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Posted On July 29, 2016 | 15:33 pm | by lainw | Permalink
A Conversation with Translator Suzanne Abrams Rebillard

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) was launched in 2011 with the goal of providing high-quality facing-page texts and translations of major medieval literary works to both general and specialist readers alike. Since 2014, DOML has offered short-term residencies for translators of volumes to visit Dumbarton Oaks and use its resources. Suzanne Abrams Rebillard, an independent scholar who is translating Gregory of Nazianzus’s Poemata de Seipso for a forthcoming volume, sat down with us at the conclusion of her residency for a wide-ranging interview about her work, career, and Gregory of Nazianzus. (Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)


Can you tell me about your DOML residency—what the residency entails, what you’ll be working on, and how this relates to your interests or fields of study?

I’m working on the introduction to my DOML volume, Gregory of Nazianzus’s Poemata de Seipso, and it’s just about done. It has been a useful three weeks. Besides the work, it has been useful to think about things other than [small] details, especially when you’re translating, and to just sit down and write the introduction and describe the author’s style on translating poetry—to describe the meters he uses and the lines. It’s helpful to put things in a bigger picture and to get away from whether the text you have has the right grammatical form or not, or if you’re using the right word to translate this word. So that has been good, and it has also made me go back and read some things again that I haven’t read for a long time. You think you know what authors are saying because you’ve used their texts so many times, but you don’t always go back to look at them again. It has been good to go back and say, “Oh, yeah, this author also says that, and that’s helpful.”


Can you tell me about Gregory of Nazianzus and his Poemata de Seipso?

Gregory of Nazianzus was a bishop. He lived in the fourth century, from 329 to 389, and he came from a wealthy family—his father was a bishop. His career was marked by periods of working in a church and then just retreating or performing contemplations; he was always complaining about being sick, so he went off on these rest cures for years, and then he would get called back to service again. He lived at a time of a lot of theological debate, and there were a lot of breaks within the church over the nature of the Trinity, so he eventually got called to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, where he presided over the church council and acted as bishop of the capital.

But it was a disaster. Gregory couldn’t manage to get the different parties to agree, he had to deal with all sorts of political problems, and finally he retreated back home to retire. He got to the capital in 379 and left in 381—so he was only there for two years. But during the time he was there, he preached five orations that became, for the Orthodox Church, a definitive statement on the nature of the Trinity. His success was recognized later, but not during his own lifetime, so he disappeared—whether he chose to run off or whether he was driven out, we don’t know, because we only have his account of it, which is in these poems.

And he wrote a lot. The poems about himself, the Poemata de Seipso, are about 6,600 lines, and the whole collection of all his poetry is over seventeen thousand lines. Thankfully, not all of it is about himself. He complains a lot in his poems about what happened in the capital, he complains about being sick; but then he also has many beautiful prayers, and he mixes the Bible and classical literature together, so it’s kind of a big jumble of subcultures of his own world. The poems are also important for understanding church politics, the role of bishops, and the theology behind all these battles, which Gregory wrote all this poetry about when he went home in 381. And that’s another thing that he’s known for: coming up with a way to absorb classical learning and literature into a Christian literary tradition. So he’s very important for that and his poems are very important for that.


Did the orations influence a lot of the modern Orthodox Church?

Yes, they have really influenced the modern Orthodox Church all the way down. Gregory of Nazianzus was an exceptionally good speaker, so we also have forty-four of the orations he gave. I mean, they were not the form in which he necessarily gave them at church—but in those ten years of retirement between his departure from the capital and death, he worked with two deacons in his church. The three of them went off to some place on one of the family estates, where Gregory wrote and edited his own works and the other two men helped him edit. So we have 250 letters, forty-four orations, and seventeen thousand [lines of poetry]. And even today, because his writing is so beautiful, there are passages from his orations that are in the Orthodox liturgy—if you go to church now, you can still hear them. Some of his poetry was used as hymns, too, very soon after his death. (I mean “soon” by ancient standards—within 150 years of his death.) Within a decade or two of his death, his orations had been translated into Latin, and we also have Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Latin, and ancient Georgian translations of his writings. I’ve actually heard that in the Orthodox tradition, his texts are the most quoted writings after the Bible.


Speaking of the Latin translations—did Gregory of Nazianzus cross over into Roman Catholicism?

Yes. He is a doctor of the Church, so his theological arguments are important in the Catholic Church as well.


What initially sparked your interest in late antique poetry?

I was trained as a classicist. I went to Greece one summer during college, and I was really excited when I saw the temple to Hephaestus in the middle of Athens—it was turned into a church in the Byzantine period, and that was part of what had preserved it. So then I started to think about how classical traditions get preserved. From there, I started reading more and more late antique literature, and then, when I got to graduate school, I took a seminar about early Christian asceticism in the eastern part of the empire, and my professor suggested that I look at Gregory of Nazianzus’s poems. And I’m still doing it. I think what also interests me about late antique poetry is that there’s still a lot of work to be done, and there aren’t necessarily editions or translations of even the basic texts, which is why DOML exists. It’s exciting to be able to make an important contribution in that way.


Can you talk about some of your previous work and your experience with translation?

Well, I never thought I would do a translation. When I started work on Gregory of Nazianzus’s writings, I was looking at how he presents himself in the autobiographical poems. There were a few of them that had been translated, but I was interested in the ones that hadn’t been, because through those you got a very different picture of him. But when I sat down to look at them, I got tired of flipping through all the Greek, and I just said I couldn’t do it. I told myself: “This is really time consuming; it would be much easier if I could just work with a translation.” So I did—I just sat down and started translating it. I never intended it to be anything other than my own crutch, but then a friend who was also working on Gregory’s writings came into the office and saw my translation on my desk and said, “Suzanne, what is this?” And I said, “Oh, I did a translation of the poem so I can do my stuff,” and he was shocked. He said something along the lines of, “Just slap an introduction on it and turn it in—you’re done, your dissertation is finished.” But I had just seen it as a tool, you know.

Now I’m trying to make it something a little lovelier than a tool. Mostly because somebody needed to do it, and I needed it done. It’s sort of a frustrating thing to find a balance between being accurate and being readable, which I think is probably true for all translators, but especially with ancient Greek and English, because the two languages work very differently. With the structure of ancient Greek you’re going to have really long sentences in a way that the structure of English can’t handle—the grammar just kind of collapses on itself. And I guess that, as classicists, we’re trained from the beginning to translate, and as a classicist, you spend years translating. But it’s frustrating, because you’re always leaving something out: there’s always some connotation of a word or a phrase that doesn’t cross over. But translating this is a good start, which is satisfying.


How did you hear about/get involved with DOML?

I had organized a panel at Brown University, and Stratis Papaioannou, who’s teaching at Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine Greek Summer School, was a reader for my panel for this conference. I had lunch with him, and he said, “Why don’t you submit a proposal to DOML for your work?” And I thought it was a good idea. I had initially thought that what the poems needed was a really thorough commentary, but as I started that project, I realized I would be like a hundred years old by the time I finished it, so I decided that my translation platform was more practical. I could just focus on the translation and get it out there, and then people could work with it. The reason translation is so important is because the Greek in the poetry isn’t easy. Even in the Byzantine period there are paraphrases of his poems—so even back then, you would have a book, and you would have his poem in one column in Greek, and then a second column, also in Greek, but in Greek that made more sense to people at that time. After you’ve spent years with him, though, his Greek actually starts to become easier and make more sense. The poetry is underused because it’s not immediately accessible, so I’m hoping the translation will change things.


What have you enjoyed the most about your DOML residency?

What has been great is that I will have a draft done! Aside from that, everybody here has been very helpful, and it has been great—it has been easy to work. Working on the translation has also enabled me to get to some stuff I’ve been wanting to read, but never had time to. It’s been great to have that time, and everything is so well set up at Dumbarton Oaks that there’s not even any settling-in time. I just got to work, and everything was set up for me. You don’t even have to wait for books to come; it’s all right there. And outside my door, on the top of the library, is a reproduction of an icon of Gregory; so every time I leave my office, he glares at me. That has been inspiring, keeping me at my desk, because I get scowled at every time I leave the room.


There has been talk of you starting a conference panel with Jeffrey Wickes, a summer fellow specializing in Byzantine studies.

Jeff and I noticed a number of similar trends in the Syriac poetry he works on and the Greek poetry I work on. We were talking about how poetry might have been expected to affect people when it is not intended for a liturgical context—or even if it is intended for that context, but is experienced outside of the liturgy. Scholars are just now starting to think about not just political and economic forces across the geographical span of the Roman Empire, but about literary movements as well, and we would like to contribute to that discussion. We hope to get a panel together for the next North American Patristics Society conference in May 2017.