Undergraduate scholars take on rare Latin manuscript translation project
April 18, 2017
They have a regular table in the Special Collections Research Center in Morris Library where they quietly discuss, share notes and sometimes disagree about the “Meditationes Vitae Christi,” the bound Latin manuscript they’ve been working on translating for several months.
Clayton Killion, an English major from Ava, Illinois and Sarah Orkin, an English major from Nashville, Tennessee, are two of the most knowledgeable Latin language students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. As such, they were obvious choices for a research project focused on translating the manuscript, the “Meditations on the Life of Christ,” a bound volume probably dating from about 1390 to 1410 -- and almost certainly one of the oldest known versions of the text in the world.
The manuscript is hand-copied. Killion and Orkin have agreed there are at least two sets of handwriting visible, but they disagree a bit as to how many total. It may be as many as four different hands, they say.
“We first had to figure out the shorthand used in this manuscript,” Orkin says. “They don’t capitalize words, and there is almost no punctuation and few paragraph breaks. Also, some of the letters in this script look very similar. For example, ‘C’ and ‘T’ look very much alike. We didn’t really expect that, we had to learn it as we translated.”
Melissa Hubbard, formerly the rare book librarian at SIU, found the book in the bottom of a mislabeled box in Special Collections. It was the only item of its kind. Special collections personnel catalogued the manuscript, noting that the suede binding, with its two metal clasps and simple design, was newer than the manuscript itself but far from modern. Then the book was made available to the public via Special Collections.
Daniel Moore, formerly a faculty member at SIU, did some initial work with the manuscript, enough to determine its general age. He also found that an epilogue in the volume appears to be unique.
The translating project, under the aegis of the Department of Languages, Cultures, and International Trade, utilized an undergraduate assistantship to attract qualified students. Killion and Orkin were easily the two best qualified. Both of them had begun studying Latin while still middle school students and both entered SIU already at the 300 class level in Latin.
“I started studying Latin in sixth grade,” Killion says. “It was mandatory at Trinity Christian School (Carbondale).” Killion enjoyed learning it so much that he kept on learning it on his own through high school.
“My friends thought I was crazy,” he says. “I started wanting to learn Latin in fifth grade because Noah Webster knew both Latin and Greek and he was able to put those skills to use developing a dictionary. I really admire that.”
“A language was required at my school,” Orkin says. “We got to try a few of them out for a few weeks in sixth grade before beginning to study in seventh grade. I liked the Latin teacher. Also, learning to speak a foreign language uses a different set of skills. I thought it was harder than learning just to read – so even though Latin has a complex grammar system I chose it because it is only a written language, with no speaking.”
The two are making a line by line comparison with other known versions of the manuscript. They are checking for idiosyncrasies, and the work is helping them prepare to translate the epilogue, which is the second phase of their project.
They presented the work they’ve completed so far at the Undergraduate Creative Activity and Research Forum in April. Orkin, with a background in art, compiled the research poster. And Killion blogs occasionally about their work. They began translating the epilogue just a few weeks ago, and he’ll report on their progress in the blog, with plans for a formal presentation of their work at an appropriate academic venue.
“I came to SIU because of the opportunities for undergraduates,” Orkin says. “The idea that I could get involved in research right away, that I didn’t have to wait for grad school, and the one on one working with faculty -- those were things that made me want to come to SIU.”
“I knew SIU as part of the landscape,” Killion says. “I initially started college online, but Greek wasn’t available. I intended just to take Greek at SIU – but it turns out that with scholarships and financial aid SIU was a better value. I didn’t realize I’d also have the opportunity to work with a manuscript like this.”