November 30, 2022

Latin Lab Translates Text for International Conference

The Gluttonous Monk from Heroica Eulogia'The Gluttonous Monk' illustration from William Bowyer's "Heroica Eulogia."

By Andrea DeHaan, CHaSS Communications Editor

The Ancient Language Working Group or “Latin Lab”, part of the Ancient Languages and Cultures graduate program in History at Utah State University, just completed a yearslong project translating a unique, untranslated manuscript called “Heroica Eulogia” written by William Bowyer in 1567.

The book was the subject of an international conference organized by CHaSS Professor Emeritus Norman Jones this October at the Huntington Library. There, a team of book conservators, art historians, cartographers, Neo-Latin literature experts, historians, and coats of arms specialists have worked to make sense of it, but before they could start, a translation was needed. The lab, which sees students and professors work side by side, has transcribed and translated the Latin, making it ready for the researchers’ use.

Originally designed for Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, “Heroica Eulogia” is lavishly illuminated with paintings and coats of arms. Written by Bowyer, keeper of the records in the Tower of London, it was transcribed by a master calligrapher who wrote in fourteen different hands, including backward.  Intended to demonstrate the calligrapher’s abilities, students in the Latin Lab used Photoshop to make the mirrored text legible for study.

“That made it readable for us,” said lab transcriber and graduate student, Alec Smitten. “It wasn’t for reading, It was to show the expense of hiring…a high-class calligrapher who could do something like that.”

The paintings and Latin poems are accompanied by legal documents in Latin and French that trace the titles of Dudley’s property from the 11th century onward.

“That’s the fun part,” said Professor Mark Damen. “You come in and you gain a skill…because every one presents a different challenge. One’s paleographic; the other is using weird idioms.”

The lab, which meets in person and/or virtually three times a week, accepts proposals from multiple disciplines to translate texts not yet available in English. And while it does not charge a fee for translations, the lab does designate one undergraduate or graduate student to serve as the Norm Jones and Cecile Gilmer Latin Scholar to help oversee lab activities and outreach. The current Jones/Gilmer scholar is graduate student Marie Skinner.

Beyond the careful analysis of the Latin text, Skinner said they also looked at signifiers of manuscript quality, including the vellum and any evidence of scraping, or recycling of pages, to better understand the conditions under which it was created and how that could have impacted the accuracy of the text as presented. 

Graduate student Daniel Porter shared that lessons learned in the Latin Lab greatly assist him in other courses. “Being in the lab made paleography a lot easier to wrap my head around.”

And Damen noted that students and faculty familiar with this study of ancient handwriting likewise assist with the translation process. In fact, the “paleography professor,” Susan Cogan, happened to be participating the day students and faculty were interviewed.

Jones says working together allows everyone in the room to “get better and better at it,” and it is common to see different groups from across the university coming together to make the most of this collaborative and active group of researchers.

“There are different levels of learning that are happening simultaneously and collectively. It’s kind of like the old school room, where you have first grade through tenth grade.” Damen said.

Seeing everyone collaborate to arrive at the best translation of an unfamiliar text, a process that lets faculty and students alike jump in and suggest alternative interpretations, is “almost comforting,” according to undergraduate Breanna Hellewell, because it’s something students rarely encounter in a more formal class setting where “the professors are so prepared.”

On Nov. 18 the lab was translating an introduction to a book about church history written by John Foxe, a fellow 16th-century historian. Foxe and Bowyer would have had access to the same documents, Jones said, so while the lab has completed work on “Heroica Eulogia,” they continue to build on their expertise to inform new projects. 

“You never know what you’re going to learn,” Damen added, “but you’re guaranteed to learn something.”

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