Lawrentians Complete First Translations of Squeezes

This year, students in Latin Teacher Scott Barnard, Ph.D.’s Introduction to Ancient Greek class are translating stone inscriptions in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton.

This year, students in Latin Teacher Scott Barnard, Ph.D.’s Introduction to Ancient Greek class are translating stone inscriptions in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton. Through this partnership, students were able to look at squeezes of Greek epigraphs, writing that is carved into stone, that have never been translated before. The Institute alone is home to around 30,000 similar epigraphs.

Squeezes are made by obtaining a rubbing of the inscribed stone with a special gel that peels off once dried, which allows translators and students to “obtain the inscriptions on the stone without moving it,” said Barnard. These rubbings are digitized to form a squeeze: a three dimensional, mirror image of the inscriptions. Barnard explained how translators can rotate the squeezes at different angles and even alter the angle at which the light hits the inscription, allowing students to get a better look at the Greek characters.

In Barnard’s class, Lawrentians are currently participating in the IAS Krateros Project, where scholars are digitizing squeezes of third and fourth century B.C. steles found at historic sites in Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey. The translations that the students complete will make it possible for people around the world to study these writings.

According to Barnard, these stone inscriptions are “extremely common and are found everywhere, from tombstones to the backs of people’s closets.” Explaining how the squeezes help shed light on what life was like in Ancient Greece, he said, “What’s cool about them is that most of what we read in Latin and Greek [was] written by Aristocratic male authors…However, these stones were carved by a lot of other people. There were poor people and country people. Some of them were slaves, and others were women...It’s a way to hear other voices that we don’t typically get to.”

Nevertheless, students initially found the process of translation hard to pick up, as Barnard’s class is an introductory level course. All of the students relied on their Latin experience to help them learn and translate Ancient Greek, as many of the words are shared between Greek, Latin, and even English. “On the first day of school, no one even knew the Greek alphabet, so we had to spend the first couple days just going over basic information,” said Hannah Welsh ’21. Barnard also explained that since the squeezes are copies of stone inscriptions, “There are imperfections and scratches that can make it difficult to decipher the letters.”

“Everyone’s squeeze also looked different from [the others], either because of the person’s handwriting or even different time periods,” explained Welsh. Her squeeze, for example, is from 3 CE, which means that it is relatively new and thus had some symbol variations.

Additionally, Barnard explained how there are no spaces between the letters or words on the inscription “because those who inscribed the words onto the stone didn’t want to waste space,” so it was difficult to decipher certain words.

After students figured out all of the word groups on the squeezes by identifying definite articles, they then moved on to a process called transliteration, which Barnard described as “the process of translating each Greek symbol into the corresponding English sound or letter.”

“This can be difficult because the same symbols can have different meanings depending on where it is used in the word, which is why figuring out the word chunks is really important,” said Barnard. Luckily for the students, the vocabulary used in the squeezes is quite simple since the squeezes were written by common people for large audiences, which makes them perfect for a first-year Greek student.

Welsh shared that for all her classmates, getting to translate these squeezes completely changed their perspective on Greek history. “My squeeze is actually a dedication written by a woman, which is super cool because we don’t get to see a lot of stuff written by women...It’s also really cool because the project gives us a general insight and kind of idea of what the culture was like...It’s interesting to see a different side of the ancient world,” reflected Welsh.

Barnard echoed her sentiment, emphasizing the importance of reviving ancient voices: “We’re talking about people whose voices were totally lost. They’re totally gone. And we’re literally connecting past to present. 2,500 years later, we’re hearing about them again….There’s nobody else in the world who’s doing this kind of thing...We’re really lucky to have this connection with the Institute.”

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