The trials and tribulations of the cross-border historian

By Zoe Farrell | @zoeffarrell

Writing in History Today this January, Suzannah Lipscomb, the TV historian and fellow of the New College of Humanities, urged us to remember that ‘no island is an island.’[1] In essence, what Lipscomb argued is that in these times of great uncertainty and heightened feelings of hostility towards ‘the other,’ it is important to remember that the borders that we use today to define our national identities have been perpetually fluctuating throughout human history and that countries do not exist in a historical vacuum. Rather, places like Britain have histories that are closely entwined with those of their European and global neighbours.


Much history written in the first half of the twentieth century sought to establish the uniqueness and dominance of, mostly, western states as formed by wealthy white men.  However, since the Journal of World History was launched in the 1990s, historians have increasingly recognised that different areas of the globe have been intricately linked to one another through trade, war and dynasty for millennium, and have sought to explore these connections. It no longer seems acceptable for aspiring historians to study one country in isolation. We should no longer be seeking to establish only the differences between places, but instead try to enquire more about the shared experiences of the past

Yet, the thing that is rarely mentioned or even considered when tucking into our latest ‘History of the World,’ is the obvious linguistic challenge associated with studying areas with different languages.

For historians, such as myself, who were taught rudimentary French and/or German up until the age of 15, without an utterance of Latin, even the thought of learning the necessary languages to the required level to study trans-European (let alone world) history seems daunting.

Although in no way perfect, Google Translate can often provide a valuable starting point for translating a source in most modern languages. There is even hope that, as its AI engine becomes more sophisticated, it will be able to provide some help for more ancient or arcane sources.[2]

Language training is, however, essential and it is an ever-increasing part of the modern historian’s academic life. Yet, even once the modern language is learnt to the level necessary to approach the sources, through months or years of practice, the language used in the sources is often different to the modern one spoken in the country of interest.

Take Italy for example. Modern Italian has its root in the Tuscan language, but if you want to study Northern Italy in the Early Modern period, you soon need to familiarise yourself with Venetian. Whilst the base of Tuscan and Venetian is the same, noticeable differences can emerge. The Venetian word for ‘foreign’, for example, is ‘foresto’, compared with the modern Italian of ‘straniero’; and ‘cioè’, the Italian word for ‘that is’, is often written in Early Modern Venetian as ‘zoe’.

Once one starts to understand the Venetian and Tuscan sources, however, the challenge does not stop. As discussed above, Italy does not and did not exist in a vacuum and to fully understand the history of this place, one must also explore that which surrounded it. Venice was closely linked with Constantinople, therefore, one might seek to learn Turkish, or indeed Ottoman. Parts of Northern Italy were similarly closely linked with France, so French becomes the next challenge.

The linguistic encounters can reach an almost comical point when, after translating from the old to the more modern language, and then to English, the words are still so archaic that an English dictionary is required for assistance. Words such as ‘contumacious’ or ‘madder’ often make me imagine that I am reading Chaucer, just written in the ancient dialect of another land.

Indeed, the re-assuring fact is that, as with Chaucer, this language can often be challenging for native speakers. Moreover, with perseverance, patterns in the language start to emerge and the summit that seemed so distant at first can then seem just one more assisted ascent away.

Once you have overcome the multiple levels of translation necessary to tackle your sources, the awards can be significant. Not only does the ability to tackle multiple languages allow you the chance to explore for yourself the history of different people and places around the world, but there is also a great sense of achievement associated with cracking what seems like some sort of secret code.

Indeed, the more you learn about the different places you study, the more you realise that almost nowhere existed in isolation and that borders are a dynamic and fluid invention. In many ways, it is our responsibility as historians to highlight and to celebrate the fact that we are descended from a global past and as such share a common history. Whilst few of us can hope to become true polyglots, placing effort into learning the language and thus the history of distant lands, however far removed, can often augment our thinking. Despite the enormous challenges faced, linguistic barriers can be overcome and we can learn a lot more than language in the process.

[1] Suzannah Lipscomb, ‘No Island is an Island’, History Today, <> (12/01/2017)

[2] Matt Burgess, ‘Google’s AI just created its own universal “language”’, Wired, (23/11/2016)

Image: Unknown English: Hondius-Nova totius terrarum (1625), [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, 

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