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Transcribing and translating ancient texts

| By Stephanie Weaver
Jeffrey Witt, Ph.D., and Natalie Tsottles
Jeffrey Witt, Ph.D., and Natalie Tsottles

Natalie Tsottles’ essay about how she spent her summer would be different than most of her junior class who recently returned to the Evergreen campus.

With the support of a research grant from the Catholic Studies Program and the National Fellowships Office, Tsottles, ’16, a classics major, spent the summer in Loyola’s Humanities Center, transcribing, editing, and translating a Medieval Latin document that is more than 630 years old.

The project was a continuation of Tsottles’ work as a research assistant under Jeffrey Witt, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy, for three semesters. She edited Witt’s work, honing her skills so she’d be able to read and transcribe a document on her own.

This summer, she took on the challenge.

The text – a set of questions on Faith, Hope and Love – is part of Peter Gracilis' commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a book of theology written in the 12th century.

Gracilis was teaching in Paris during the 1375-76 academic year, and the text was originally delivered as a classroom lecture. Today the entire commentary survives in only one manuscript.  Tsottles worked to recover a small section of the much larger text, which is divided into four books, each containing several questions.

No place to get the answers

Transcribing, editing, and translating the Medieval text wasn’t an easy feat for Tsottles or Witt. The process isn’t as simple as typing the words into Google Translate or finding the Wikipedia page. The text, written in the 14th century, had never been translated before.

The document is written in shorthand and doesn’t have the qualities of the modern-day essay. To save space and paper the scribe used heavily abbreviated words that required meticulous analysis to decode. There aren’t headers or paragraph breaks between topics, which made it difficult to decipher where thoughts began and ended.

Witt and Tsottles had to come up with the answers on their own.

“It’s an interesting experience to not have any place to go to get the answers. When you work on a math problem and you can’t figure it out you check the back of the book and you work through it. It’s frustrating but it’s also a real revelatory experience,” Witt said.

One of the goals of the project is to make the texts more accessible, so Witt created a website to host the translated texts. Soon, the website will go live and anyone in the world will be able to read Tsottles’ translation.

Witt and Tsottles took the project one step further, adding a digital aspect. To help other scholars and Latinists, Tsottles used XML tagging within the text – tagging names, scripture references, etc., with a unique ID.

The ID is searchable within the document, so users can search how many times Gracilis referred to a certain scripture verse or name. This not only allows scholars to search within the document, but also identify other texts using the same references during the century to provide insight to key influencers during that time period.

The ultimate goal is to have Tsottles’ transcription and images of the original manuscript – the handwritten Medieval Latin – side-by-side on the webpage. Recently Witt received approval from The British Library to use the pictures of the original manuscript. He is now working with the Loyola-Notre Dame Library to set up a specialized image server that can host these images alongside Natalie's transcriptions.

Context counts

Although transcribing the shorthand was difficult, interpreting the context proved to be even harder.

The main question Gracilis poses in this book is whether faith, hope, and love – which are, according to Gracilis, required for eternal salvation – are distinct from gifts of the Holy Spirit, and distinct from each other.

Overall, he does prove the three are different, Tsottles said, but, in a roundabout way. Gracilis weaves other topics in and out of his writing, which made Tsottles question whether or not it would all come together at the end.

And although editing and translating is time consuming, it’s worth it, Tsottles said.

“I’m used to reading classical texts. You can pick any of them, type it into Google, and pull up a full translation. I think people lose appreciation for learning Latin or Ancient Greek because they think they can just read the translation. It’s a lot more fulfilling to read in the original language.”

When her friends and family asked what she was doing over the summer, Tsottles told them she was doing research in the philosophy department.

“After that most of them didn’t ask for more information,” she said, laughing. “They all know that I love Latin.”

A Latin future

Tsottles, who aspires to be a Latin teacher, says the experience has helped her see how Latin changed over time – seeing different uses and grammatical structure – as well as improving her overall reading and verbal skills.

“If you want to teach Latin, you have to know it and know a lot about it,” Tsottles said.

There’s value in editing a text completely – seeing where a new paragraph should start or a break should be, or attempting to comprehend the author’s message, she said.

“When we’re writing research papers in class we’re just re-explaining something that someone already knows. The professor already knows what you’re writing about. But with this, that’s not true at all,” Tsottles said. “It made me realize there are still things to learn, discover, and uncover.”

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