A conversation with Philipp Rosemann.

The Bookman would like to welcome Philipp Rosemann, who, after teaching at the University of Dallas for over twenty years, was just appointed to the Chair of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. He spoke with us about the Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations series, a library of medieval texts being published through a collaboration between the University of Dallas and Peeters of Louvain, of which he is the general editor.

Bookman: Philipp, thanks so much for being with us. Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the project?

In the late 1990s, a group of medievalists at the University of Dallas generated the idea of a kind of medieval continuation of the famous Loeb Classical Library—a series that would publish English translations of medieval Latin texts on facing pages. The series would have a comprehensive scope, being open to all genres and subjects, so that over time a representative collection of medieval Latin texts would emerge. Equally important was the notion of publishing the Latin original and the translation on facing pages. In this manner, Latin texts would be rendered accessible to a wider audience, but without pretending that a translation can replace the original. As the Italians say, traduttore, traditore: a translator is inevitably a traitor, betraying nuances of meaning in the source that a translation just cannot capture. The hope, then, was that the reader of the translation would always keep an eye on the original, perhaps even being challenged to deepen his knowledge of Latin.

This project appeared particularly suitable for the University of Dallas, which has always had a serious commitment to the recovery and renewal of the Western Christian tradition. In the formation of this tradition, the Middle Ages played a crucial role. But how can one recover and renew what one doesn’t know, or knows only imperfectly? Hence the series was meant to broaden our understanding ofthe Latin culture of the medieval period.

It is my understanding that there remains a large volume of medieval literature in Latin still not translated into any European vernacular. If that is the case, what is the reason for that?

There is an enormous quantitative difference between the classical literary heritage and the medieval one. The Loeb Classical Library has largely reached its goal of making available the entire literature of classical Greece and Rome. Such a goal would be impractical for the Middle Ages, because so many more texts have been preserved. European libraries are full of manuscripts that contain the unpublished writings of thousands of medieval authors. This means that there is still a lot of work to do in recovering the medieval literary tradition. Yet, not everything that is preserved is also worth publishing; for example, do we need to know the contents of the lectures of every medieval university teacher, even those who were unoriginal and mediocre? Hardly. And even if such material is sometimes worth editing for a more comprehensive understanding of the intellectual landscape of the Middle Ages, it is still another question if it needs to be translated.

What effect if any do you think the lack of access to these texts has had on the popular imagination about medieval culture and literature?

The popular imagination regarding the Middle Ages has very little to do with the historical reality. When Renaissance scholars invented the term “Middle Ages,” they meant to suggest that the period between, roughly, 500 and 1500 represented an unfortunate interruption in the tradition of classical learning. The very term “Middle Ages” therefore has pejorative connotations. We can see this in popular usage, where the adjective “medieval” often designates old-fashioned and backward practices. Scholars of the Middle Ages have spent the last 150 years attempting to correct this prejudice—with limited success, it seems to me. Most people continue to think of the medieval period as a dark age.

The reality is that there was as much light and shadow in the Middle Ages as there is in every other age. To be sure, Thomas Aquinas composed his Summa theologiae at a time of brutal wars and torture chambers. But what about the Enlightenment, which produced the Terror of the French Revolution? What about our own time of unprecedented technological progress, which nevertheless assaults human dignity in so many ways, from the insidious talk about “human resources” to the epidemic of abortion? Human nature is fallen.

How are volumes selected for your series?

The most important criterion is the inherent interest of the text being translated, together with the quality of the translation and the translator’s ability to explain why the material is worth reading. Thus, each volume opens with a scholarly introduction that situates the work in its historical context and sheds light on the ways in which it helped shape, or at least contributed to, the Western intellectual tradition. As editor of the series, I ultimately decide what gets published. In the case of texts that lie outside my areas of expertise, such as medieval history or poetry, I seek the advice of colleagues who serve as external reviewers.

A practical consideration always involves the availability of the Latin texts. If a text is still unprinted, slumbering in some library or libraries in manuscript form, the author must prepare an edition. But if a text has been printed, a judgment must be made on the quality of the edition—simply put, has the text been transcribed reliably from its manuscript sources? Finally, a recent edition may be protected by copyright, so that the series must pay its original publisher a fee to gain permission to reprint it.

The series aims to publish a mixture of “major” and “minor” texts, because tradition requires both great minds and humble servants who help transmit the ideas of the major figures. Thus, we have published works by St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, but also a fifteenth-century abridgment of mystical theology by an obscure Franciscan from Bavaria. One of our volumes contains a manual of a secret system of shorthand writing that seems to border on magic—the anonymous author never quite tells us whether he is just trying to teach his readers the “notary” art or something more “notorious.”

For translators, what special problems does medieval Latin pose—for example, in some of the theological or philosophical texts you have selected?

As I already mentioned, every translation is questionable, even if it does not contain crass mistakes. It is impossible to convey the full meaning of many Latin terms in contemporary English. This is particularly so because we have lost the “ear,” so to speak, enabling us to hear the etymological depth of words. For most contemporary speakers of English, words are labels that are extrinsically attached to the realities they designate. In fact, this loss of depth has much to do with the fact that even educated people no longer know Latin, which is behind so many English words. Thus, for example, who still hears the biological metaphor that is implicit in the notion of “concept”? What does conceiving an idea have to do with conceiving a child? Why is the same word used for both realities? Unlike us, medieval authors heard depths of meaning in every word they used. The idea that a term could be totally arbitrary seemed strange to them.

To give an example from Thomas Aquinas, in the well-known list of transcendentals that occurs in his Disputed Questions on Truth, the Angelic Doctor lists one transcendental as aliquid. This is usually translated as “something.” According to this rendering, Aquinas wants to say: everything that is, is a being; moreover, it is true, good, beautiful, and “something.” No one wonders why Aquinas would make such a trivial point: obviously, whatever is, is something! How couldit not? But this is not what he means. In fact, he explains, dicitur aliquid quasi aliud quid. In Latin, the etymology of “something” is “another what”—so, everything that is, is only insofar as it is distinct from another. Suddenly, we discover a dynamic, dialectical dimension in Aquinas’s thought. In the regular translation of aliquid as “something,” this is lost entirely. The passage becomes nonsense.

The ultimate reason why, for the medievals, words are pregnant with meaning is their belief in the God who is Logos, Word. If God himself is the Word who speaks reality into existence, then words are powerful keys to the very structure of the real. We have to listen carefully to the message they hold. It is very difficult—maybe impossible—to convey this theological conception of language in a contemporary English translation.

These books are beautifully produced; how did the effort to make the volumes of the series beautiful objects play into the goals of the series?

That the books are so beautiful is entirely due to our publisher, Peeters of Louvain, Belgium. In an academic world that is dominated by global publishing conglomerates, Peeters stands out as a family business with roots from the middle of the nineteenth century. The publishing conglomerate works to generate profits for its shareholders, until it is gobbled up by an even larger enterprise; the family-owned publishing house, by contrast, wants to make sure the business is still there for the next generation. This attitude gives rise to a long-term business strategy that is most conducive to academic quality. Emmanuel Peeters, the father of the current owners, once told me: “We want to publish books that will still sell in fifty years.” Indeed, Peeters has a backlist that contains titles from the early twentieth century. With this approach, it is important to the Peeters family that the books they publish stand the test of time, in terms both of their content and of their presentation.

Can you tell us about one or two of the texts you find especially important to have brought to an English-speaking audience?

Let me mention two. The series just published St. Bonaventure’s treatment of the Eucharist in his massive commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Translated by a colleague from Baylor, Junius Johnson, the volume makes a wonderful contribution to a better understanding of the thought of the Seraphic Doctor, the eight hundredth anniversary of whose birth we celebrated in 2017. Bonaventure’s theology offers intellectual resources of great contemporary value, as the future Pope Benedict XVI demonstrated in his dissertation devoted to Bonaventure’s theology of history. Bonaventure thinks much more historically than most other scholastics, including Thomas Aquinas. In an age in which truth is challenged by a heightened awareness of historical development, it is important to understand how truth and time belong together in the Christian faith.

Another favorite volume of mine was authored by my late mentor, Professor James McEvoy. In the Bavarian State Library, McEvoy discovered an abridgment that one Brother Andrew, a Franciscan, prepared in the fifteenth century of some works by the thirteenth-century English theologian Robert Grosseteste. These works, in turn, were commentaries on the mystical theology by the mysterious but crucial Pseudo-Dionysius, a fifth-century author writing under the name of the disciple of St. Paul from the Acts of the Apostles. The abridgment is in many ways unremarkable; it is not one of the great works of Western literature. But that is the point: tradition is kept alive not only through the original creations of the greatest minds, but also requires the modest work of transmission and transformation that occurs inthe writings of lesser figures. In this case, an otherwise unknown Franciscan from the late Middle Ages used Robert Grosseteste to understand the mystical theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius; the notes that he made to abridge this material were in turn used by other readers. Brother Andrew’s modest abridgment thus helped connect readers with the Pseudo-Dionysius across an entire millennium. That is tradition.

How will your recent appointment in Ireland affect the Dallas series?

The University of Dallas has appointed a young colleague from the History Department, Kelly Gibson, to act as co-editor. This appointment will ensure the continued association of the series with Dallas, while also adding a fresh editorial perspective. At the same time, the National University of Ireland has promised me support for a second editorial office in Maynooth. The series will therefore acquire a presence in Europe, which will strengthen its connections with English-speaking colleagues on that side of the Atlantic.  

In this conversation, Philipp Rosemann, general editor of the Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations series, discusses his work to make accessible the work of medieval texts in Latin, and why tradition needs both the major figures and those who help transmit their ideas for new generations.