Pioneering Classics in Translation: W.H. Alexander (1878-1962) and the Western Canadian Experience
Delivered at the joint meeting of the Classical Associations of the Canadian West and of the Pacific Northwest Victoria, British Columbia: 10 March 2000
In that Age the responsibilities of a Department of Classics were rooted firmly in the Greek and Roman authors — in Greek and Latin. The mere thought of ancient literature in translation would have been as repellent as ... allowing women to smoke in public — wearing trousers.
The words are those of the late Malcolm Francis McGregor (1910-89), Head of Classics at the University of British Columbia (hereinafter UBC) 1954-75, as he recalled his undergraduate years at that university, 1926-30, the "Age" to which he refers. This paper will challenge this widely-shared, if not always so trenchantly displayed, historical picture by addressing a neglected question: what evidence is there for the use of source material in Latin and Greek in translation before World War II in English-speaking universities? I shall offer two answers: the first couched in broad terms and based on selective evidence; the second developed with close reference to Canadian practices, and particularly those of its two westernmost provinces.
As good a place as any to start writing a history of Classics without the languages in Anglophone higher education is Gilbert Murray’s inaugural lecture at Glasgow in 1889, The Place of Greek in Education. There the 23-year old Professor boldly stated that Greek was not one of the subjects that ought to be studied by everybody, and went on to say: "Greece and not Greek is the real subject of our study." As an example, he claimed that "it is quite possible for a man (sic) who cannot read a single page of Plato intelligently to acquire a tolerable proportion of the Greek spirit."
Murray may not have incorporated translated material into his teaching, but his translations of Euripides published played some role in British higher education in the decades that followed (as they certainly did in Canada until the 1950s). I have found one unsubstantiated reference to a course based on translated material at Aberdeen ca. 1900-10, but the best documented instance of such teaching I know from before 1914 is from the University of Birmingham. Here students could take "pass" degrees (non-honours degrees) in Latin, and study Greek literature and ancient history entirely in translation. The Professor of Classics who pioneered this program, Edward Adolph Sonnenschein (1851-1929), explained that he also incorporated translated material into Latin courses to, in his words, "fill up the gaps". He also experimented in combining the study of classical authors, both in Latin and Greek, with the study of complementary material in English literature. Ancient literary theory, for example, was imbibed from a course taught by the English department, not in the original under the aegis of Classics.
This British provincial example may be surprising. It is also instructive, since it illustrates the inevitable link between studying material in translation and interdisciplinary activity. North America will offer more surprising information, and some further instances of how the use of translated material loosened the boundaries of "Classics", and made it into more of a continuum with other parts of the humanities.
There is sporadic evidence for the USA prior to 1914 both of courses based on translations, and of the recognition that such pedagogy was necessary and inevitable (see Bill and Woodbury), but for present purposes we can start with World War I, a watershed in the history of the humanities in North American education. In the wake of the moral trauma of that war, the 1920s saw a strong turn towards the humanities as a source of both culture and values. The emblematic programs are those at Columbia and Wisconsin, in which classical texts in translation formed part of a corpus of material that served to introduce Western literature and thought in the early undergraduate years. Other early bridgeheads in the use of translated material were made in ancillary disciplines: in courses on ancient philosophy in departments of philosophy, and on ancient history in departments of history (though in most other Canadian universities such courses were taught within Classics departments); and finally in literature departments, in courses on world literature (or, as at UBC again, within first-year English, where Murray’s translations of Euripides were used in the interwar years). Also, though to a lesser extent, there were courses in classical art and archaeology, in departments of the fine arts.
As for ancient literature within Classics departments, the bridgehead was probably the kind of ancillary reading list in translation described by Sonnenschein for Birmingham’s language courses. Thus to take an example from our region, before World War I at Whitman College in Walla Walla there was a course in Greek drama in the original that was supplemented by readings in translation. That same college also had a course "History of Greek Literature", exclusively based on translated material, and "open not only to students of Greek, but to all students of literature." That is, the course fulfilled the function of an elective or service course.
The reason for introducing Whitman is because Greek there before 1914 was the responsibility of Otis Johnson Todd, who in 1918, after taking a doctorate at Harvard, came to the University of British Columbia where in 1920-21 he gave a replica of the Whitman course on Greek literature. This may have been the first such course offered in Canada, but, if so, it would be a joint first, since a similar course was introduced in the same year at the University of Alberta by a man who has rightly been considered the pioneer of Classics in translation in Canada, William Hardy Alexander — the central figure in the present paper, since not only did he develop such teaching (like Todd), but (unlike Todd) also mused and theorised about it extensively.
Alexander was a product of the Toronto Honours Classics program — a fairly austere course of linguistic and textual study, despite its attempt to mirror some of the more humanistic features of Oxford’s "Greats" (Literae Humaniores). After taking his PhD at Berkeley he taught briefly at the University of Western Ontario before beginning a thirty-year stint (1908-38) at the University of Alberta. He proved an energetic and prolific intellectual and scholar. His scholarly work on Seneca belongs mostly to the later part of his career, but before that he was heavily engaged in administration at Alberta, as the founding Head of Classics (1926), Dean of Arts. He was also an active Christian socialist (not considered an oxymoron here in Canada), and occasionally got into political trouble (see Horn): once by opposing a move to introduce prohibition, on another occasion by seeking to run for the federal parliament for the CCF (then the name of Canada’s social democratic party). He was also a maverick critic of the general conformism of academic life (Alexander B-3).
His reasons for introducing Classics in translation seem to have had nothing to do with his non-academic politics. Having helped eliminate Latin as a matriculation requirement at Alberta (it never was one at UBC), Alexander saw that the only way to preserve Classics would be through the use of translations. Accordingly, he introduced a course called Classics in English 51, using Richard Livingstone’s The Greek Genius and Its Meaning to Us as a textbook. Enrolments were high, and as Alexander explained (A-4), he earned the right to "little classes of from two to ten persons in Greek and Latin ... by the large student load I was now handling in Classics in English." Where have we heard that argument before? Now we know that its lineage extends further back than was perhaps suspected.
It was specifically Greek literature, at both UBC and at Alberta, that formed the bridgehead in courses in translation. At both institutions a similar course in Latin literature was not introduced until much later — 1938 in Alberta, 1952 at UBC. This was partly a reflection of the fact that more students were taking Latin language courses (UBC did not need to introduce Beginner’s Latin until the mid-1930s), partly perhaps because Greek material was inherently more attractive. (At UBC we still teach an all-year course in Greek and Latin literature in translation, and dare not spring the Greek half loose from its Roman partner lest the latter wither on the vine.)
At some point (at least by 1930) Alexander’s literature course came to include Greek art: in his words (Alexander A1), "a careful study from lantern-slides of the whole field of Greek art from the archaic xoana of earliest times through the grandeur of classicism and the pathos of Hellenisticism to the decline in late Roman days." This was a course "open to all upper-class students in the faculty of Arts." He referred in the same context from which I am quoting to the use of such illustrative material in courses in ancient history. UBC had a similar course, given intermittently between 1938 and 1946 — one hour a week of slides, two of lectures on Greek epic and tragedy — and it may have been following the Albertan precedent.
So, the evidence is there: there were courses in translation in Classics departments before the 1950s and 60s. In fact, a report by the Humanities Research Council of Canada in 1947 shows that nine Canadian institutions had a total of thirteen survey courses in classical literature in translation, seven of them being given in the four Western Canadian provinces. But what did Classicists of the 20s and 30s think of this innovation? You heard at the outset what Malcolm McGregor thought they thought of it. But the only person to have opined much on the subject is W.H. Alexander, and he offers a mixed message.
On the one hand, as we have seen, he advocated courses in translation that he knew would be taken by students who would not otherwise study Classics. But the year after he left Alberta for Berkeley (where he taught for another ten years) he told his colleagues in the Royal Society of Canada (Alexander A3) that while such courses were "profoundly worthwhile", "it should never, however, be thought that courses of this kind are serving the full purpose of the classical discipline." He referred to Gilbert Murray’s translations (widely used in such courses in this era) as having a "rare and wonderful beauty" but not the same beauty as that of Sophocles or Euripides. Moreover, he expressed considerable anxiety that Classical Archaeology might have a corrupting influence on the study of Classics — an interesting attitude, given the popularity of this subject as the one of the most accessible routes to ancient culture in contemporary pedagogy. Alexander was ready with a quotation from a British source: "I should rather have a young man or woman who can read understandingly a chapter of Xenophon’s Anabasisthan someone who knows all the pots and pans in the British Museum." In fact, Alexander was in a generally conservative mood in this address, and concluded that anyone "would be better off to read one book of the Aeneid in the original than six in translation."
Such ambivalence was perhaps to be expected, and memories of its expression are probably the source of Malcolm McGregor’s vivid recollection of negative attitudes around 1930. As for such a position being adopted by a political radical (and scourge of academic conformity) like Alexander, we must recall that political radicalism in this period (at least in Canada and Britain, though not perhaps in the USA) coexisted with educational elitism. The argument was that the democratisation of education should involve the slow diffusion of what was best, not its rapid dilution into the average. For example, in the 1933 Canadian Forum (a progressive periodical to which Alexander frequently contributed) there was an article (see Smith) that argued in favour of compulsory Latin in the high schools of Ontario, and against the use of translated material there on the grounds that it would trivialise great literature — "the Agamemnon, the Aeneid, and Pericles’ Funeral Speech cannot well be split up into ‘points’ to be reproduced at the June examination." This reasoning is rather like the argument trotted out at Cambridge in the 1860s and 1870s against any study of "subject matter" in the Classical Tripos: it would lead to "cramming" of mere facts.
Alexander’s ambivalence marked much of the history of Classics in translation after World War II, as different institutions embraced such teaching at often significantly different paces — sometimes as a result (at least in Canada) of a lingering attachment to Latin as a matriculation requirement for Faculties of Arts. Not every Classics department was as bold as the University of British Columbia’s which demarcated a separate section of its curriculum as early as 1953-4 as Classical Studies (in distinction from Latin and Greek), and introduced in 1958-9, under McGregor’s Headship, a Major in Classical Studies (perhaps Canada’s first).
What subsequently fueled such developments (at UBC, as probably elsewhere) was the increase in courses that by the nature of their subject matter did not exclusively depend on literary sources — here art and archaeology, as Alexander foresaw, led the way, along with myth, and of course terminology courses (though UBC’s was introduced only after McGregor’s retirement). This development was inevitable, since, as Alexander again recognised, there are severe limits on the extent to which classical literature can be taught exclusively in translation. Such courses still remain surveys at most institutions, and do not readily lead to more advanced undergraduate study, let alone at the graduate level (where, by contrast, UBC has a flourishing, but linguistically marginalised, MA in Classical Archaeology).
Such, then, is my partial and preliminary account of the introduction of classics in translation in higher education in the English-speaking in the first half of the twentieth-century. At the end I have also touched on issues of current curricular policy. These, I would suggest, can often be profitably considered in light of accurate historical information. To possess such information we shall need more than the mélange of disparate sampling and localised minutiae that I have served up. Still, this dish might encourage others to browse their old calendars, and help answer in greater detail the question of how we classicists reached our present situation with regard to the use of translated material, and non-linguistic teaching generally. We certainly didn’t get here overnight, and, as I have shown, the process began a lot earlier than many may realise.
LITERATURE CITED AND QUOTED, AND FOR FURTHER READING
(A) Articles on Classical Education:
(1) "The Classics in a Liberal Education: per se and per alia." Fourteenth National Conference of Canadian Universities (May 1930) 47-56.
(2) The Amiable Tyranny of Pisistratus, or The Future of Classical Studies. Edmonton, 1931. Reprinted with minor changes, and reduced documentation, in Classical Weekly 30 (1937) 127-135.
(3) "The Classical Discipline in Education, 1899-1939." Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada Section II (1939) 9-21.
(4) "Peregrinus Sicut Omnes Patres Mei," Phoenix 4 (1950) 31-46.
(B) Articles on Education and Politics (selected):
(1) "The Higher Learning. Twenty-five Years of Conflict." 1-26 in These Twenty-five Years: A Symposium (Toronto 1933).
(2) "An Ancient Crisis and Its New Deal." Queen’s Quarterly 42 (1935-36) 379-390.
(3) "Noli Episcopari (Letter to a young man contemplating an academic career)." Canadian Forum 19 (October 1939) 220-223.
(4) "Now is the Hour." Queen’s Quarterly 58 (1948) 151-160.
(5) "The Classics and Survival Values." 117-151 in The Humanities for Our Time (University of Kansas Lectures in the Humanities) (Lawrence, Kansas 1949).
Bill, C.P. (1) "A New Greek Course." Classical Journal 4 (1908-9) 17-21.
— (2) "The Business of a College Greek Department." Classical Journal 9 (1913-4) 111-121.
Horn, M. Academic Freedom in Canada: A History (Toronto 1999).
Kirkconnell W. and Woodhouse A.S. P. (eds.) The Humanities in Canada. Ottawa: Humanities Research Council of Canada 1947.
McGregor, M.F. "Reminiscences of University Life." 13-17 in The Way We Were: A Celebration of Our UBC Heritage. Vancouver: UBC Alumni Association 1987. Reprinted in Todd (below); link here.
Murray, Gilbert. The Place of Greek in Education. Glasgow 1889.
Smith, G.O. "Compulsory Latin in Ontario." Canadian Forum 13 (September 1933) 463-464.
Todd, R.B. Classical Studies at the University of British Columbia, 1915-75: A Brief History (Vancouver 2001).
Sonnenschein, E.A. "An Experiment in University Education." Classical Review 22 (1908) 169-171.
Woodbury, M. "The Study of the Ancient Classics in English." Classical Journal 4 (1908-9) 124-7.