A big welcome for Irina Marin….
I am Irina Marin. I am a Leverhulme Early-Career Fellow affiliated with the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Leicester. Since 2013 I have been working on a new project examining the circulation of rumour and violence across the border between Tsarist Russia, Austria-Hungary and Romania at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. As I come from an eclectic academic background (BA in Philology, MA in Cultural Studies, PhD in History), I always get asked in job interviews ‘What exactly are you?’. I look upon myself as an all-round, interdisciplinary historian, who can use vital linguistic skills to tap into original foreign-language sources and who appreciates the great value of input from other disciplines such as art, literature, sociology, economics, etc., to enhance and transform the understanding of a subject.
I think the great benefits of cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional initiatives such as ‘Research in Translation’ are cross-fertilization, symbiosis and dissemination. Cross-fertilization, in the sense that ideas and practices from one subject can trigger revelations in a another field and put new life into old ways of doing things and thus spark off creative flows. Symbiosis in the sense of the great necessity of different disciplines of comparing notes, of working as a team and exchanging insights that other disciplines may not have produced but can certainly benefit from and build on. To paraphrase John Donne, ‘No discipline is an island entire of itself; every discipline is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. Dissemination is perhaps the most important of the benefits of this approach as by building bridges and channels of communication between subjects and disciplines the intellectual gains from one field are made readily available for another field and gradually percolate and inform the perceptions and outlook of the general public. Thus a more complex and more effective feedback loop is established.
One would expect public engagement to come easily to historians. It suffices to count all the history programmes on TV, radio and other media to conclude this. There is lots of history around in the form of films, documentaries, museum exhibitions, magazines, school textbooks, verbal clichés and hearsay. We live and breathe history, it informs our perception of ourselves, our country, of the others, of far and near in both space and time. And yet the type of history that more often than not reaches ordinary people is oversimplified and theoretically impoverished. There are pet topics, which will never go out of fashion, such as episodes of mass murder and extermination (so-called extreme histories); there are pet regions and time periods, which appear again and again in public coverage. In counterpoint to these, there are huge blank swathes (regions, time periods, peoples), which never seem to attract public attention and for which a historian is at pains making a case. More often than not, history as presented to the general public is offered as a seamless narrative, full of colourful, exciting, flashy detail, but with little indication of the dilemmas behind a historian’s craft, of the filters (graphic, linguistic, cultural), the distortions, the feats of interpretation, the fundamental uncertainties that characterize the writing of history.
I believe that the sort of public engagement that brings home to the general public the dilemmas and challenges of a historian’s craft and raises awareness how information is filtered through to them by various media would not only allow ordinary people to critically engage with historical narratives but also positively affect how they view and assess any narrative circulated in public discourse. It will thus leave them better prepared to deal with everyday demagogic politics, with rumours that might affect the wellbeing of whole communities, with present-day propaganda from various quarters. There are facts about reliability of sources, their function, their purpose and impact that are self-evident to professional historians but that have not yet seeped through to the general public. It is this rigour of thought that would enable the population at large to better participate in, and more effectively shape, public policy and hold politicians and governing bodies to account.