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Deciphering the 1800s: Students translate original letters by Fr. Sorin

| Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A box of letters written in the 19th century by Fr. Edward Sorin remained in the possession of the Congregation of Holy Cross until 2019 when they were handed over to University Archives. During the relocation, it was discovered that many of Sorin’s letters were written in French and had not been translated.

As a Holy Cross priest, assistant professor of French and self-proclaimed Francophile, Fr. Greg Haake finds Sorin to be a fascinating figure. Sorin, a Frenchman, was a fellow Holy Cross priest and founded the University in 1842.

“I’m very interested in [Fr. Sorin] and his life and what he did to found and build Notre Dame,” Haake said.

Haake said he was initially shocked by the number of untranslated letters in the archives.

“When I went to the archives for the first time to look at the letters at the collection, it was boxes of letters, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

To translate a good chunk of the letters, the family of Vernon H. Brinck donated funds, and then Haake began teaching a one-credit workshop course in the spring 2020 semester. He has taught the class in the spring ever since.

Senior Elaine Carter, an accounting and French double major, decided to take the class after being exposed to the letters in a previous class her sophomore year.

“When this project was becoming something the French department was interested in having students work on … in the last month of my French translation class, that’s what we did,” she said. “It didn’t work in my schedule until senior year, but then the timing worked well, and it was really interesting.”

This semester, there are ten students in the workshop, and students pair up to work on a letter together. Haake said he does not require students to work on the letters outside of class.

Sophomore Jack Konrad, a pre-med biology major with a French supplementary major, said he enjoys the unique experience of the course — vastly different from his other classes.

“It’s kind of great to take a little break on Wednesday afternoons and get together and just try to solve this little puzzle so to speak,” Konrad said. “But I think it actually will help me in my long-term studies in French because it has done a really good job of showing me how the two languages relate.”

First, the original handwritten letters are transcribed directly from the papers and typed up, Haake said. At this point, they are still in French. Then, the text is translated into English, resulting in three documents: the original letter, the French transcription and the English translation.

Konrad explained how the goal of translating is to ensure the letters are “true to the French translation, but at the same time, coherently convey the message in English,” which can be a difficult task.

“A lot of the time, just by the nature of how French is, sentences can be a lot more drawn out, and there can be a lot of dependent clauses and verb agreements that could get very confusing, very fast,” Konrad said.

The result, he said, is that one French sentence is often translated into three to four English sentences.

Since the project began, roughly 30 letters have been transcribed and translated, Haake said. The next step is to hire a historian, he said, to contextualize the letters within a larger history of both Sorin’s life and Notre Dame’s history.

“The two people who were communicating with one another understand what’s going on. They understand the context. It doesn’t have to be stated,” Haake. “But someone who’s reading the letter cold, who doesn’t know anything about it, needs some context to figure out exactly what they’re talking about.”

Konrad added that it can be a task in itself to try to hypothesize what was going on outside of the letters.

“It’s kind of fun to be able to kind of look at the letters as a whole and think about the situations that may have been going on,” he said. “You see things like inside jokes that you’re unaware of. You see nicknames that give you trouble translating.”

Haake recalled one specific letter where Sorin was in correspondence with a diocesan priest from Indiana and was apologizing for a wrongdoing. The context was unclear, Haake said, but Sorin’s humanity shined through.

“It makes him very real. You know, he’s this wonderful founder of our University, he’s larger than life, [but] even he sometimes would make a mistake,” Haake said.

Haake said that he has been “pleasantly surprised” by how easy it has been to get to know Sorin through the letters.

“I think that’s one of the best parts about it is discovering his personality in a very authentic way because these are all artifacts from his life,” Haake said.

After a sizable amount of the letters are transcribed and translated, Haake said they will be published as a digital archive.

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About Alysa Guffey

Alysa is a junior and currently serves as Editor-in-Chief. She is pursuing a major in history with minors in digital marketing and journalism, ethics and democracy. While she calls Breen-Phillips her home on campus, she is originally from Indianapolis.

Contact Alysa