Translating Philology: Babylonian Poetry and Recreation of Textual Crises

Name of applicant

Sophus Helle


"Freie Universität Berlin, centre of excellence Temporal Communities; Oxford University, Faculty of English Language and Literature"


DKK 700,000



Type of grant

Internationalisation Fellowships


The project explores the overlap between philology and translation studies: two fields that have much in common but, at present, very little interdisciplinary dialogue. I take philology to be the study of textual crises, meaning that the discipline is dedicated to undoing whatever problems prevent us from reading a given text. In the case of ancient poetry, that often means a whole range of problems, from missing sections to divergent manuscripts. In this project, I explore how the crises that define philology make their way into translation, studying the strategies that translators use to depict - or more commonly, obscure - the problems of the sources. All those strategies rest on often unstated theoretical assumptions and can have wide-ranging implications for the study of literature.


The efforts of philologists and translators often goes unappreciated, partly because their work tends to make itself invisible: to casual readers, a translation often seems to be a single stable text, scrubbed clean of all traces of the processes that produced it. In this project, I will develop new strategies for giving non-specialist readers more access to the editorial choices that go on behind the scenes, so that they too can follow how ancient texts move from damaged manuscripts to readable renditions. My aim is to produce innovative, theoretical, interdisciplinary, and workable approaches to the translation of ancient literature, which does not suppress the complexity of the texts but instead uses their crises as an occasion to reflect on how literary aesthetics and meaning are made.


The project will consist of two parts: a theoretical study of existing approaches to the translation of ancient literature, drawing on samples from a wide variety of languages and cultures: and an experimental, research-based translation of the Babylonian epic "Enuma Elish", in which I will develop, test, and reflect on a range of new strategies for rendering philological issues that are commonly obscured by the process of translation. I am particularly interested in finding new ways for philology and translation to relay the multiplicity of meaning, the textual variation, and the poetic richness that is found in ancient texts, rather than reducing them to a single, seemingly fixed set of choices.

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