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A&S Professor Brings South American Works Written in Latin to Modern Readers

By A Fish 

LEXINGTON; Ky. — Leni Ribeiro Leite is bringing to light South American works written in Latin, which brings together an ancient language modern nation-building. In the past, Latin had the power that English has today despite being a “dead language,” and many of these texts have not been translated due to their location and content. Ribeiro Leite, associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences' Department of  Modern & Classical Languages, Literatures & Cultures.

“I'm a classicist by formation I did my whole formation in Brazil,” she said. “I wasn't exactly the normal classicist in the sense that I double majored in classics, but also, in modern languages. I majored in Portuguese, and while I was doing my M.A. and my doctorate, I taught modern languages, and I think that gave me a different perspective in what interests in my research now. I was constantly seeing these connections between the ancient world and the modern.” 

Ribeiro Leite is intrigued by how the ancient and modern world intersect and how we see echoes of that in present day. Her research is translating Latin texts from communities in the Americas in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. These Latin texts have gone untranslated for centuries. 

“The current American countries were formed in the 18th or 19th century, in a moment where people were worried about establishing their own identity like I'm not the British anymore I'm American,” she said. “Or I'm not Portuguese anymore I'm Brazilian. When you're trying to establish identity, you're trying to establish unity. This effort that took place between the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and sustaining the appearance of a unified people was important in the minds of the people. A unified people with unified goals and a unified language. That's why we have these false impressions that these countries are very monolingual or were very monolingual.” 

Unifying a new nation is not an easy thing to do and comes with its own set of problems. Ribeiro Leite emphasized that to accomplish this creation of a new national identity, native languages were erased. 

“There was deleting and pretending that these places weren't very multiple and used many languages, that meant that not only native languages were forgotten or swept under the rug, but also, the fact that people didn't write just in the national language,” she said. “In the geographical area that is now the United States, there were lots of people in the early centuries writing in French, writing in Spanish, plus native languages plus Latin.” 

Multitudes of languages contributed to a rich culture in these areas, but it has proved difficult for modern researchers. With so many texts in so many languages in one place, namely the Americas, it is hard to find researchers who have all the necessary linguistics skills to interpret the texts. Ribeiro Leite explains this field is relatively new, even the first Oxford companion to neo-Latin for the Latin from this period is from 2015. The first complete collection of poetry written in the United States in Latin is from 1985, less than 40 years ago. Growth in classicists with interests in this neo-Latin has only begun in the past 30 years. 

“Nowadays, somebody doing research about, Honduras may think, ‘Ooh, I need to know Spanish,’” she said. “What happens with the text about Honduras that is written in Latin? The people who know Latin in general are thinking about the ancient world, so they're not reading about the 1700s. The people who are interested in 1700s do not speak or read Latin. Therefore, these texts are kept in a strange in-between where people who can read them don't want to read them, and people who would like to read them can't read the language, so they're forgotten.” 

Ribeiro Leite has been working on transcribing an unpublished manuscript from Brazil about gold mining. The manuscript was written, by Basilio da Gama, a prolific Brazilian writer whose works were foundational to Brazilian literature. Most of his works are largely written in Portuguese, but this unpublished manuscript is in Latin. 

“I feel that by bringing this work to light I will be helping other authors to paint a more accurate picture of this author and his work, but also of how people thought about the process,” she said. “The social and historical process that was going on at that time, the gold rush in Brazil.” 

The manuscript’s translated title is “The Gold Mines of Brazil,” and Ribeiro Leite hopes to have her translation released at some point next year.