The Loveliest Thing Since Avalon: First Two Weeks at DO

I’m Sasha Benov, a rising sophomore at Harvard and one of this summer’s Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) interns.

It’s hard to think of a better place to work than Dumbarton Oaks. Actually, it’s hard to think of a better place to be. To quote the inscription by the pool, Dumbarton Oaks is surely the “loveliest thing since Avalon.” I’m still in awe that a place like this even exists. Every path in the garden, every room in the museum is still a surprise to me, and I hope this sense of wonder never wears off.  Getting lost in the beauty of the gardens (and among the confusingly similar paths) has been a joy to me in my first few weeks.  I’m optimistic that my bad sense of direction will prolong this phase of my relationship with Dumbarton Oaks for at least a few more weeks.

Up in the exclusive club that is the mezzanine, my days are filled with messages from angels, various incarnations of the devil and long, drawn out deaths—all artfully written in Latin verse. As DOML interns led by the wonderful Raquel Begleiter, Elliot Wilson and I look through texts that explain these things (and more) in detail. We edit translations of future DOML volumes and make sure that everything is in order. With the translation on the left and the Latin text on the right, we go through both word by word to make sure that the two match.

In addition to making sure that the translation is technically correct, we also edit for readability. This part of the editing is more subjective—there is no exact science. DOML is meant to be not just for professional scholars, which makes it engaging to edit. We want the translation to flow. The volume should be a book that people enjoy reading. I am not just looking at the translation as a direct interpretation of the Latin, but as a medieval poem that I could casually pick up and read for pleasure.

That sounds strange, I know. Medieval Latin is hardly a go-to beach read. However, it’s a lot more entertaining as a story than you’d think. An interesting text that I looked over was the life of Saint Guthlac, by Henry of Avranches, a 13th century poet. This poem contains both unspeakably amazing secrets of the world and descriptions of demons so terrible that they can’t be adequately explained. I’ve read very few modern novels of which I can say the same. At one point, there is a long list of ghastly attributes of forms of the devil that essentially reads like an elongated, more horrible Where the Wild Things Are; though Guthlac wishes that all they did was roar their terrible roars. Editing these translations is never a dry task, and will surely only get more interesting in the coming weeks!

St. Guthlac is carried to hell by demons in these pictures from the Guthlac Roll, 13th century.

Even in the short period that I’ve been here, my time at DO and in DC in general has been full of surprises. Every experience feels new and enriching in some way. I never would have guessed that this summer would find me at the Gay Pride Concert in the nation’s capital, the Congressional Baseball Game (congressmen in baseball uniforms—yikes!), or even relaxing in the beautiful DO pool. I’ve already gotten so much out of these experiences and the Dumbarton Oaks community, and I am excited for what the next eight weeks will bring!  Ignorance is not Bliss—DO is.

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