Documents We’ve Lost

lostscrolls

It’s amazing how many written documents exist, both in concrete and virtual form. And just as amazing is the fact that these aren’t all the texts that could have existed. Everything from unforeseen and unfortunate events, to a heavy hand with a “delete” button mean that many written words that once were, are no more. In addition to the ones that are anonymous or unknown, there are also, of course, texts that were lost that we’re unlikely to recover.

For example, have you heard about Ernest Hemingway’s suitcase? In 1922, his first wife, Hadley, packed up some short stories and a novel he was writing, and brought them with her – carbon copies and all — on a trip to join Hemingway in Switzerland. She left her seat on the train for a few minutes, and when she returned, the suitcase was gone. To this day, no one knows what happened to it or where it could be.

An even greater loss (well, depending on how big a Hemingway fan you are, I guess) is the contents of the library at Alexandria. The famous ancient library contained a huge but unknown number of scrolls on a wide range of subjects. They all were destroyed in a fire – or maybe various fires from 48 BC until 640 AD. Luckily, some works have survived; after all, the “bestsellers” of the day were written down in other places, too. But countless scrolls were unique or rare copies.

Some texts seem like they’re lost, but then are miraculously recovered, like the scrolls from the library of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, who owned a grand villa in Herculaneum (known today as the Villa of the Papyri). The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD simultaneously destroyed the texts and preserved them; it’s the only library from antiquity whose collection we still can access today, but the scrolls in their current physical state are unreadable and barely recognizable to the naked eye (early excavators thought they were logs or small pieces of wood). An 18th century monk found a method to unroll them, but it’s a long process and the end result doesn’t make for easy reading. Luckily, over the past few decades scientists have discovered ways to use infrared light and other technology to scan entire scrolls without manually unrolling them (for more details on all of this, check out this fascinating and thorough BBC News Magazine article), with a far more legible result. Although one is better than the other, both processes have given us a way to read ancient texts that would otherwise have been lost forever.

But lost texts aren’t just a result of disasters or the ravages of time. A recent Times Higher Education article brings up a frightening point: Many scientists and researchers today speak English, but non-native speakers may not feel capable of writing a coherent, polished academic paper in our language. Even if they try, grammar mistakes and other linguistic errors may keep them from being published in academic journals. Unfortunately, these scientists don’t often have easy access to qualified translators – that is, translators who understand not only the two languages and cultures they’re working in, but also any specialized vocabulary being used. The reverse is true, as well; there’s a serious lack of specialized translators who could, say, take an academic document full of arcane terminology and correctly translate it into Mandarin.

Helpfully, the article’s authors suggest several ways to fix the problem. But are the solutions they suggest really possible, when you take into account things like budget restrictions, geography, and translator availability? It seems like until universities and other organizations, as well as scientists themselves, take this issue more seriously, nothing concrete will really get done.

These scientific texts aren’t exactly “lost”, but they might as well be: The world in general is missing out on what could be really important papers whose contents could benefit us all. And for such a fixable reason compared to things like theft and volcanic eruptions!

Alysa Salzberg

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