Needed: Protestant Latinists

The vast majority of the church fathers have not been translated into English. The vast majority of the Reformation’s writers have not been translated into English. Most of the history of the church remains a closed book to the modern world because that book is in Latin or Greek.

Few students take Latin in high school. If the Latin works of the church fathers and the Reformers were not translated in the days when Latin was widely understood among the educated classes, how will they ever be translated today?

There is a solution. The question is: Will anyone adopt the solution?

This problem is not confined to the church fathers. In 1978, I heard a lecture by David Noel Freedman, the editor of Biblical Archeology Review and general editor of the Anchor Bible series. He was discussing the Ebla tablets. He said that only 10% of the discoveries in any ancient language are ever translated. Most tablets deal with mundane matters, mainly financial: tax receipts, trade records. The translators lose interest.

If we look at the texts of the church fathers, only about 20% are translated, if that. Migne’s Patrology, Greek and Latin, is 382 volumes. The standard English translations of the church fathers — ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene — total 38 volumes, but these are shorter than Migne’s volumes. There is another set, Fathers of the Church (Cima), that is 108 volumes.

There are 221 volumes of the Latin fathers in Migne’s 19th-century collection. These are in the public domain.

Here is the opportunity. Today, there is a revival of interest in Latin in the Christian school movement. This means that there will be a growing number of students who will possess the ability to deal with Medieval Latin. The division of labor can be employed to get the Latin fathers translated into English.

Here is how the project could work. A consortium of the publishers of Latin curriculum materials could set up a joint Website.

Stage one of the project would be to scan in Volume 1 of Migne’s Latin fathers. The consortium would buy a copy of Adobe Acrobat Pro 7. With an academic discount, this is about $150. There is a new scanner on the market, the Plustek OptiBook 3600, that allows scanning without risking the splitting of a book’s binding. It sells for under $250.

A good research library has a set of Migne. The consortium would hire a student to scan in Volume 1. Students work cheap. The student would be sent the scanner and the software. The student would mail a CD-ROM of the scanned-in text, along with the software and the scanner.

The scanned-in text would be posted on the consortium’s Website.

Next, the consortium’s academic director would create assignments. He would divide up Volume 1 of Migne into (say) 20-page sections. These would be sections from those works that have not yet been translated. He would post these assignments online.

The consortium’s academic director would oversee the handing out of assignments. Students who are enrolled in a higher-level Latin course would be assigned by their teacher the task of translating a section as a one-term project. They would apply to the Website’s director on a first-come, first-assigned basis. They would do this work in two-person teams. They need not be in the same school, although for grading purposes locally, this would be convenient. Home-schooled students could work jointly over the Internet.

One student would translate half the pages. The other student would edit. Then they would switch assignments. Each student would be translating for the first half of a term. Each would be editing during the second half. Together, they would agree to a final translation.

This translation would be sent to the consortium, which would publish it online. Each student would have his/her name affixed to the section. Each would receive credit for the course. Each could list this project in a college application.

At that point, the consortium will scan in Volume 2 of Migne. The scanning technology will keep getting better. One volume at a time is fast enough.

Over time, the Latin fathers would be translated into English. The consortium’s site would then be the only source of the English translations of Migne’s Latin fathers.

I think this project would take two or three decades. It might take less time if lots of students become proficient at translating.

This is not busy work. This project would make a significant contribution to historical scholarship. It would open up closed books in church history.

Once Migne is finished, the next project would be to translate any of the as-yet untranslated sections of the Corpus Reformatorum: Calvin, Melanchthon, and Zwingli. After this, the other Reformation authors could be added.

I hope that the Greek fathers could be translated with a similar procedure. The problem is, so few school programs offer ancient Greek.

This will not be done unless the project is decentralized. The revival of Latin in the Christian school movement offers the necessary division of labor.

It will take a little seed money and a lot of vision for the publishers of Latin curriculum materials jointly to break out of the box and make this opportunity available to students. It will take a person with some background in the church fathers to identify which Latin texts have not been translated. But if this is not done, then a great opportunity will slip through the Christians’ fingers.

The technology is here. The students are here. Where is the vision?

June 29, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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