Lost in Translation


Could a translation of a classical work spark a coup d’état? The Elizabethan dramatist, poet, and translator George Chapman would have likely answered, “yes.”

In 1598, Chapman famously published the first installment of his translation of Homer’s Iliad from Greek into English. His patron was Robert Devereux, the Second Earl of Essex. In his dedication Chapman referred to Essex as the English Achilles, in an effort to inspire his readers to view Essex’s military virtues on the model of the great Greek hero. Essex may have hoped that the Iliad translation would create a patriotic fervor and lead readers to support his aggressive foreign policy over the moderate stance toward Spain favored by Queen Elizabeth’s close advisors.


Three years after the publication of Chapman’s Iliad, and frustrated by his failure to achieve the military glory he craved, Essex led an unsuccessful revolt against Elizabeth and was executed for treason. Chapman’s translation was a success; Essex’s coup d’état was not.  Maybe something was lost in translation.

While this may be an extreme case, the episode highlights the excitement and power of bringing a text to a new audience by means of a good translation.


This year, MSA student-athlete Simon Lewellen has utilized MSA’s independent study program to translate St. Augustine’s The Confessions from Latin to English. His project is a culmination of many years of Latin studies with MSA’s Foreign Language Department Chair, Mary Jo Burke.

Simon explained his project: “The reason why I chose to do this independent study this year is that I wanted to implement my Latin skills that I have gained over my years of taking the class and apply them to something I'm interested in. The reason behind my wanting to write my essay about The Confessions is that I want to work on my ability to analyze a difficult text, pick out the parts I want to, and be able to clearly express my thoughts about them.”


For Mrs. Burke, Simon’s area of interest allowed her to expand her own knowledge base in Latin.

Mrs. Burke commented: “Over the summer, when Simon found out that he would be doing an independent study in Latin, he reached out to me to ask if he could focus his class on the Church Fathers and biblical topics. I immediately said yes, as I wanted to allow him to pursue his interest. I’m more of a Golden Age classicist, whose passion and research interests tend toward authors like Virgil, Ovid, and Catullus, and therefore this was new territory for me. I reached out to fellow Latin teachers to get some ideas about texts that would be good for a high-school student to use and find out about any pitfalls in this area of study. Armed with information from my peers, I selected texts for Simon to use.”  


After working on Biblical texts with Mrs. Burke, Simon decided that he wanted to focus his essay and translations on St. Augustine's attitudes toward education, and he selected specific chapters in The Confessions that would be helpful for his argument. This semester, Simon has been reading those chapters in the original Latin and translating passages into English, so he can refer to them in his paper.  

Mrs. Burke commented: “Since this is an independent study, Simon does most of the work on his own. He keeps a Google document of translations, where I make notes and suggestions for him. We also meet in help sessions to go over his translations one-on-one and brainstorm ideas and questions.”


This type of project is one of the focal points of MSA’s new Learning Commons and Student Success Center, which will expand in the fall of 2019. Providing students like Simon the support and tools to pursue their individual academic passions is one of the SSC’s objectives.

Mrs. Burke commented: “I must say this has been an exciting and challenging opportunity for me. I've gotten the chance to read literature that is outside my normal canon, but it has allowed me to help a talented young man pursue his intellectual interests.”


Simon’s independent study might not inspire a coup d’état the way Chapman’s translation of the Iliad did. However, it has certainly inspired his classmates to recognize that excellence can take many forms and the first step toward excellence is discovering your passion. Utilizing the independent study program, Simon got caught up in his passion for Latin—to the point where you could say he was “lost in translation."