Scholars take a new approach to classic tale


Each word was a choice. And each choice could be an excruciating one, discussed and argued over by eight college students in sessions that sometimes lasted well into the night in a garret in the ornate Loyola College humanities building.

When the classmates couldn't agree, they would take a vote on which word to use. When the vote was split, their professor would break the deadlock.

The subject of such deliberation over language was the prison journal of a 22-year-old Roman woman, which the students translated from the original Latin and which has been published by a Loyola College student press. "It was a great experience, although we didn't sleep much for a couple months," said sophomore Irene A. Murphy.

What Would You Die For? Perpetua's Passion is the story of her time in prison in the year 200 as she decides whether to renounce her Christian faith and live to take care of her young son, or remain faithful and face death at the claws of wild animals in an arena.

To those who study the classics, Perpetua's Passion is one of the well-known stories about early Christian martyrs. There have been many translations, said associate professor Joseph Walsh, but most are written in a stilted, artificial language that is not easily accessible to today's college students.

"This is a text we hope will be used in colleges and universities around the country," Walsh said.

College officials had decided to use Perpetua's Passion as the theme of humanities classes for the year because it raises profound questions about what people may live and die for. The work is being read in English, history, religion and philosophy classes, as well as classics.

If they were to use Perpetua's Passion, though, they needed a better text. So Walsh gathered the best classics majors to create a fall semester class dedicated to a new translation.

Each student was hand-picked and well aware that the class would be strenuous. Two students were freshmen, which was a risk, Walsh said, because he did not know how advanced their knowledge of Latin would be. But, after reviewing their experience - both had taken seven years of Latin before entering college - and discussing the project with them, he decided they would be fine.

From the beginning of the school year to early November, the students translated about 90 lines for each class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When they began falling behind, they met Monday nights as well. In addition, each was assigned footnotes. The students said they put off work in their other classes, hoping they would be able to catch up after Perpetua's Passion was complete.

Walsh told them it was their project, not his, so he watched but rarely intervened. The eight sat in a circle and read the translations each had done. When they disagreed, they would discuss the words. In their view, previous translations had often presented Perpetua as a cold, remote figure, not the passionate woman they felt she was.

"So often, she doesn't have the voice of someone in their early 20s," said Lauren Teresa. "We gave her the spirit of a younger person who was easy to understand."

During one meeting, the students argued over a Latin word that could be translated as snake, dragon or serpent. In a dream Perpetua has, she tramples the beast. The word obviously has symbolic value, but what symbol did Perpetua intend?

Nathan Zawie believed the word should be dragon, a reference to the biblical Book of Revelation, in which a dragon comes to a woman in childbirth. Others felt if it was a snake, the word would leave readers with the notion that Perpetua was fighting Satan in the Garden of Eden.

They compromised on serpent, but a long footnote makes a reference to the story of the dragon.

The students all come from Catholic backgrounds, and they said the translation might have been different had most of them not drawn from their Christian faith.

Most said they understood Perpetua's reason for choosing death and respected that choice. But they were not sure whether they would die for their faith if their father were begging them to renounce it and they had a child. The story makes you "question your faith and what you would die for," said Mary Costantino.

The students spent little time explaining their feelings about the story until the end of the project, when they discussed it at a long dinner. But it was clear, Walsh said, that they had thought long and hard about Perpetua and the choices she made.

"When you engage this intensely and intimately with the text, you don't need someone to push you to deal with these evocative questions," Walsh said. "This woman who they had met in a book had pulled their hearts and minds into a dialogue."

After the translation was complete, it was handed over to another group of Loyola students who designed a cover and completed other details to have it published by Apprentice House. Apprentice House was started a year ago as a way for Loyola students in the department of communications to take part in editing, designing and publishing a book.

What Would You Die For? has been printed when orders have been placed. In the first couple of months since its publication, about 500 copies have been sold, many of them to Loyola students.

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