Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Translations Matter! As Do Sources!

In what is a first I am writing two blog posts in two days.
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple of days trying to point out errors in a news story about gladiator diets in Ephesus.
An Austrian university wrote a media release about the research conducted by their anthropologists about the evidence for gladiator diets. They wrote it in their native language, German.
"In einer Studie des Departments für Gerichtsmedizin der MedUni Wien in Kooperation mit der Abteilung für Anthropologie des Instituts für Rechtsmedizin der Uni Bern wurden Knochen eines im Jahr 1993 gefundenen Gladiatoren friedhofs aus dem 2./3. Jahrhundert nach Christus im damals römischen Ephesos (heutige Türkei) untersucht. Ephesos war damals die Hauptstadt der römischen Provinz Asia und hatte über 200.000 Einwohner."
Yes, that is German, but I don't expect you to be able to read all of it! Just focus on the bold text! For the betterment of your understanding in case you don't know in German "vor Christus" or "v. Chr" means "BC" or "BCE", while "nach Christus" or "n. Chr" means "AD" or "CE". My German is rather shoddy, but it helps to know how to figure out dates.
The English translation of the media release has a vital error:
"In a study by the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, bones were examined from a gladiator cemetery uncovered in 1993 which dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century BC in the then Roman city of Ephesos (now in modern-day Turkey). At the time, Ephesos was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and had over 200,000 inhabitants."
They state BC instead of AD. At the bottom of the page they include the link to the article which
correctly sites the date:
Full bibliographic information
Service: PLOS ONE
Stable Isotope and trace element studies on gladiators and contemporary Romans from Ephesus
(Turkey, 2nd and 3rd ct. AD) - Implications for differences in diet
Sandra Lösch, Negahnaz Moghaddam, Karl Grossschmidt, Daniele U. Risser and Fabian Kanz
This article can be found here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi
Unfortunately, two different online archaeological news providers have written their articles from
the erroneous English media release:
  • Heritage Daily who cite the English media release at the bottom; and 
  • Phys.org who continue the BC error yet cite the PLOS ONE article.
In addition to this error being repeated by Phys.org and Heritage Daily, these online articles are being shared by people (including academics with considerable online followings) which in turn makes many people think that there were gladiators fighting for the fun of the crowd in Ephesus centuries earlier than they were.

The moral of the story is think critically! If something appears online that looks credible but doesn't fit with your current understanding, question it. Sure the original media release was German, but acquiring the ability to recognise dates in foreign languages can be a huge step.
And remember, just because everyone is reporting the same thing does not make them correct; they might just be reading from the same media release. The same thing can be said for ancient sources: they might just be using the same source.

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