03.01.33, Stanton, The Culture of Translation

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Prof. Michael Drout

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.033


Stanton, Robert. The Culture of Translation in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. ix, 198. ISBN: 0-859-91643-X.

Reviewed by:
Prof. Michael Drout
Wheaton College

This is a valuable book that applies sophisticated classical and patristic Latin learning to an important topic for Anglo-Saxon studies. Since so many Anglo-Saxon texts are translations of Latin sources, it is worth examining exactly what theoretical perspectives translators brought to bear on the materials that they rendered from Latin into Old English, and Stanton has used his knowledge of classical and patristic authors (particularly Cicero, Jerome and Augstine) to argue for their influence upon Anglo-Saxon translation practices. The very act of translation was problematic in theoretical and theological terms, Stanton argues, and he shows how various Anglo-Saxon translators, particularly Alfred and Aelfric, but also anonymous and lesser known glossators, wrestled with the difficulties of translation. While many other scholars of Anglo-Saxon have examined in detail how Latin was translated into Old English, Stanton provides a readable, logical and exceptionally detailed argument about why Anglo-Saxon translators translated as they did.

The book is comprised of an introduction, four chapters of argument, and a brief conclusion. In his first chapter, "Interpretation, Pedagogy and Anglo-Saxon Glosses," Stanton analyzes the translation potential of Old English glosses of Latin texts. Eschewing the simplistic 'aid to reading' understanding of glosses that he argues is commonly put forth, he proposes, reasonably, that "above all glosses were interpretations" and that these interpretations helped Anglo-Saxons to create a religious culture of their own (9). Glosses are dynamic; they do not merely transmit knowledge, but fundamentally change it. Stanton argues that the glosses arising from the school of Theodore and Hadrian "clearly show the introduction, a century or so after the introduction of Roman Christianity to England, of a Mediterranean religious culture, and its assimilation into the nascent religious culture of early Anglo-Saxon England" (12-13). The early Old English glosses, then, provide a foundation for later full-blown translations. The boundary between gloss, commentary and translation is not a sharp one, he argues, and thus served as a gateway for commentary traditions to combine with glossing to create "authoritative structures within the vernacular" (49). Old English could even "rival" Latin on the page and thus could re-make the authority of textual culture and support later translation projects.

In "King Alfred and Early English Translation" Stanton argues that Alfred's translation program was born not only of necessity (i.e., the lack of people literate in Latin) but also from the desire to appropriate Latin textual (and thus interpretive) authority for himself. Alfred found justification for his translation program in a variety of patristic and (perhaps) classical sources, and Stanton is at his best when analyzing the subtleties of Alfred's synthesis of conflicting imperatives. While not every patristic or classical source can be proven to have been known to Alfred and his circle, there is enough overlap between the major concepts that Stanton delineates and the specific translations he analyzes to make a reader relatively confident about his conclusions, the most important of which is that "Alfred, in fostering a vernacular culture, aimed both to regain the glories of a former age and to remake himself as a literate ruler whose eloquence was one with his royal authority" (56).

Chapter three, "Bible Translation and the Anxiety of Authority" would be valuable even if Stanton did not engage with Anglo-Saxon texts. Here the author's Latin learning is put to good use developing what is essentially a primer on Biblical translation theory and a clear overview of the enduring questions that were raised from the very first attempts to translate the Bible up through the works of Aelfric. Stanton focuses on Alfred's translation of the first 50 Psalms (the Paris Psalter) as his first Old English example of translation theory put into practice, and he concludes the chapter (after a cursory treatment of the West Saxon) gospels, with a discussion of Aelfric's reluctance to translate parts of the Old Testatment. In both cases the Anglo-Saxon translation is put into the contexts of the long, continental, patristic and classical discussion of how (and why) to translate and the specific analysis of words and phrases that Stanton undertakes is firmly grounded in the theoretical perspective provided by the first half of the chapter.

In his final chapter, "Aelfric and the Rhetoric of Translation" Stanton argues that ®lfric "was able to achieve three of Alfred's goal on a larger scale than even the king was able to do: First, me made the fruits of learning available to a broader audience; second, like Alfred, he succeeded in establishing English writing as a legitimate forum for rhetorical invention; and third he consciously developed in an English context the idea of sermo humilis, or plain style, that was the goal of Latin religious writers from at least the time of Augustine" (145). It seems to me that Stanton makes rather convincing arguments for all three elements of his argument, particularly in regard to the discussion of sermo humilis, where he provides a theoretical and intellectual justification for the much-commented-on aspects of Aelfric's plain style. Stanton, however, does avoid the significant historical question that his analysis would seem to engender, namely, is David Dumville correct in positing a continuing and pre-planned Alfredian cultural programme that continued for several generations (Dumville 2 and passim). Some of Stanton's evidence would seem to support that controversial claim, but one wonders if Stanton himself would find the evidence of a directed, planned program a necessary hypothesis or whether he would be content to argue that Aelfric's achievement of Alfred's goals was based more on imitation than on pre-planned direction.

Stanton is at his best when he is bringing his considerable knowledge of classical rhetorical and translation theory to bear on the theoretical hermeneutic and epistemological problems of translation, but this argument is somewhat handicapped by our still-incomplete knowledge of the details of Latin grammatical and rhetorical learning in Anglo-Saxon England and the difficulty of disentangling knowledge of specific Latin authors from general techniques used in grammatical instruction (as shown by Gabrielle Knappe). Thus there are times when a reader wonders how much of a complex edifice Stanton has built up upon the presumed knowledge (of course this presumption is, properly, always hedged) of a specific Latin authority. But Stanton is clearly comfortable with his sources and takes the time to examine in subtle detail how they might apply to the well-known discussions of translation by Alfred and Aelfric.

There is, however, a very serious lacuna in the book's historical coverage, and while this gap does not necessarily invalidate Stanton's argument, it makes the book far less convincing on a grand scale than it might have been (and probably deserves to be). Stanton writes, as do far too many scholars of Anglo-Saxon, as if there is an immediate connection between the Alfredian translation program and Aelfric's work, essentially ignoring the court of Aethelstan, the reign of Edgar, and the intellectual accomplishments of Dunstan and Aethelwold. By focusing on the two big names in Anglo-Saxon translation, Stanton ends up leaving out some of the most interesting historical and literary scholarship on translation and glossography, scholarship that is not inconsistent with his own theses. This gap in historical coverage is particularly surprising given Stanton's detailed and highly insightful discussion of glosses in his first chapter and his reference to the work (done over the past twenty years) by Michael Lapidge and others on the school of Theodore and Hadrian. Stanton is undoubtedly correct in locating that school as the fons et origo of Anglo-Saxon translation, but this identification makes his avoidance of Aethelwold's school at Winchester and its predecessor (with Dunstan) at Glastonbury completely baffling. One wonders if in fact this book was been delayed in its publication so that Stanton was unable to examine Mechthild Gretsch's magisterial The Intellectual Foundations of the Benedictine Reform (published in 1999). Gretsch provides the detailed analysis that would allow Stanton's book to be historically comprehensive rather than a patchwork made up of early glosses, Alfred and then Aelfric with little in between. Another explanation for the serious lacuna is that the dreaded "author function" (to use a postmodern trope) was playing too great of a role when Stanton selected his material. True, Aethelwold and Dunstan have comparatively few texts attributed to them (though Stanton cites much of Lucia Kornexl's excellent scholarship on one, the Regularis Concordia), but the avoidance of a discussion of Anglo-Saxon translations for the first wave of the Benedictine reform is anomalous at best and a serious gap at worst.

Nevertheless this reviewer strongly recommends Stanton's work (though with the caveat the one read Gretsch to supplement the missing near-century of cultural development). Stanton's easy facility with a multitude of difficult rhetorical sources and his thorough knowledge of the patristic debates on translation, coupled with his exceedingly through and insightful translations makes this book essential for scholars interested in what was, perhaps, the most popular and important form of writing in the Anglo-Saxon period. Stanton's re-translations of some of the most often-examined documents in Old English scholarship (Alfred's and Aelfric's "prefaces") must be taken seriously in light of the detailed evidence he provides to support his nuanced readings, and they provide a useful and thought-provoking supplement to the standard translations. Finally, the book is well-written, with the most daunting and excruciatingly dense material (on manuscripts, editions and glosses) relegated to clearly written footnotes rather than cluttering up the main line of argument. Stanton's flirtation with a few post-modernist theorists is neither harmful nor particularly helpful: it may well be that the insights provided by newer translation theories influenced Stanton's own research, but it is not necessary for the reader to accept these theories in order to follow, and be convinced by, Stanton's arguments. In fact, post-modernists (who will not read the book) would benefit from Stanton's examination of the long history of translation theory. Anglo-Saxonists will not get any particular benefit from the dollop of post-modernism, but that dollop does not get in the way of the important conclusions Stanton develops.

Minora: The index is detailed and accurate and the bibliography extensive (though it does divide materials into primary and secondary sources, a practice that makes it less useful than it might otherwise be). There are a number of useful and well-reproduced plates. The text itself is perhaps too densely packed on the page, but this unfortunate practice has been increasing of late as publishers attempt to cut costs and cannot be laid at the feet of the author. There is one "Alfred" for "Aelfric" typo (page 151), but otherwise the book is meticulously edited.

Works Cited:

Dumville, David N. Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1992.

Gretsch, Mechthild. The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Knappe, Gabriele. Traditionen der klassischen Rhetorik im angelsaechsischen England. Anglistische Forschungen 236. Heidelberg: Winter, 1996.

Kornexl, Lucia. Die Regularis Concordia und ihre altenglische Interlinearversion. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1993.

Lapidge, Michael. Anglo-Latin Literature 600-899. London: Hambledon, 1996.

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Author Biography

Prof. Michael Drout

Wheaton College