is only now, under the influence of pernicious identity politics, that such assumptions are routinely made, or that such expectations exist. Again, I want to research whatever language I’m interested in, and I don’t want to have to justify that one way or another.”

I would now add that I also find the assumption intrinsically racist that people from specific parts of the globe must automatically hold radical anti-western, anti-establishment ideas.

Capricho no. 23, ‘Aquellos polbos’ (‘Specks of Dust’), Francisco de Goya, c.1798 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

My third experience takes me back to the autumn of 2020. Lockdowns and social distancing were still firmly in place, so I had volunteered to give an online lecture, which would be followed a week later by an equally online Q&A session. Here is not the place to sum up the contents of that lecture, which went on to receive praise from academics and students of different ethnicities in Britain, continental Europe, South and East Asia, the US and Australia.

In Oxford, on the other hand, the lecture drew the intense ire of a group of self-styled activists, who came online and professed themselves outraged and ‘unsafe’ because of my ‘problematic’ views; back then I was still so naive that I did not know that ‘problematic’ simply means ‘heretical’ (from their dogmatic viewpoint), and that ‘unsafe’ means ‘being challenged in one’s preconceived notions’ (which is something that universities and other education establishments ought to do). Most of their claims seemed entirely divorced from the contents of my lecture, so I will be forgiven for not going through them in any detail here either; it was only later that this mismatch between the contents of my lecture and the contents of the complaints led me to take a closer look at the viewing statistics through the software tools used for recording, and this look revealed that most of the complaints had come from people who had not even bothered to watch the lecture.

Surely, when people who have never met me cannot invest one hour into watching a lecture before forming their opinion, the problem lies with them, not me. However, one statement intrigued me. One student claimed that I was a racist because my particular field of study was racist; and my particular field of study was racist because it dealt with grammar and because the Greeks and Romans had invented inflectional endings as a tool to make the lives of ethnic minorities difficult, since they could not handle such inflections.

I didn’t really know how to react to a statement like this, just as a physics professor who could easily discuss complex physics topics might be temporarily speechless when confronted by a flat-earther. The upshot, of course, was that language teaching should be cancelled. Especially this last experience left me feeling very sad; it still feels like a missed opportunity for dialogue because of the unwillingness of this group of students to engage with honesty and open-mindedness. But let us move on.


2.3 Four criteria to consider in engaging with activists

How do we decide whether a group of activists is reasonable and trying to be constructive? I regularly use four criteria:

Cui bono?[6] Do the people engaged in activism benefit from their activism in a major way? Are they angling for positions of power or for permanent jobs whose profiles list such activities as desirable? This is especially common in the US, but is spreading to UK institutions as well; often student scholarships and funding are also based on such activities, even if these are not justifiable morally (let alone academically). Not all benefits are material: people join activist networks for a variety of reasons, not all of them altruistic. Some join because it gives them a sense of belonging; and sadly, some narcissistic personality types often simply enjoy the attention.

Debellare superbos?[7] Do the activists display a culture of enquiry or one of inquisition? In other words, do they aim for dialogue and understanding, or do they present ever shallower versions of the opposing side, to the point of caricature, with the aim of ridiculing and punishing others?

Timeo lectorem unius libri.[8] Do they understand nuance? Or do they have a fixed, pseudo-religious creed that one is supposed to swallow whole? In the current climate of debate, it is rather a depressing sight that one can often predict a person’s stance on one political issue from their stance on a completely unrelated one. Beware of people who are tribal and unthinkingly follow a party line.

Insipientis est in errore perseverare.[9] Do their ‘lived experiences’ and ‘their truth’ stand up to scrutiny? And how do they react when their ideas of social justice collide with more objective, measurable understandings of truth? Do they try to obscure their weaknesses with unreadable jargon? Do they choose reason, or is it more important to be popular than to be sensitive, measured and reasonable? Does indignation outrank accuracy?

Perhaps these questions sound harsh; but they need to be asked, or we end up wasting considerable amounts of time on those who do not want to engage with us in good faith.

Cicero addresses the Senate, engraving by Ambrogio Centenari after Ponziano Loverini, c.1890.

2.4 The longer term

If we want to continue to make the case for Classics, there are certain steps we must take. They are quite straightforward and they can be done by anyone. We need to increase our awareness; stand up for what we believe in; and teach better.

As far as awareness is concerned, until just a few years ago I knew virtually nothing about ‘critical theory’ and other ideologically-driven approaches of the same ilk; I was content to do my research and to teach, without paying much attention to Zeitgeisty fashions. However, this won’t do. Since such ideologies are constantly being pushed for, we need to learn about them, understand them and observe the blatant falsehoods and contradictions within them.

We owe this to our students, many of whom are still in their late teens and highly susceptible to indoctrination and radicalisation. They hear words like ‘critical theory’ and ‘anti-racism’ and want to be part of it, because we should of course all be critical and should all fight against racism; but often they don’t realise that what it says on the tin is not necessarily what’s inside, that ‘critical theory’ demands uncritical acceptance of various dogmas, and that some ‘anti-racism’ campaigns use people of colour as pawns in a far broader and deeper political game.

But awareness is not enough. We need to take a stand when academic freedom is attacked.

The calumny of Apelles, Sandro Botticelli, 1495 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

The radicals aren’t going to go away, and often they are so deeply entangled in their own ideological web that they cannot even admit to themselves when they are wrong; but we still need to point out their cognitive dissonance and their hyperbole. When they say that our discipline never talks about race, we should not be afraid to say that this is simply untrue; we do not make race the be-all and end-all of things, and we don’t see everything through that lens, but that doesn’t make us bad people – race isn’t some trump card that makes everything else irrelevant, and if your research doesn’t touch on race, it doesn’t make you complicit in white supremacy either.

When they inflate particular concerns out of all proportion, we should not be afraid to call them out and say that they do so out of a fear that they might otherwise become irrelevant; perhaps acknowledging the idea that any social progress has been made at all since the 1960s would lead to a loss of purpose.

And finally, we need to teach better. We need to make sure that all students on a language programme actually have the chance to reach a high level of language competence, through methods tailored to their needs. And we need to teach them how to recognise ideologies and how to avoid being sucked into them; the job of a lecturer is not to affirm students in their misconceptions, but to have frank discussions.

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, illustration by W.W. Denslow from the first edition of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (George M. Hill Co., Chicago, 1900).

3 Conclusion

In my last article, I argued that Latin literature would be unimaginable without translation; if we truly want to understand Latin literature, we need to have some translation experience ourselves. Translation can also be an excellent tool for language teaching, but its exact place in the curriculum must depend on the overall teaching goals and the linguistic experience of the students. In this contribution, I wanted to make it clear that not every student of the ancient world needs to learn Latin and Greek. For many students knowledge of the languages will always remain vital, but for others there need not be a strict requirement. However, we should not get rid of language training and translation practice just because certain strands of activists are pushing for this to happen; they do so for ideological reasons and do not have the best interests of the subject or, for that matter, disadvantaged students at heart.

Wolfgang de Melo is Professor of Classical Philology at Oxford. He has published on early Latin, especially Plautus and Roman comedy, and on Varro. He teaches linguistics and comparative philology and has a special interest in linguistic typology. He has previously written for Antigone on grammatical gender, Latin spelling, Latin accents, and linguistic irregularity.

Further reading:

Most discussions of the rise of identity politics and woke culture are anything but impartial. For a non-partisan take, I suggest John McWhorter’s work. I respect McWhorter both as a linguist and as a social commentator, and I have referenced his work in Antigone before (where his own thoughts on Classics have appeared); today I recommend McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (Penguin Random House, New York, 2021). The book title may sound extreme, but the book is very measured, and I appreciate it when a traditional liberal with left-leaning sympathies calls out the radicals on both the right and the left.


1 Princeton’s equity statement may be read here. Here is an interview on the subject with the renowned linguist John McWhorter on NPR, a left-leaning news outlet. And here is an article on the same topic in National Review, a more conservative paper.
2 These claims are too numerous to list individually. Here is just one example.
3 My father eventually came to appreciate my choice of subject, but at first he thought it was a waste of time, unless it were in preparation for the priesthood.
4 Details can be found in the Annual Admissions Statistical Report, available online.
5 This acronym is almost outdated by now; it stands for “Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic”.
6 “To whose benefit?”.
7 “To subdue the proud.”
8 “I fear the reader of a single book.”
9 “It is the mark of the fool to persevere in error.”