Department of History and Civilisation

Translating history and beyond: a conversation with Ann Thomson

After having served as Chair in Intellectual History and long-standing Professor at the Department of History and Civilisation, Emerita Professor Ann Thomson reflects on her experiences, role and current research projects as she departs from the EUI and steps into the next phase of her career.

09/11/2021 | News

“It was my dream job." As Professor Emerita Ann Thomson reminisces on arriving at the Department of History and Civilisation at the EUI in 2013, she remarks that aside from the intellectually stimulating and vibrant environment that the EUI offers, it was the position as Chair in Intellectual History that initially captured her attention, “there aren’t that many [Chairs in Intellectual History] in the world because it’s a rather strange subject.” In fact, “there are different people with different approaches […], each person stamps their imprint on the sort of intellectual history one does”, she adds. Coming from Université Paris 8, where she had taught since 1998, Professor Thomson was keen on offering her take on the role and informing her position as Chair.

Throughout her years at the EUI, she continued to encourage this diversity of approaches while supervising various cohorts of PhD researchers. “We are called supervisors, but I don’t think we actually supervise,” Professor Thomson said, commenting on the unique relationship she seeks to foster between supervisor and supervisee. “To me the important thing to remember is that one is there to accompany doctoral researchers, […] discuss with them, provide them with feedback, indicate possibilities rather than to simply tell them what to do.”

In her field of work, Professor Thomson focuses on the intellectual history of the Eighteenth Century, studying questions at the intersection of religion, medicine and politics, as well as the circulation of ideas, book history and translation, and European writings on the Muslim world.

A pioneer in her field, Thomson has also been willing to embrace technological progress in order to inform her research. Indeed, she believes that “technology is an incredible tool for research.” To this end, Professor Thomson was able to secure funding from the EUI for an online crowd-sourced database of eighteenth-century translators, a long-term project which provides a platform on which contributors can share their knowledge. Moving forward, one of the project’s aims is to “gather enough information to be able to map translations and even draw statistics on them.” The original idea was born from the observation that “Europe has been constructed trough translation, [yet] we know very little about translators [...]. Translators influence what is translated and how it is translated, so it’s important to understand who they were and what were their reasons to do so.”

Intellectual curiosity and independence are values that Professor Thomson upholds in her professional capacity. They are also the backbone of the Enlightenment, a period in which she has developed her expertise. “There are huge debates about ‘the Enlightenment’, with different people having different opinions of what it is,” she explains, adding that in modern times there is sometimes a misunderstanding regarding what it means to act against enlightened values. “The people you could call ‘enlightened’ were people who thought that everybody should be educated and be able to think for themselves. It wasn’t in opposition to experts […], so what goes against ‘Enlightenment values’ today is not people who simply question experts but people who actually don’t want to listen to the evidence.”

In a similar manner, “a lot of people [today], including people in the Muslim world, have this idea that Europe has always been hostile [to them]”. However, she explains, “during the Eighteenth century there were Europeans who approached other civilisations with genuine curiosity and even actively tried to fight prejudices against the Muslim world through their work.” This alternative European perception of the Muslim world in the Eighteenth century is precisely the subject of the book Professor Thomson is currently in the process of writing, and a topic that she believes is particularly relevant today as it shows that “[..] there were moments in history when people did try to understand each other.”

Now, as she departs from her role at the EUI, Professor Thomson feels a sense of ‘semi-detachment’, as she puts it, particularly referring to the fact that she will keep working with her PhD supervisees as they finalise their thesis submission. In this regard, she expressed her feelings of appreciation and gratitude in accompanying the researchers in their doctoral journey and beyond “they keep in touch in their career, and it goes on for life in a way."

As we look back with immense gratitude at the legacy she left in her capacity as Chair of Intellectual History and in her involvement in the Department of History at large, we wish her the best for her future endeavours.

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