The Medieval Review 13.09.19

Campbell, Emma and Robert Mills. Rethinking Medieval Translation: Ethics, Politics, Theory. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. xi, 292. $99.00. ISBN: 9781843843290. . .

Reviewed by:

Jessica Harkins
College of Saint Benedict / St. John's University
jharkins@csbsju.edu

Rethinking Medieval Translation; Ethics, Politics, Theory advances the dialogue between the fields of medieval studies and translation theory. It does so in an explicit way, by intentionally bringing translation theory, including postcolonial analyses, in relationship with issues and questions surrounding medieval translation/s. In each chapter, excerpted passages of translation theory speak to critical questions surrounding a localized, medieval text. Though other theorists appear, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Lawrence Venuti, and Antoine Berman recur throughout the collection, opening local points of inquiry and also creating dialogue across the chapters. It is through these encounters (between theory and medieval texts) that the contributors confront the question of whether or not translation, with its unsightly habits of appropriation and domestication, might be possible, useful, and ethical.

Indeed, a principal aim of the volume is to utilize political and ethical standpoints to evaluate relationships between the theory and the practice of translation. A lively and helpful introduction grounds the reader in this evaluative project, with a cogent overview of critical discourse about medieval translation providing context for the focused study. Translation theory, politics, and ethics interrelate quite differently in each chapter as they are brought to bear on temporally, geographically, and generically diverse literature; the approach most often triangulates theory, translated text or translator, and politics and/or ethics (however the ethics may inhere to a dilemma and/or insight brought forth by the theory). These deliberate encounters surprisingly do not create a series of disjointed analyses, but rather a progression of intersecting discourses connecting medieval studies and translation theory. The volume further coheres through the consistent effort of individual contributors to assess the ability of these lenses (ethical, political, and theoretical) to refocus critical views of medieval translators, medieval translations, and medieval genres.

The medieval translator receives the full attention of the contributors, particularly from Desmond, Stahuljak, Burgwinkle, and Butterfield, who each shed light on the paradox of the necessity of multilingual intermediaries in the medieval world, and the compromised personal and authorial status that could be caused by multilingualism. Desmond, for example, considers how Leonzio Pilatus's mixed linguistic identity elicits very different reactions from Petrarch and Boccaccio--namely Petrarch's repulsion and Boccaccio's fond regard--reactions which highlight how Petrarch's political desire to keep Greece and (a longed-for) Italy in cultural opposition, compares to Boccaccio's greater comfort with cultural indeterminacy. Stahuljak defines medieval "fixers" (multilingual intermediaries who serve in conflict zones) and contextualizes these figures in relation to fears (about fidelity) brought about by multilingualism. Burgwinkle, in turn, reads Ramon Llull as an "interpretant"--a figure defined by Lawrence Venuti as "a 'mediating representation' between a 'sign' or signifier and its 'object,' where the object is itself a presentation, a content, or signified." Burgwinkle explains that, as a mediator both of divine truth and of his own Art, Llull frames himself as a conduit for and the key to both sacred and earthly manifestations of truth (or, wonderfully, as Burgwinkle writes on page 185, "a floating signifier who never doubted his tie to the signified.") Burgwinkle presents this self-fashioning as both a means to assess Llull from a theoretical vantage point, and as a counterpoint to the intensive rhetorical work of the illuminations of Llull in the Breviculum by Thomas le Myésier. It could be added that Campbell (who also explores the legibility of the divine word) examines the divine as translator in Rutebeuf's Miracle de Théophile, as Théophiles' diabolical charter undergoes translation--from a legal to a spiritual (and from a private to a public) document--at the hands of an angel.

Medieval translations receive fair attention both to their individual traits and to traits shared by other translations in this period. Shared or common traits reassessed in the volume include: the linkage of moralizing and translation, which Griffin rereads in her analysis of the Ovide moralisé (and Derrida's "Le Tour de Babel"); the domestication narrative, which Mills notes in accounts of Becket's mother (where he finds difference figured as absolute absence); the invisibility of the translator, which Stahuljak reconsiders by tracing how worries about the fixer's potential infidelity, and the ethics of survival (experienced by the fixer negotiating between languages in a conflict zone) may transfer into textual silence surrounding translators; and, finally, roughness in translation which, as Butterfield points out, is most usually understood as the product of inadequate linguistic skills or as an attempt to render strangeness. Butterfield reassesses this linguistic "roughness" (and the criticisms it has invited) in the translations of Charles d'Orleans, Lydgate and Hoccleve by placing their work within the larger context of a dynamically bilingual England.

Many contributions rethink medieval genres as well. Léglu rereads Lucretia in the popular Middle French prose translations of Latin histories; drawing upon Mieke Bal's notion of "Ethical Non Indifference", Léglu reconsiders the relationships--ostensibly meant to be mutually reinforcing--between text and image in manuscript traditions. Gilbert employs Benjamin to see how the dérimages (prose translations of verse forms) articulate Benjamin's dialectic of transient and sacred history. Drawing upon James C. Scott's anthropological theory, Guynn challenges the claim that festive drama provides a "catharsis" (a term he also investigates) that pacifies lower-class audiences. Sunderland cites stemmata of chansons de geste and variants of Bueve d'Hantone to unsettle claims about the French origins of the chanson de geste; he places these variants in conversation with Antoine Berman's theory of translation as innately hospitable (requiring room to be made for the foreign text within the new language) and hostile (resisting or effacing difference)--and Lawrence Venuti's theory of marketability. The convergence of these theories leads Sunderland to consider variants of Bueve d'Hantone as commodities, and raises the very interesting question of a text's adaptability.

A thought-provoking closing response by Simon Gaunt elaborates how "the untranslatable" might fit into an ethics of translation.

While not attempting to answer every question they pose, the chapters as a whole speak back to two traumas shared by translation theory and medieval studies: the innate violence of translation, and the post-Babel separation between meaning and language. Interestingly, the volume responds to these anxieties not only through its careful confrontation of theory and medieval texts, but also through the method of contributors who denote where translation theory productively informs a more historical issue and where medieval texts and/or practices of translation resist contemporary theory. Leaving room for difference between these fields of study prevents the scholars from forwarding any universal theory, and instead puts into practice Antoine Berman's discussion of hospitality.

The volume will be of obvious use to scholars in medieval studies, as many contributors, such as Guynn and Butterfield, propose new directions for future research. However the volume's content as well as its methodologies may appeal to a wide readership of literary scholars (clearly those in the fields of translation theory and postcolonial studies, but also those in other fields). Finally, this volume will be of use for the modern, practicing translator, and for poets and writers engaged in reworking classical and medieval material in contemporary works of writing.