This term, the Anthropocene, was first proposed in an article published at the turn of the millennium by Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric scientist, and his colleague Eugene Stoermer, an ecologist. They argued that we no longer inhabit the Holocene, the period from the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago up to the present (indeed, Holocene actually means “entirely new or recent,” or, if you will, the present). Crutzen and Stoermer argued that the present as we had conceived it was actually over. It was, in fact, now the past. They claimed that human beings had so transformed Earth that our impact would not only be visible in geological strata in the future, but would mark a distinctive boundary in the history of the planet. This was a new epoch, which they called the Anthropocene, the human age. According to them, the Holocene had ended around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. Since then, the burning of fossil fuels, especially in the period of the “Great Acceleration” after World War II, along with exponential population growth, nitrogen production and deposition, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change have all left distinct traces around the world that will be readable in the geological strata by future geologists.
Even if you haven’t been immersed in it, you can probably imagine that there is no end to debate about the Anthropocene. Geologists are still in the formal processes of examining evidence for the claims behind the term. They have not settled on where to put the boundary. They have not even come to an official decision about whether to accept this new nomenclature. Some critics have proposed the “Homogenocene” as a better label for our epoch, because globalization is causing the planet to become more homogenous ecologically, economically, and even culturally. Others have proposed the “Capitalocene,” because capitalism is, after all, really responsible for the mess we’re in. And yet, the Anthropocene has already taken on a vibrant cultural life quite apart from the scientific debate among geologists. It has become a shorthand for not only human dominance of vast portions of Earth and its life-forms, but also for a fundamental shift in the relationship between people and nature.
At least since Aesop, animals had long been used by pedagogues as moral exemplars. Augustine defended the use of such allegories against detractors who claimed that they did not accurately depict animal behavior, by stating that their moral value was more vital; another early church theologian, St. Ambrose of Milan, went further, insisting that “we cannot fully know ourselves without first knowing the nature of all living creatures.” In his 1623 text Mysterium magnum, the German theologian Jacob Boehme wrote that man is “a Beast of all beasts”: “[There are] various properties in man: as one a Fox, Wolfe, Beare, Lion, Dogg, Bull, Cat, Horse, Cock, Toad, Serpent: and in briefe as many kindes of creatures are upon the earth, so many and Various properties likewise there are in the earthly man.”
Montaigne, then, was building, however idiosyncratically, off a long tradition that had seen animals as useful pedagogical tools for understanding human morality. He merely took this tendency to its logical conclusion: if animals were moral exemplars, they must be more moral than we fallen sinners are. Even with this privileging of the morality of animals, though, they were still seen as subordinate to humanity. “Renaissance humanimalism was anthropocentric and allegorical,” Sahlins notes.
In the translation world, where the money is small, the fame and glamour almost nonexistent, and the work breathtakingly difficult, it’s the love for the projects that makes everything work. If you’re going to stick with a challenging translation for dozens of hours a week for months on end, you absolutely have to be inspired by it.
Some days, when I think about just how difficult literary translation is, I get the feeling that inspiration, plus metric tons of persistence, are all that stand between us and a hazy gray landscape of mediocre translations and English-only literature. With that in mind, here are some recent translations where the love and inspiration are clearly present…
I ask my sister, Katie, “How did you start using heroin?”
She says, “A friend told me it was cheaper than pain pills and had the same effect.”