Between Art and Artifice

The author utilizes this Latin grammar, as well as previous DOML volumes, to guide his translation project.

The author utilizes this Latin grammar, as well as previous Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library volumes, to guide his translation project.

By Eric Nemarich, second-year graduate student in History and Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library intern

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is not a physical set of stacks. It is, rather, a publication series, an “ideal library” of affordable, portable, elegantly bound, and scrupulously edited volumes of medieval texts accompanied by English translations on facing pages. So far the Library has tackled texts in Latin, Greek, and Old English, and I have heard rumblings that more vernaculars are on the horizon. The Library aims to make the bountiful and bizarre universe of medieval literature available to a varied readership, and to this end its translations are rethought and refined virtually ad infinitum. This is where I come in, appearing in the invisible interstices of the editing process—fixing a misplaced modifier here, adding a comma there, at times offering my thoughts on a troublesome passage. Over the past three weeks, I’ve cultivated a love-hate relationship with “Track Changes.”

Over the past several weeks, I have spent dozens of hours becoming closely acquainted with a rhetorical treatise penned by an anonymous fourteenth-century Englishman. As I’ve absorbed and digested chapter after chapter (sixteen in all) of medieval rhetorical theory, one single, troublesome adverb has transfixed my mind: inartificialiter. As used in the treatise, it can be approximated in English as “unskillfully” or “inelegantly.” But I have proposed to translate it with a different word, one that does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary and receives a reproachful red squiggle in Microsoft Word: “inartfully.”

The word has a checkered and revealing past. In contemporary English, “artful” has come to be synonymous with “clever” or even “conniving,” while “inartful” has forked into subtly differentiated meanings: in legal writing, it has carried the suitably blunt sense of “poorly written”; but in the sphere of politics—ever on the mind of a Georgetown resident—it has served as a convenient euphemism for tactless statements made in earnest. This is generally unsurprising. Rhetoric and its attendant vocabulary, including words such as “inartful” (and for that matter inartificialiter), have been closely aligned with law and politics for millenia.

What strikes me as remarkable is the seismic cultural shift that rhetoric has experienced in the intervening centuries: once enthusiastically cultivated by ancient, medieval, and Renaissance scholars, it has lately taken on a distinctly pejorative cast, as a reference to words spoken or written with no real meaning. We have erected a barrier between art and artifice, between literature and “mere rhetoric.” Words like “inartfully” bear eloquent witness to this change. I stand by my proposal—which remains, after all, just a proposal—because a translation can and often should play upon multiple and even contradictory meanings, inviting readers to delve into the strange, ever-shifting histories of words. The languages we speak today and the languages of the distant past are bound by entangled threads that form intricate tapestries. For medieval rhetoricians, language afforded the opportunity to beautify reality. I think our translations operate in much the same way, bringing the grace of modern language to ancient texts and setting their complex beauty in ever higher relief.

The Human in “Humanities”

By Hannah Firestone ’16, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives Oral History Intern

Located on the second floor of the Library, the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) of Dumbarton Oaks is home to unique historical photographs, drawings, and field notebooks documenting undertakings such as surveys of important Byzantine sites like Hagia Sophia or the Cathedral of Eufrasius, as well as photographic corpora for a variety of subjects, such as Moche ceramic vessels and their iconography. This material is accompanied by digital collections, including ICFA’s Oral History Initiative, which I will be working with most closely during my internship this summer.

Robert Van Nice, Jr. his wife, and ICFA Manager Shalimar White examine an architectural drawing of the Hagia Sophia  on the occasion of Van Nice, Jr.’s ICFA oral history interview.

Robert Van Nice, Jr. his wife, and ICFA Manager Shalimar White examine an architectural drawing of the Hagia Sophia on the occasion of Van Nice, Jr.’s ICFA oral history interview.

In this initiative, scholars or former staff members (or their surviving family members) who have contributed to ICFA’s archival collections are interviewed by ICFA staff about their work, with the goal of contextualizing the materials that they have donated to the department or the collections they have processed. ICFA’s Oral History Initiative is a close cousin of the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA) Oral History Project, a project that focuses on people who have been involved with Dumbarton Oaks throughout its history. The two oral history collections complement each other well: they share many interviewees, but the interviews in each present different sides of their experiences with Dumbarton Oaks.

In the case of both collections, I am fascinated by how much interviewees remember about projects that they were engaged in decades ago. Take Semavi Eyice, a Professor of Byzantine Art and Art History at Istanbul University and a two-time Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks. Eyice was interviewed in late 2011, when he was in his late 80s, yet he recalled not only the first and last names of various individuals, but also their middle initials. He also described the clothing styles worn by people that he encountered during World War II and on field expeditions in Turkey in the 1950s. Details like these make vivid the distant memories of the speakers as humans, rather than just as characters mentioned in the archived notebooks and correspondence.

In this way, the different collections of ICFA complete one another. The architectural drawings of Hagia Sophia created by Robert Van Nice, Sr. over a period of 50 years illuminate the history of the building’s construction, while his notes provide insight into his methodology as an architect. In turn, the oral history with his son, Robert Van Nice, Jr.  can further color in what we know about Van Nice, Sr. and his work: how he used the nickname “Sophie” when speaking of Hagia Sophia at home, or how he was frequently frustrated by the birds living in the ancient building because they would steal his tools or soil his drawings. Because of the existence of these multiple media and perspectives, ICFA can deepen a researcher’s understanding of the elder Van Nice: his son’s recollections and perceptions deepen our knowledge of him as a committed architect.

Getting to learn about the significance of the materials in our collections to the people who created them or who were close to their creators, as well as the challenges that arose in the process of their creation, makes it easier for me to understand their significance and to appreciate the work that went into them. These oral histories highlight the human aspect of humanities scholarship that has been supported by Dumbarton Oaks over the past seventy-five years.

About me: I am a rising senior studying Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard. I have a particular interest in reproductive health and justice, which I did not think would overlap at all with my work at Dumbarton Oaks, but this talk of “digital surrogate” and “born digital” has me second guessing that assumption.