Lost in ‘translatio’

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You only get to invent the wheel once. This basic principle works in engineering as well as in art. Culture is a wheel in motion, and what was created, doesn’t get recreated, even when it gets lost. It is merely rediscovered and updated.

The long cultural shift from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (as we call these periods today) resulted in huge artistic and literary loss in the West. Ancient painting slowly disappeared, as did sculpture, theatre performance, ancient worship, republicanism. Even without mentioning engineering, town-planning and other urban developments, the loss-list is long and open-ended. While some areas were able to preserve a memory of these cultural developments, much of Europe slowly slid into a cosy form of amnesia.

The line was broken, even if it went on intermittently for some time in former hotbeds of ancient culture, like Italy, Southern France or Spain.

Something always gets lost in translation. More precisely, something always gets lost in translatio. The concept of translatio, the Latin word for transfer, was first used to refer to the transfer of power (translatio imperii) from one form of rule (or imperium) to another. In one medieval formula, the translatio moved from the Romans to the Byzantines, then to the Franks, the Lombards and finally to the Germans of the Holy Roman Empire. In another, it passed from the Greeks to the Romans and then to the French. It was a convenient tool for understanding historical time and progression.

Every culture has limited means of understanding itself and other cultures. In the case of the medieval West (and of most, if not all, other contemporary cultures, for that matter), it lacked the conceptual tools of understanding culture the way moderns do. The medieval translatio imperii was a transfer of power, but it was also a transfer of culture, a realignment of cultural balance. When the translatio imperii moved from Greece to Rome, for instance, it wasn’t just the fact that the power shifted from the ancient Greek city-states to the Roman republic and then Empire, but that the culture of Greece, the sum total of its cultural achievements, was transmitted to Rome.

In the process of translatio, some things are lost, but most of the things get recycled, adapted and repurposed. Culture evolves through translationes big and small, local or global. Our world today is the result of a long string of translationes.

So we come back to (not re)inventing the wheel. The point is not that ancient literature got lost, but that it was never reinvented. Each culture develops within a frame, which is always different from the next one. The medieval West didn’t know ancient tragedy until Albertino Mussato, one of the earliest humanists, came long. He wasn’t reinventing ancient tragedy when he wrote Ecerinis, the first tragedy since Antiquity. Instead, he was recovering the memory of Rome, which his group of Paduan humanists had set out to do. He was rediscovering the lost wheel.


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