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13.07.06, Irvine & Godden, eds., The Old English Boethius

13.07.06, Irvine & Godden, eds., The Old English Boethius

The Dumbarton Oaks edition of the Old English Boethius is, in its presentation and major editorial choices, true to the series' mission, shared by the long-running Loeb Classical series, to make available important texts from the ancient world to a wide English-speaking audience. The present volume presents the prosimetrical reworking of the all-prose Old English translation of the De consolatione philosophiae in a facing-page format with a readable Modern English translation and limited apparatus. If the Dumbarton Oaks volume were the only recent edition to appear, it would perhaps have seemed inadequate given the choice to print only a derivative text (however closely contemporary) that matches the prosimetrical Latin original. But the same editors, Susan Irvine and Malcolm Godden, produced the compendious new standard Oxford UP edition of both the prose and prosimetrical texts in 2009, and the present volume thus has a very welcome place as a less stupendous (though quite elegant), complementary edition suitable for the general reader. [1] As the previous standard edition was published in 1899, Irvine and Godden's excellent editions are a vital update for the field and for those interested in the corpus of Old English literature. [2]

Sometime around the late ninth century, Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae was translated into Old English prose. This translation was soon thereafter reworked to make into traditional Old English alliterative verse the passages corresponding to verses in the Latin. The present volume includes the prosimetrical Old English translation of Boethius, with the prose and verse prefaces before it, as they once appeared in the sole surviving manuscript, the badly damaged London, British Library MS Cotton Otho The choice of the prosimetrical version over the all-prose is a natural one for this volume, as it presents the closest Old English approximation of Boethius' original text; of course that effaces all sorts of questions of genre and translation strategy, but those are questions of interest to specialists, and specialists have the Oxford edition. What the Dumbarton Oaks provides, for the most part, is clarity. More importantly, together with the 2009 edition, the present volume represents a major contribution to scholarship in providing access for the first time ever to the prosimetrical version as it appears in its manuscript context, with alternating verse and prose. All previous editions have opted to print the verses separately as appendices to the prose. That the new editions allow scholars and other readers to experience the prosimetrum qua prosimetrum is a significant step forward (the Oxford edition provides both the prose-only and the prosimetrical texts, while the Dumbarton Oaks edition includes only the prosimetrum).

Printed after the prosimetrical text are verse prologues and epilogues associated with King Alfred and his translation scheme: the prologue to the Old English Dialogues of Gregory the Great, the prologue and epilogue to the Old English Pastoral Care (also of Gregory the Great), and the epilogue to the Old English Bede. These materials are of definite interest in relation to the Old English Boethius, as they provide more insight into how the various translations were framed by translators or compilers and thus placed within the larger project of Old English translation. They shed light on the attitudes of the Anglo-Saxons toward their Latin materials and toward the process of translation itself. However, it is here that some unevenness in presentation is apparent. It is not clear to me that a general reader--part of the target audience for the volume--will be able to make good use of these ancillary materials without more contextualizing background than is supplied in the introduction. There is no general discussion, for instance, describing the setting in Alfred's day and recounting the reasons for his translation project--even if less is truly known about this than tradition has suggested--that would contextualize for a reader the various prologues and epilogues, the translations of the larger Latin works themselves, and the relation of the whole production to the Carolingian court. While some of the naive investment in lore evident in previous scholarship (the burned cakes, Alfred's authorship of the Alfredian translations, Alfred's Great-ness) can no longer be entertained, at least an introduction to the Old English text such as Sedgefield's paints some kind of picture of the times that gave rise to it. Such is surely called for in an edition meant for a non-specialist readership. Whereas the historical background to Boethius and his work is clear and helpful in the present edition, the reader is assumed to have a background in Anglo-Saxon and European early-medieval history to an extent that seems to confuse the readership.

Similarly, the discussion of Old English verse at times makes use of technical terms sure to escape the grasp of a general readership, while elsewhere the introduction eschews jargon in favor of basic exposition. For example, the editors refer to anacrusis and resolution, key features of Anglo-Saxon meter, without explaining the processes or defining the terms, and yet opt for "the device of investing an inanimate object...with a first-person voice" instead of the technical literary term, prosopopoeia. In a volume such as this, one should perhaps do both, that is, include the technical term but also explain it clearly, so as to draw a reader into the ambit of the scholarship. Another place where the general reader may be left behind is in the discussion of the prologues' and epilogues' varying degrees of conventionality in relation to the poetic tradition, as the editors again use but do not define terms such as formulaic system, which cannot be familiar to a general readership.

As for the text itself, the Modern English translation is exceedingly clear and idiomatic. It will surely render the Old English Boethius accessible as well as engaging to readers. Most of the translation choices enable the reader to see clearly the Anglo-Saxon translator grappling with a problem in the original and working it out in his native idiom in a way that seems idiomatic in Modern English today--truly an achievement. It also brings to print a Modern English translation that matches current as opposed to turn-of-the-century thinking regarding emendation. The translation of Sedgfield's, done in 1900, for instance, renders the Old English Wisdom, a masculine noun indexed consistently using masculine pronouns, as Philosophy, indexed by female pronouns, in order to match not the Old English source text being translated but instead the source text of the source text, the Latin original. [3] Thus a striking aspect of the Old English text is simply effaced in the Sedgefield translation. Irvine and Godden's translation reproduces the Old English Wisdom, as we have that word in Modern English, and uses masculine pronouns to refer to this figure, thus representing for a modern reader the mixed texture of the Old English version, which preserves some of the feminine imagery of the Latin Philosophia but nonetheless personifies Wisdom as male.

My one criticism regarding translation choices is the use of italics to differentiate the second-person singular pronoun from the second-person plural (you/you), for which Old English has different forms. While I am grateful indeed that the translators did not opt for the available dialectal y'all, or the colloquial-register-specific you guys, the choice to italicize for plural you creates an unwanted emphatic effect, since italics already exist in our typography to indicate emphasis. As one goes along in the text and comes across a string of italicized pronouns, one registers a sarcasm that is not appropriate. For instance, in Meter 27: "Why can you not wait for that death / in its bitter nature which the Lord created for you, / now that each day it hastens toward you?" (333). An asterisk, perhaps, would have marked each instance of plural you in a way that did not create unwanted inflection, since an asterisk is a standard marker of difference without bearing other inflectional information, as isolated in-text italics do.

Overall, as an accessible volume making the Old English prosimetrical Boethius available to a wide readership, the Dumbarton Oaks Old English Boethius is excellent. I do think the editors could have stepped back from the Oxford project a bit more in preparing their introductory remarks for a general audience, but the readability of both text and translation are of exceptional value to both the scholarly and the literary world.



[1] Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine, trans. and eds., The Old English Boethius: An Edition of the Old English Versions of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] Walter John Sedgefield, ed., King Alfred's Old English Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae (Oxford: Clarendon, 1899).

[3] Walter John Sedgefield, trans., King Alfred's Version of the Consolations of Boethius, Done into Modern English, with an Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon, 1900).