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Hispanic Studies
Project Proposal

The Oviedo Project @ Vassar College

Lizabeth Paravisini and Michael Aronna (Hispanic Studies)

Project Description

The Oviedo Project @ Vassar College is a collaborative digital humanities/scholarly publication undertaking whose aim is the first complete translation into English of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s 16th-century Historia general y natural de las Indias, islas, y tierra firme del mar océano (General and Natural History of the Indies, Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea). Written between 1524 and 1548, the brief iterations of the text published in 1526, 1535, and 1547 were translated into English, Italian, French, German, and Latin; its fifteen editions in the 16th-century marked the text as a classic of Renaissance ethnographic and natural history. The full text, however, was not transcribed and published in Spanish until 1851-1855 in a 4-volume, nearly 3,000-page edition sponsored by the Royal Academy of History.

Oviedo’s signal contributions to early Latin American political, environmental, economic, and cultural history were substantially eclipsed by his death while he was engaged in the process of editing his work for publication. The four volume-edition opened new vistas into the world of the 16th century Caribbean for readers able to access the material in Spanish, but it did little to make this extensive new text available to readers in any other language. In fact, there is no translation of the four-volume work—a work that simply defies characterization—available in any language other than the original Spanish.

This is where both the challenge and significant contribution of our translation project lies. We are engaged in the translation, already in process, of the four-volume 19th-century edition of the text working in collaboration with a team of Vassar’s students in time for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the publication of Oviedo’s Sumario in 2026. The incorporation of a pedagogical component in our project responds to various pressures, realities, and opportunities of 21st-century academia. First, it is not feasible to expect one single scholar to dedicate a career to the translation and publication of a text as extensive as Oviedo’s Historia. In the face of this practical reality, the digital humanities in the form of an ongoing online translation of Oviedo’s Historia present new opportunities for collaboration, experiential learning, accessibility, and archiving of a comprehensive translation.

Our model for collaborative engagement of scholars and students in the production of a translation of this length and significance is one that we hope will serve as a model for similar projects aimed at the revitalizing of translation as an essential component of foreign language acquisition.

Designed as a closely-mentored multi-leveled engagement with the text—as a form of apprenticeship in the endangered art of scholarly translation and interpretation—the project aims to bridge the gap between seemingly inaccessible “old” texts and evolving contemporary concepts of history, indigeneity, race and ethnicity, and natural and environmental history by tapping into the possibilities of scholarly mentorship opened by a liberal arts education. Conceived as a team effort through which they can contribute to making an important primary source available to a broad reading public, the project has been built on the students’ enthusiasm for a text they have come to understand through its relevance to contemporary questions about the impact of colonization on the environments of colonized societies, the evolution of racial categories and discrimination, the history of extractivist capitalism, or the textual intricacies of describing a new world in a language that requires reinvention.

Anticipated Project Activities

The spring semester will see the completion of the translation of the first volume of the work and we will expect our Ford Scholar to help us prepare the first volume for publication and to help us update the project's website (https://pages.vassar.edu/oviedo/) by loading the new chapters and finding suitable illustrations for the students' work. We expect the students to joining the editorial team for discussions and project decisions and to help us research and draft scholarly and explanatory notes for the text. This work may take us to specialized libraries in New York City.

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

A knowledge of Spanish—at least at the intermediate level—would be preferred, as well as an interest in translation and scholarly research. We work with Wordpress and Scalar on our site, but we can train the student in these skills quite quickly.

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

In addition to participating in the Ford Scholars Symposium, we would like the student to participate in the orientation and training of the translators that will join the project in the fall and spring semesters of the 2021-2022 academic year through the sharing of their experiences and skills.

Project Location

New York, NY and Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY—Hybrid: We expect to be able to work with the student in person if pandemic conditions allow, but will adapt to the possibilities open to us this coming summer. The work can be done remotely, but working in person would allow us to visit several libraries and collections in New York City, something that would enhance the student's experience.

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

June 7, 2021

Project End Date

July 31, 2021