Announcement for the Reading Group on Epictetus’ Encheiridion

The next session of the online reading group for Epictetus will be Friday, May 8th, 10:30 a.m. CST. We are starting at Ch. 5 The text is available at:

Join us at:

The next session of the online reading group for Epictetus will be Friday, May 1st, 10:30 a.m. CST. We are starting at Ch. 2.2 The text is available at:
Join us at:


In these times when everything seems to be out of our control, we could all do with a good dose of Stoicism.  Join me and a small reading group at LSU as we read through Epictetus’ Encheiridion and we learn answers to important questions such as: “What is and what is not in our control?” “How do we deal with what is not in our control?” and much more.  The fun begins Friday, April 24th, at 10:30 a.m. CST. 

head shot of Albert Watanabe

Albert Watanabe

The text with vocabulary and notes may be found at:  For this first Friday, we will be looking at chapters 1-4.  If you need a refresher on background about Epictetus, click on the links in the left margin of the page.  Thereafter, we will meet on Fridays until we finish the work.  You can join us by clicking on the Zoom link:

If you have any questions, you can email me at

Albert Watanabe

Conventiculum Dickinsoniense Covid-19 Announcement

Prof. Tunberg sends the following important announcement regarding the 2020 Conventiculum Dickinsoniense and the Covid-19 crisis:

We have yielded to the force of circumstances, friends, and decided to put off the Conventiculum Dickinsoniense until the summer of 2021.  However, in July of this year, we will arrange a “virtual” Conventiculum via the internet, so that you can still experience a continuous sequence of days this coming summer at least semi-immersed in spoken Latin! We can do this through ZOOM or other conferencing software. Our “virtual” Conventiculum, which will take place from July 9 to July 14, can’t of course be the full equivalent of an event based on all day and face to face immersion, but it can still offer a lot of interaction and practice—and be fun too!

Our sessions will be designed for the sole purpose of giving those who take part maximum exposure to active Latin and a large opportunity to develop their powers in spoken expression and in understanding others speaking. And—yes—there will even be some written composition in Latin. Our conventicula are not aimed at people just beginning to learn the basics of Latin. They are designed to add an ability for some active expression in Latin for people who already have a reasonable passive knowledge of the language. Participants should know the essentials of Latin grammar and be able to read a Latin text of moderate complexity. But no previous experience in speaking Latin is necessary. So, some sessions will be exclusively devoted to people who have no (or very little) experience in spoken Latin communication. Here they will have the opportunity build up their vocabulary and awaken their powers of expression. Of course, we also welcome people experienced in communicative Latin, and we want the Conventiculum be an opportunity for them to develop and refine their proficiency.


The deadline for receipt of entry fees for our “virtual” Conventiculum is June 1, 2020. Indeed, we encourage people to register earlier than this deadline, when possible, since the Conventiculum may well fill up fairly quickly. We will be unable to accept more than 25 participants in this event.


The entry fee for this new “virtual” Conventiculum will be $200. And please note that there will be no refunds of entry fees when they have been deposited in the Conventiculum’s account.

Those interested in applying for admission should write to Prof. Terence Tunberg at this address:


Maffei Reading Group

Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, May 14, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The cruelty of Portuguese governor on Ternate

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, May 7, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The empress Eleni of Ethiopia and her massive retinue”

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, April 30, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The miracle of the lobsters

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, April 23, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The challenge of dealing with Brazilian cannibals

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session will be Thursday, April 16, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST.

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The Customs of Chinese Women”

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session will be Thursday, April 9, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST.

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “Brahmans and Gymnosophists in India”

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!


Update March 30, 2020: After an enjoyable first session last week full of fascinating Brazilian critters, the Maffeius reading group rides again this Thursday, April 2, at 12:00 p.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 12:00 a.m. CST. Please join us if you can!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


During this time of isolation I’ll be leading an online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae (full text on Google Books) starting  Wednesday 3/25, 12:00-1:00 p.m. EDT, 4:00-5:00 p.m. GMT. If you would like to participate, just email me ( and I will send you the information for the Zoom call! I imagine we’ll meet one per week, maybe more if there is interest. 

Jacques de Sève, “Le Pangolin,” illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi (1749–1804). Source: Gallica

Jacques de Sève, “Le Pangolin,” illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi (1749–1804). Source: Gallica

First published in Florence in 1588, Historiae Indicae tells the story of the Portuguese voyages of conquest and discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries around the coast of Africa, to the Malabar Coast of India, on to Malacca, China, and Japan. The primary interest of the work today lies in the wealth of information Maffei provides about a wide variety of peoples, products, and places across the globe. The full-scale ethnography of China in Book 6 is of particular interest, and the diverse subjects treated will appeal to students from many backgrounds, and anyone interested in the customs, products, and cultures of the world. 

I have prepared a Google doc with some selections, as follows:

Notable Critters of Brazil (Book 2, pp. 35-36) 

The many uses of the coconut in the Maldives (Book 7, p. 149) 

Dining, tea, and tea sets in Japan (Book 12, p. 268) 

Brahmans and Gymnosophists in India (Book 1, p. 27). 

The customs of Chinese women (Book 6, p. 122) 

Chinese writing, literature, and the examination system (Book 6, pp. 125-126) 

The challenge of dealing with Brazilian cannibals (Book 15, p. 328). 

A strange corpse that will not stay buried (Book 5, p. 112). 

The beautiful solemnity of oath taking in Pegu (Bago, Myanmar) (Book 7, pp. 146–147) 

The empress Eleni of Ethiopia and her massive retinue (Book 11, pp. 247–248). 

Francisco Serrão and his men outwit some pirates (Book 5, p.109) 

Th cruelty of a Portuguese governor on Ternate (Book 10, pp. 211-12). 

Francis Xavier called to go as a missionary to India (Book 12, pp. 253-254) 

Francis Xavier arrives in Goa (Book 12, pp. 259–260). 


Leo Africanus, De viris quibusdam illustribus apud Arabes

A couple days ago I happened on a mysterious (to me) Neo-Latin text, a minor work by  the great early modern geographer Leo Africanus (born al-Hasan, son of Muhammad in Granada, c. 1494 – c. 1554), “De viris quibusdam illustribus apud Arabes” (On Notable Men among the Arabs). I put it out there on Facebook and Twitter:

Several people responded that this indeed sounded like an interesting project, and some offered to help in editing it for a modern audience. Thanks to some excellent bibliographic sleuthing by Mischa Hooker of Augustana College I can now provide a bit more information for potential collaborators.

The anonymous author of Biblioteca Antica e Moderna di Storia Letteraria vol. 3 (1768), p. xxx, writes (my translation)

Giovanni Leone Africano was a Muslim slave who while in Rome embraced the Christian faith and took the name Gianleone from Pope Leo X. In 1513 he returned to Africa but moved later to Tunis and returned to his original faith. There he wrote in Arabic a small treatise about writers famous among the Arabs. A Latin translation of this work was preserved in the Medici library. Ottingero had a copy from Florence and included it in his Bibliotecario quadripartita, which was printed in 1664, as we said above. Fabricio reprinted it in Book 13 of his Biblioteca Greca, p. 259. I see fit to reproduce this here with a few annotations by the same Fabricio. 

I have no idea where the Arabic original might be. But here is the first printing of the Latin version: J. H. Hottinger, Bibliothecarius Quadripartitus (Zurich, 1664) III. De Theologia Patristica, cum Appendice Leonis Africani hactenus ἀνεκδότῳ, de Scriptoribus Arabicis [pp. 246ff.]

Here is the first reprint, source of the existing annotations: A. Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca, vol. 13 (Hamburg, 1726) [pp. 259ff.]

Here is edition I quote from above: Biblioteca antica e moderna di storia letteraria, vol. 3 (Pesaro, 1768) [pp. 312ff.]

And here is a manuscript copy of the third quarter of the 17th century, in Kassel, Germany, deriving from the version in Florence:

Leo’s much larger and more famous work on the geography of Africa (vol. 1; vol. 2)was widely translated and published. According to Wikipedia

A twentieth-century rediscovery of the originally-dictated manuscript revealed that Ramusio, in smoothing the grammar of Leo Africanus’s text had coloured many neutral details,to make it more palatable to Christian European audiences; French and English translators added further embellishments. Modern translations which incorporate this manuscript are thus more true to the original.

See Crofton Black, (2002). “Leo Africanus’s “Descrittione dell’Africa” and its sixteenth-century translations.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 65: 262–272. JSTOR 4135111

De viris quibusdam illustribus apud Arabes seems quite neglected by comparison.

The Level of Poeticism in Latin Synonyms

Two of the students in my senior research colloquium, Beth Eidam and Tessa Cassidy, have decided to write on the question of the level of poeticism of Latin synonyms.  Their work is based on the fundamental article of R.G.G.  Coleman, “Poetic Diction, Poetic Discourse and the Poetic Register.” This 1999 paper is long, technical, and brilliant.  Coleman lists and defines a series of features that are distinctive to the language used by the Latin poets. These include the lexicon, of course, but also features of syntax, the use of proper names, special declensions, distinctive compounds, syncope, diminutives, Grecisms, the usual poetic devices like metaphor and metonymy, among others.

two pidgeons talking, listing synonyms for "sword"

What makes Latin poetry poetic is not just being in verse, or using rare, archaic words, or avoiding certain words. Rather, Coleman shows, there is constellation of features that elevate the language and give it energy. He emphasizes the importance of context.  Words like mollis and tener were quite at home in rustic or horticultural contexts (asparagi molles, tenerae gallinae), but in poetry of a Callimachean type they were polarized with durus and severus to cover in the wider metaphorical range.  Nothing in Catullus 85, he points out, is lexically poetic. It lacks all the other conventional markers of poeticism, like metaphor and archaism. But the combination is distinctively memorable and poetic, partly due to the extreme density of verbs. I recommend this article to all lovers of Latin poetry, if you can hang in with it.

Coleman’s discussion of synonyms (like ensis and gladius, fera and bestia, amnis and flumen) notes that we can often tell which was the more poetic and which was more associated with common speech by looking at the presence or absence of derivatives in the Romance languages. He points out that Vergil’s Dido is always pulchra, not formosa (although Vergil did not avoid formosa in the Eclogues).  Pulcher is likely to have been more poetic and literary and removed from common speech, since, unlike formosa, it left no trace in the Romance languages.

Beth and Tessa are planning to add some data the discussion.  Coleman made no attempt to assess the relative frequency of Latin synonyms in a poetry and prose.  But we now have the ability to do so with some degree of confidence, thanks to the data collected in Opera Latina. As Patrick Burns wrote in a 2017 SCS review,  

Opera Latina is a search interface from the Laboratoire d’Analyse Statistique des Langues Anciennes (LASLA) at the University of Liège that draws on over five decades of linguistic research on Latin literature. The database currently includes 154 works from 19 authors: Caesar, Cato, Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, Lucretius, Ovid, Persius, Petronius, Plautus, Pliny the Younger, Propertius, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Sallust, Seneca the Younger, Tactius, Tibullus, and Vergil.

The database currently includes 2,104,866 words of Latin, 385,258 of them from poetic works, 1,719,608 from prose.

Every word in the corpus has been annotated with the following information: the lemma, or dictionary head word (following Forcellini’s 1864 Lexicon totius latinitatis); the form of the word as it appears in the text; a citation with the word’s location in the text; the word’s morphology; and its subordinating syntax. Records are also flagged to distinguish ambiguous forms, mark proper nouns, and call attention to notable miscellany.

The plan is to work with the sets of synonyms collected in Doederlein’s Handbook of Latin Synonyms, collect the counts of those lemmas in Opera Latina, and create a database that will show the frequency of each synonym relative to the others (is gremium or sinus more common? As it turns out, sinus is commoner by a count of 317 to 78), and relative frequency in poetry and prose of each word.  Since the overall number of prose tokens is higher, the poetry count will be adjusted up so they are comparing apples to apples.  When those calculations are done, it will be possible to determine whether each word is relatively more common in prose or poetry. The plan is to express this as a number between zero and one, with zero assigned to a word that occurs exclusively in prose, 1 to a word that occurs exclusively in poetry.  On this scale (with the counts adjusted), gremium comes in at 0.89, sinus at 0.79–both are poetic.

The plan is to collect as much of this data as possible in one half semester. Beth and Tessa will divide up Doederlein and get as far as they can. Then they will turn to individual passages in Latin literature that actually use the synonyms and do the kind of analysis and close reading Coleman does, but backed up with data. Ideally, when the complete data is collected, we can create an online, enhanced version of Doederlein and put it up on DCC for all Latinists to enjoy. I would love to hear any comments or suggestions you might have for this project. 

Your Personnel Committee Has Questions

The following derives from SCS 2020 panel Evaluating Scholarship, Digital and Traditional, Organized by the Digital Classics Association and Neil Coffee (University at Buffalo, SUNY). I would like thank Neil and my fellow presenters for a stimulating session (fairly well-attended and lively given that it was in the very first slot of the conference, 8:00 a.m. Friday Jan. 3!)

The lack of regular procedures and opportunities for peer-review for digital work poses a serious threat to the future of digitally based scholarship and publication in the academy. The absence of routine peer-review is already acting as a brake limiting the time and energy which scholars with a healthy regard for their own professional futures will spend on digital work. Even those committed to the ideals of openness, access, and collaboration that draw us all to this area often don’t fully commit because of the lack of serious peer-review, and I put myself in this category. What kind of amazing open digital projects would be created if scholars could get the same recognition for this kind of work as they get for books and journal articles? Think of digital humanities as a faucet turned three-quarters off  by the disincentive resulting from lack of regular peer-review. The NEH and the Mellon Foundation have done much not only to finance expensive projects, but also to create structures of evaluation and prestige around digital humanities. But what if Mellon and NEH turn to different priorities in the future? Much of what impedes the progress of digital humanities is beyond the power of any individual to change: the dominance of legacy print publishing houses and print journals, the conservative nature of graduate training, the expense required to mount an effective digital project, the scarcity of grant money. These are intractable structures and economic facts. What can an individual scholar do but wait patiently for things to change? My message today is that there are two things we can, as individual scholars, do immediately: initiate conversations with personnel committees at our institutions about evaluating digital scholarship, independent of our own personnel reviews; and ourselves review a project through the SCS digital project review series.

I served on my institution’s personnel committee for two recent years and participated in reviews that included digital scholarship (2016–18). Before that, for four years I chaired a committee that distributed DH funding that came in a grant from the Mellon Foundation. In the process I helped to evaluate proposals from many different fields (2012–16). These grants were mostly quite small, typically a few thousand dollars for a course release or the labor of a student assistant, or to purchase some software. I have managed a medium-sized digital classics project myself for about 10 years. I currently chair the group that produces the SCS digital project reviews (2017–pres.). Depending on the day, then, I’m involved both as a gate crasher (advocating for the acceptance of digital scholarship, my own or others’) and as a gate keeper (turning a critical eye to digital scholarship). My experience leads me to a certain optimism that DH scholars can make the case for acceptance, and succeed in the academic personnel process, if they consider the legitimate needs of institutions to evaluate and assess their faculty.

How should personnel committees approach evaluating digital scholarship? Sam Huskey and his colleagues at OU arrived at two lists of evaluation criteria. The first list gives the essentials: conference presentations or publications related to the project, the use of accepted coding standards, openness of data, and a strategy for data preservation. The second list gives optional elements, the nice-to-haves: grant support, collaboration, contribution to the field, pedagogical applications, and evidence of adoption and use. This framing is an unquestioned advance. We can argue about the relative importance of each item, and whether some items might be moved from one list to the other. Contribution to the field, for example, seems like it might be an essential. But the powerful OU formulation deserves to be adopted, adapted to local conditions, and widely used. If there is problem with the OU approach it is that some of its central elements, coding standards, data preservation, open data, and the advisability of collaboration, derive from preoccupations within the DH community, priorities that may not be shared by personnel committees; other aspect of the OU criteria, like pedagogical applications and contribution to the field, are things that the committee undoubtedly wants to know, but cannot simply find out from the candidate alone. Independent peer-review is the only real solution. Committees routinely consult outside experts at tenure reviews and full professor reviews, and having the OU lists as a way to prompt reviewers on what to talk about is a huge help.

I want to come at the problem from a different angle, not from the perspective of the evaporators, but from that of the candidate. How should we best present our work to the committee? How can we persuade the persuadable and placate those who are not completely implacable? I applied to be on this panel because it so happens that the personnel committee at my institution drafted guidelines on how it would like to be talked to regarding digital work, and I think their list of questions is a good one. It is more diffuse than the OU lists of criteria, but I think it has the merit of coming from non-specialists. I suspect that the questions they formulated are representative of the types of questions many other non-specialist committees would have.

The Dickinson guidelines are based on work by Todd Presner and were developed after a consulting visit by him to campus. They deal with topics such as platforms and technical requirements (how do I as a committee member actually examine your work?); user experience (how might a user use the tool or progress through the site?); scholarly context (what kind of research did you do, what’s the scholarly argument? Who is the audience? Where does this fit in the scholarly landscape?); the relationship of the project to teaching and service (has it been used in courses or other contexts within the institution?); impact (how have others used the project?); the life cycle of the project (how has it evolved? What are future plans? What about data preservation?); defining roles within a project (what, specifically, did you do, and what did other team members do? What kind of new technologies did you have to learn?). The Dickinson document covers some of the same issues as the OU document, but poses them as questions that can be used a guide to create a persuasive story about your project, its life, and its value.

Good rhetoric means knowing your audience, its desires, its fears, and its values. Assuming they are trying to do their jobs, which I think is generally a fair assumption, most committees want above all to make the right decision, and to avoid having to render a verdict on the quality of academic work by themselves alone. This is something which they correctly feel unqualified to do, and which they do not have the time even to attempt. The job of evaluation is hard enough, given the field-specific criteria for length, venues, genres, and styles of scholarship (to say nothing of field-specific pedagogy and the hard-to-assess complexities of institutional service). DH adds yet another element of field-specific complexity, which is perplexing and anxiety-producing, given the stakes and the potential downsides of making a bad decision. Allaying that anxiety is the key task of the candidate, as much as making the case for one’s own work.

There is no denying that all this discussion and rhetorical framing takes effort. The dispersed, evolving nature of DH imposes added burdens on DH scholars to explain and justify their field, their work, and their chosen modes of publication. This is not fair. One does not have to explain the desire to write a journal article. On the other hand, seen from the committee’s perspective, it is undeniable that there are people who publish on the internet mainly as a way of avoiding the hassles, scrutiny, and compromises of peer review. We all know that there are projects that, for whatever reason, are poorly conceived, vaporous, or over-ambitious. There are some projects that are methodologically blameless, but not terribly interesting or useful to anyone but the scholar who decided to undertake them. There are projects that seem to neglect the manifest needs of their potential audience, projects that have no clear sense of audience at all, projects that mainly repackage material readily available elsewhere, projects that needed a lot more work, but the author got distracted, projects that were good in their day but fell into neglect, tools that produce error-filled results, tools that mislead and mystify rather than elucidate, tools that over-promise, or don’t explain clearly how they work and what they are for. It is not unreasonable for committees to be wary.

Of course, the same intellectual flaws and more can be seen in print scholarship, mutatis mutandis. The immaturity of digital scholarship creates problems of assessment for those not familiar with the medium. The professional apparatus of evaluation is underdeveloped. But the intellectual values are not different: relevance, usefulness, contribution, and significance. As Greg emphasizes, in many cases DH is actually truer to the core missions of humanistic scholarship than much of what is produced by print culture. Finding and articulating that common ground and those shared values is the surest strategy when speaking to a traditionally minded personnel committee. The act of engaging in this dialogue about evaluation on an institutional level will also, I believe, have salutary effects on digital projects themselves, as they come to better articulate their purpose and place in the intellectual landscape. If you have trouble talking about the purpose of your project in these terms, it may be time to rethink the aims and methods of the project.

In the end, a lively culture of public peer-review will be the single most important factor in making it easier for personnel committees to distinguish confidently between the good, the better, and the best. A question arises, however. When it comes to a DH project, who are the peers, really? Is the proper context for public evaluation of digital scholarship the traditional academic discipline, or the emerging DH discipline itself, the average user rating, or some combination? Several review projects have arisen within DH and attempt to sidestep traditional disciplinary identities, the latest being Reviews in Digital Humanities, the first issue of which is dated Jan. 2020. But even these folks admit ominously in their about text that “similar endeavors have been largely unsuccessful in the past.” Perhaps print journals could pick up the slack? The journal American Quarterly announced a digital review series in American Studies with some fanfare in 2016, but it has produced as far as I can see only one actual review. Print journals in general seem like a strange venue for such reviews. Reading a print digital project review is a bit like looking at a stuffed bear at the zoo. It fails to satisfy.

I would argue that professional associations like SCS have a valuable role to play. Many of the projects in question aim to help students and scholars of traditional academic subjects, and the associations themselves are collections of field experts in those subjects. The scholars there may be less than current in DH methods, but they can certainly evaluate how useful a project is to students and scholars in their own disciplines. The professional associations typically publish print journals, but they are not themselves print journals. They all have stable websites and, more importantly, stable organizations.

The SCS publishes about one digital project review per month, but honestly it has been hard to identify willing reviewers. There are guidelines for digital project reviews posted on its website, and they are pretty straightforward. Much of it was borrowed from The Bryn Mawr Classical Review and tweaked to apply to digital projects.  The trick will be getting more people in the associations interested in doing the work. In our own field, while BMCR chokes our in-boxes (that faucet is 100% open), while reviews of digital projects are few and far between. It is difficult to find qualified scholars to write digital project reviews without the offer of something tangible like a book in return. BMCR has, it seems, essentially given up on digital projects.

In the dispiriting landscape  of failed DH review efforts, the SCS series has been modestly successful. But, honestly, I worry about the uniformly positive tone of digital classics project reviews the SCS has published so far. We need critical reviews. DH has a culture of mutual support, collaboration, and generosity—which is wonderful if you are involved but damaging to the credibility of the field as a whole in the long run. I urge you to volunteer to review a digital project for the SCS, to apply the standards that are being discussed in this panel, and not hold back. Be the peer review you want to see in the world. If everyone in this room commits to doing a single review in 2020, we will set an example that will get the notice of he entire DH field, and pave the way for a golden age of digital classics to come.


“Evaluation of Digital Scholarship at Dickinson” Memo, Dec. 20, 2013 

Cohen, Daniel J., and Tom Scheinfeldt, eds. Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Todd Presner, “How to Evaluate Digital Scholarship,” Journal of Digital Humanities, 1.4 (Fall 2012).  


A new Chinese translation of Aeneid 4

Over at Dickinson Classics Online, the sister site of DCC serving Chinese-speaking readers, we have a new translation of Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid. The translator, Wentao Zhai, was kind enough to answer my questions about his approach to translating Vergil’s Latin. 

Christopher Francese, Dec. 20, 2019

What audience do you have in mind?

Mostly Chinese students of Latin. There has been growing interest in the study of classical languages in China, hence the need for good translations of original works directly from Latin. I hope my translation can function as a handy reference for Latin students in China, regardless of their proficiency, and also fill in a gap in the study of Roman literature.

How do you handle proper names?

One of the biggest challenges when a Chinese reader first approaches classical epic is the abundance of proper names. I have tried my best to adhere to the standard practice of using a a one-to-one correspondence between each Latin syllable and a single (see note) Chinese character. This practice was established by the pioneering scholar and translator of Greek literature 罗念生 Luo Niansheng. His scheme has been influential, and many characters from his anthology of Greek myth have since become household names.

But there has also been criticism regarding his choice of unusual characters, and recently some have advocated for a departure from the standard practice toward more simplicity and readability. Doing so, however, would sometimes merge similar-sounding syllables and can create confusion when two or more distinct names are transcribed in the same way. In fact, the fine phonetic distinctions made by Luo (between -i and -y for example) are exactly its strength, because a reader can theoretically reconstruct the original name from the transliteration. Therefore, I have followed Luo’s table as much as possible, with a few exceptions which I will explain separately. The exceptions are justified by historical phonology, rather than ease and convenience, which to me is less important than accuracy and consistency.

In the Aeneid, it is not uncommon for one character, place, or group of people to be referred to by multiple names. Since my target audience consists of students of Latin, I have left the names unchanged in my translation, in order to produce faithfully the nuance and flavor of the original. Therefore, I have kept “Cyllenian god” rather than substituting it with the more familiar “Hermes.” Exceptions are patronymics: I typically translate their sense, hence “Alcides” becomes “the son of Alceus.” There are also borderline cases such as “Hesperides”: should I transliterate as a proper noun, or translate into “daughters of evening”? It’s often a discretionary matter for the translator to make these calls—and a rule of thumb I use is to recreate the name’s effect on a Greek-literate readership: since the name Hesperides is rather transparent to someone who is literate in Greek, I have opted to translate the sense. This also avoids unnecessarily long names (without sacrificing accuracy).

Another problem is when to use names that are conventionally in use but don’t follow stringent rules. Again, I have used discretion and am open to suggestions from the reader. Names like “Caesar” and “Jupiter” are straightforward cases where I simply followed conventions, because I see no need to invent a new name. It gets trickier with less familiar deities such as “Vulcan.” Should I faithfully reproduce the Latin “Vulcanus,” or use the shortened English name, like in Star Trek? In the end, I decided on the latter. My justification for using shortened names for all the Olympian gods is the fact that they are so frequently referenced in other fields of literature and art that it would be too burdensome for the reader to memorize another set of distinct names. Since an English reader can cope with the coexistence of Mercury (as opposed to Mercurius), I suppose a Chinese reader can too.

This brings me to the problem of foreign names: in general, I trace the etymology of a name to its source language and transliterate from there. Therefore, names from the Greek world are transliterated from Greek, but Italian names from Latin. There are a few cases where I deferred to other authorities. For example, for Tyre and Sidonia, I have adopted their names as appeared in the Bible, because they seem to be the most familiar.

How do you handle peculiar Roman concepts and terms?

Thankfully, most terms peculiar to Roman history and society already have Chinese translations, such as terms like consul or Lares. Specific concepts are actually easier to handle because the reader can be expected to pick up a dictionary or encyclopedia if something technical comes up. What is more difficult is in fact nouns that are common to Roman life but are much less current in Chinese. A prime example is the parts of a ship, because ancient China was not a sea-faring civilization. I try my best to use traditional nautical terms (even if they are rare and sometimes unintelligible to a non-specialist) with the hope that the study of Classics would revive an interest in the science of navigation in classical China as well.

To a lesser extent the same problem arises with regard to farming utensils. An urban boy through and through, I have minimal knowledge of this subject. This is complicated by the fact that Standard Mandarin is such a young and literary language that it simply does not have the vocabulary for rural life. Using dialectal terms, on the other hand, would create an additional cultural barrier and break with the usual style of my translation. This is a problem to which I have not yet found a satisfactory answer, and in the meanwhile I remain greatly relieved that I didn’t take up the Georgics.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of other Chinese versions you have examined?

As far as I know there are only two complete translations of the Aeneid into Chinese. One is the well-known translation by 杨周翰 Yang Zhouhan, and the other is the曹鸿昭 Cao Hongzhao (Ts’ao Hung-chao) edition from Taiwan. For the more casual reader, both versions would suffice. They both flow well and use language that is accessible and often lively and inspiring. To an extent, every modern translator stands on the shoulder of the past giants; likewise, I have benefited immensely from Yang’s translation. Given my different objectives and especially greater philological focus on the Latin text, I have also made a conscious effort to distance my versification from his prose rendering.

There are two weaknesses in existing translations that which I hope to remedy with my version. First, they are both in prose; and second, Cao (and Yang to a lesser extent) relied heavily on English translations as an intermediary. There is a strong formal element to Latin poetry. The placement and order of words, the rhythm and sound effects, and the ellipses and periphrases all serve a literary purpose. Oftentimes we find a contrast between different styles and registers, between a short, truncated speech and long, elaborate description. There are certain features that, due to the necessary restraint of working in a different language, cannot be reproduced, for example the interplay between ictus and word accent. But there are many others, especially relating to diction and rhetorical devices, that can be emulated in translation. These features tend to be lost if the translation is second-hand, and a prose translation, as Wei Zhang argues elsewhere with regard to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, would even further flatten the linguistic peculiarities for the sake of clarity.

Are there any Chinese literary models you have in mind?

My immediate models are existing translations of great narrative poetry, most notably of Homer by Luo Niansheng and 王焕生 Wang Huansheng. I have also consulted the Chinese translations of Shakespeare by 卞之琳 Bian Zhilin and Dante by 王维克 Wang Weike. Since modern Chinese (I write in literary Mandarin, the national standard language) does not have a poetic tradition comparable to western epics, I relied primarily on translations. I have noted how existing translations of the Aeneid are in prose. Now, it is of course possible to produce refined and highly stylized prose (the renowned prose version of Shakespeare by 朱生豪 Zhu Shenghao immediately comes to mind). But I have found Bian’s verse translations of four great Shakespearean tragedies a more appropriate model. Being a much lesser versifier myself, of course, I can only do my best to follow his example and hope that the reader does not find my translation completely without literary merit.

What kind of tone are you going for (poetic? contemporary? direct? other?)

Poetic meter in Chinese is almost always linked with classical poetry, and its application in modern poetry is still debated. Following precedents in translating Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, I have decided to eschew minute, technical rules, and adopt a more liberal approach. I have imposed three general limitations: (1) each line must have roughly the same number of syllables, (2) substitute metrical “foot” with “phrase” or its equivalent dun, and (3) keep an elevated register and avoid overly prosaic or informal language.

The concept of dun of is explained by Bian Zhilin in the preface to his Shakespeare translation:

In blank verse, end-rhyme is avoided, but each line consists of five dun (alternatively called morae or phrases, distinct from the caesura in Western poetry) …. Following the pronunciation and sense of modern Chinese, each dun comprises of two or three characters, and rarely after one or four. Four-character dun must end with a grammatical particle (such as dele, or ma). When a one-character dun is followed by a two-character dun, it ceases to be independent and merges into a three-character dun. In verse contexts, I have employed two- and three-character dun more regularly in order to distinguish from prose. Foreign names are usually read faster than usual… and are counted according to their original pronunciation, for example ‘Ophelia’ (three syllables) and ‘Oswald’ (two syllables) can both be scanned as one dun.

In my translation of Vergil, every proper noun is one phrase or dun regardless of its length.

I have two excuses for not trying to domesticate Vergil’s language using “poetic” conventions indigenous to Chinese. First, I am no expert in traditional Chinese verse composition, and straining my abilities would hardly be productive, let alone appreciated by the modern reader. Second, I fear such conceits would distract from my objective to render the original Latin accurately, in a natural and not overwrought manner. That said, what is the right tone to use when translating epic poetry is still an open question: it is work in progress and will probably take the collective effort of several generations of scholars and translators to settle. In making my own meager contribution to this endeavor, I hope my translation can speak for itself.

The Epitaph of Joachim Alphonse Gonçalves (1781-1841)

Latinitas Sinica: Journal of Latin Language and Culture is published in Hong Kong by Michele Ferrero as part of the activities of the Latinitas Sinica foundation, whose mission is the support of the learning and teaching of Latin Language in China. I was pleased to find in Issue 6, published in 2018, an article by Leopold Leeb, the distinguished Austrian Sinologist and professor at Renmin University in Beijing, called “Latin Tombstones in China and the History of Cultural Exchange” (pp. 41-106). It includes the epitaph of the Portuguese missionary and lexicographer Joachim Alphonse Gonçalves (1781-1841), who is close to my heart because I am overseeing a project to digitize his large Latin-Chinese dictionary. The goal of the project is to turn it into a mobile application and publish it on DCC’s sister site, Dickinson Classics Online, which is aimed at a Chinese-speaking audience.  A group of students from Wyoming Seminary (an independent private school here in Pennsylvania) has recently come on to help in the editing of the data, supervised by their teacher Liz Pendland. I thought they in particular might like to learn a little more about the man behind the dictionary.

First, a bit of context from Prof. Leeb (p. 43):

The tombstones of Catholic missionaries were usually written in Latin. They are precious historical documents. Famous cemeteries are the ones in Beijing. In 1610,
after the death of Ricci, a piece of ground was given to the Church, located outside the Fuchengmen, the so-called „Tenggong Zhalan“滕公栅栏 (or “Chala“), where Ricci,
Schall, Verbiest and many others are buried. The cemetery was enlarged in 1654, but the French Jesuits (Bouvet, Regis and others) were buried at a new site after 1732,
namely at the Zhengfusi 正福寺, a few miles to the west. These cemeteries were destroyed in 1900, but restored thereafter. More than 800 missionaries had tombs and
steles at Zhalan, before the Zhalan area was confiscated and the tombs were ordered to be moved to Xibeiwang 西北汪, Beijing. However, many steles are lost, and only
63 have been preserved. These 63, among them the tomb-stones of Ricci, Schall, Verbiest, and Buglio, are still at Zhalan. The stones from Zhengfusi have been moved
to the Stone Museum at Wutasi 五塔寺. Other Catholic cemeteries are the Dafangjing 大方井 cemetery at Hangzhou 杭州, where Yang Tingyun’s 杨廷筠 son erected a
cemetery for the foreigners. In 1676, Fr. Intorcetta 殷 enlarged that cemetery. Aleni’s tomb is at the “Cross Mountain”“十字山”near Fuzhou. Jesuits from Shandong are
buried at Chenjialou 陈家楼, west of Ji’nan. Some Franciscans are buried at a cemetery near Linqing 临清 (here also della Chiesa’s tomb was found). At
Huangshakeng 黄沙坑, west of Canton, some Franciscan missionaries are buried. Bishop Luo Wenzao and some foreign missionaries were buried at Yuhuata 雨花台
outside the Jubao Gate 聚宝门 of Nanjing, but this cemetery was destroyed by the Taipings. Xu Guangqi 徐光启 has his tomb in a park at Xujiahui 徐家汇, Shanghai.  The different mission societies had cemeteries in their respective areas of work.

And now, the Latin text of Goncalves’ tombstone, as edited and translated into English by Prof. Leeb:

[my emphasis]

“Here lies the Reverend Father Joachim Alphonsus Gonsalves, from Portugal, a priest
of the Congregation of the Missions professor in the royal College of St. Joseph in
Macao, also a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, who composed and published
many very useful works for the missions, works in the Chinese, Portuguese, and Latin
language. He was a very gentle teacher and a man of integrity, who died in the age of
65 and rests now in the Lord. He died on 9 October 1841. In the memory of such a
great man his friends and students have consecrated this stele.”
Leeb provides the following note:

Gonsalves, Joachim Alphonse, CM 江沙维, 1781-1841, Portuguese Lazarist, who joined the Lazarist seminary in Rihafoles, Portugal, in 1799. In 1801 he professed vows, came to Macau in 1813. He was appointed to go to Beijing, but did not get permission, due to the strict policies of Jiaqing Emperor. He taught for many years at the Sao José (St. Joseph) Seminary in Macau, where he trained young priests. He became a linguist and encyclopedist and compiled at least six bilingual dictionaries, a Chinese-Portuguese Dictionary 《 汉 葡 字 典》 , a Vocabularium
Latino-Sinicum《拉汉辞汇》(1836), a Lexicon magnum Latino-Sinicum(《拉丁-汉 语大词典》 (1841) etc. He died 3 October 1841 in Macau. Since 1872 his tomb is in the church of the San Jose Seminary, where the tombstone inscription has been preserved. 

As we work on bringing Goncalves’ perutila opera to a new generation, it is pleasing to read of a tangible memorial to his life. If you are interested in Latin in China, please check out Latinitas Sinica and their interesting journal!

DH at Dickinson, 2019

We are now five years past the period of the $700,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation that spurred a good amount of new digital humanities activity at Dickinson and strengthened existing projects. The Dickinson projects, it seems to me, are in various ways good examples of the pursuit of humanistic goals using digital means. They help put the humanities in Digital Humanities. DH, of course, means various things to different people, for example:

  • the use of databases for literary analysis, distant reading, the computational humanities project of running computer programs on large corpora of literary texts to yield quantitative results which are then mapped, graphed, and tested for statistical significance
  • natural language processing and machine translation
  • online preservation and digital mapping
  • data visualization and digital publishing

What most of these things have in common is the use of large datasets and computational methods to try to understand human cultural products. There has started to be a substantial backlash against this kind of work. To some, the phrase digital humanities may even appear a contradiction in terms. The digital values large data sets of often messy and imperfect information, speed, and countability.  Humanistic ideals of exacting scholarship, searching debate, high-quality human expression, exploration of values, and historically informed critical thinking may seem incompatible. Nan Z. Da recently found a receptive audience when she surveyed computational approaches to literary texts and found them lacking.

When you throw social media in there, the digital seems like a positive threat to the humanistic. Jill Lepore speaks for many in her recent history of politics in the United States, These Truths, when she identifies a new, digitally enabled model of citizenship, “driven by the hyperindividualism of blogging, posting, and tweeting, artifacts of a new culture of narcissism, and by the hyperaggregation of the analysis of data, tools of a new authoritarianism.” She sees the Internet as having “exacerbated the political isolation of ordinary Americans while strengthening polarization on both the left and the right, automating identity politics, and contributing, at the same time, to a distant, vague, and impotent model of political engagement.” (p. 738) Digital media have taught us anew how to like and be liked, she points out, but also how to hate and be hated.

Despite these malign trends it is quite possible to pursue, promote, and defend the humanities in the new medium, and it is being done right here at Dickinson, in projects like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Resource Center (Jim Gerencser and Susan Rose); Jim Hoefler’s “Caring During Serious Illness: Advice from Caregivers”; House Divided, the Civil War history site overseen by Matt Pinsker; and the project I direct, Dickinson College Commentaries.

Humanities goals include:

  • historically informed critical thinking
  • self-knowledge in line with prior understandings, the exploration of values
  • the cultivating of powers of thought and expression, including civil and substantive debate

Historically informed critical thinking

Tens of thousands of young people from Indian communities all across America were sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania between 1879-1918. What was the purpose, the strategy, the outcome? What can we learn from interrogating this historical, educational experiment about the goals of its founders, the students who were sent there, the impact on their families and communities, U.S. military and domestic policy related to Indian tribes, the history of American education, about race and ethnic relations? The CIIS site gives you the tools to do this, from massive troves of digitized documents and photographs, to teaching modules for various levels, including close reading modules that teach how to interpret documents and discuss them productively.

The House Divided Project aims to bring alive and explain the turbulent Civil War era in American history.  Using Dickinson College as a both a window and a starting point, the House Divided Project hopes to find in the stories of thousands of individuals a way to help illustrate how the Civil War came, why it was fought so bitterly, and ultimately how the nation survived. The site provides thousands of documents, photos, and records of individuals to sift through, and provides guidance in the form of key themes such as Civil Liberties, the Dred Scott case, Ft. Sumter, the Gettysburg Campaign that link out to the records of places, people, documents, timelines, and images.

Self-knowledge in line with prior understandings

Most patients who live with serious illness (and their family members) will typically need to make a number of important decisions about the kinds of medical treatment that is provided in this time. Hoeffler’s Caring During Serious Illness site is devoted to providing patients and their loved ones with advice about these decisions, offered by Clinical Advisors whose unique perspectives derive from devoting  their professional lives to caring for patients with serious illness. The site gives you interview excerpts from dozens of advisors from different medical specialties, different faith traditions, with the aim to help us care for aging relatives in a sensitive and kind way, and to give us ways of thinking about death, to help us understand it for ourselves. Rabbi Feinstein, for examples says, “Death the most frightening thing in life. The only thing that is more powerful than the fear of death is gratitude for the blessings of life.”

Cultivated powers of thought and expression

Dickinson College Commentaries presents commentary and annotation on classical texts that guide readers through understanding and appreciation. We try to model humanistic reading practices and to infuse good teaching into the site: not too much information, close reading, provide varying perspectives. The Chinese sister site Dickinson Classics Online focuses on intercultural understanding, with Chinese commentaries on Greco-Roman classical texts, and (soon) Latin and English commentaries on the Chinese classics.

Two areas are in my opinion being neglected by DH scholars, here and elsewhere: translation and podcasting. If you want humanities to be global, good translations are crucial.  Literary translation on the open internet is abysmal, and this needs to change. Dialogue and debate are crucial to the humanities, and podcasting is absolutely golden opportunity to model humanistic dialogue and publicize humanities research. Edward Collins’ Kingdom, Empire and Plus Ultra: conversations on the history of Portugal and Spain, 1415-1898 is a great example.

The world needs historically informed critical thinking, high quality expression, and self-knowledge in line with prior understandings. The world needs the humanities. Our political system is in crisis for lack of a culture of democratic discussion. Social media seems to be doing everything it can to crush our capacity for understanding and dialogue. We have the digital tools to promote humanism. Dickinson is leading the way, and I am proud to be working among the scholars, librarians, and teachers who are creating these fine resources. 

Conventiculum Dickinsoniense 2020

2020 Conventiculum Latinum, July 8-14

Conventiculum participants enjoying dinner at the Dickinson Organic Farm

Conventiculum participants enjoying dinner at the Dickinson Organic Farm (2015)

The Conventiculum Dickinsoniense is an immersion seminar designed for those who want to acquire some ability at ex-tempore expression in Latin. A wide range of people can benefit from the seminar: professors in universities, teachers in secondary schools, graduate students, undergraduates, and other lovers of Latin, provided that anyone who considers applying has a solid understanding of the grammatical essentials of the Latin language. A minimum requirement for participation is knowledge of Latin grammar and the ability to read a Latin text of average complexity – even if this reading ability depends on frequent use of a dictionary.  But no previous experience in speaking Latin is necessary. Sessions will be aimed at helping participants to increase their ability to use Latin effectively in spoken discourse and to understand others speaking in Latin. After the first evening reception (in which any language may be spoken), Latin will be the language used throughout the seminar. Participants will be involved in intensive activity each day from morning until early evening (with breaks for lunch and mid-afternoon pauses). They will experience Latin conversations on topics ranging from themes in literature and art all the way to the routines and activities of daily life, and will enjoy the benefits of reading and discussing texts in the target language. Activities will involve both written and spoken discourse, both of which engage the active faculties of expression, and each of which is complementary to the other. The seminar will not merely illustrate how active Latin can be a useful tool for teachers, it will show how developing an active facility in Latin can directly and personally benefit any cultivator of Latin who wishes to acquire a more instinctive command of the language and a more intimate relationship with Latin writings.


Prof. Milena Minkova, University of Kentucky

Prof. Terence Tunberg, University of Kentucky

Latin Camp Farm dinnerWe can accept a maximum number of 40 participants. Deadline for applications is May 1, 2020. The participation fee for each participant will be $400. The fee includes lodging in a single room in campus housing (and please note that lodging will be in a student residence near the site of the sessions), two meals (breakfast and lunch) per day, as well as the opening dinner, and a cookout at the Dickinson farm. Included in this price is also the facilities fee, which allows access to the gym, fitness center, and the library, as well as internet access. The $400 fee does not include the cost of dinners (except for the opening dinner and the cookout at the Dickinson farm), and does not include the cost of travel to and from the seminar. Dinners can easily be had at restaurants within walking distance from campus.  Please keep in mind that the participation fee of $400, once it has been received by the seminar’s organizers, is not refundable.  This is an administrative necessity.

Registered participants should plan to arrive in Carlisle, PA on July 8 in time to attend the first event of the seminar. This first event is an opening buffet and welcoming reception for all participants, which will begin at about 6:00 p.m., in which all languages are acceptable. The actual workshop sessions (in which Latin will the exclusive language) will begin early the next morning on July 9.

For more information and application instructions write to: Professor Terence Tunberg: