14.10.09, Fresco and Wright, eds., Translating the Middle Ages

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Wendy Pfeffer

The Medieval Review 14.10.09

Fresco, Karen L. and Charles D. Wright. Translating the Middle Ages. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. 222. ISBN: 9781409446972 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Wendy Pfeffer
University of Louisville

In October 2008, Fresco and Wright organized a conference at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign on the theme of translation. From the papers presented at that event, the editors have selected thirteen contributions to present in this volume, which takes the theme of translation across languages and territories and considers "translation" in ways that are inventive, creative and innovative.

The introduction to the volume and also the introductions to each of the sections of the book were written by Catherine Batt, a participant in the conference and also author of one of the essays in the collection. Batt's introduction offers the reader a light dose of literary theory and a sense of medieval antecedents for translations in all their variety. She pulls a few themes from the contributions to offer a vision of the whole. Notably, she speaks to the topic of hospitality (2), noting that translation includes "all forms of linguistic communication, within, as well as across, languages"(2) She reminds readers of the importance of listening to the specificities of medieval cultures (5), using as a concluding quotation the apt remark of Eliot Weinberger, "Translation is change and motion" (7, citing Anonymous Sources: A Talk on Translators and Translations, Encuentros 39 [Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank, 2000] 13).

The first section is titled "What's in a Word?" and opens with Brian Merrilees's "Dictionaries, Definitions and Databases," a fascinating discussion of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Latin-French lexicons and how meaning moved between languages and over time. The author's intimate familiarity with the development of dictionaries in medieval France is clear in the evidence he presents for language change, demonstrated with the specific example of fifteenth-century Carthusian monk Firmin Le Ver in his Dictionarius, a monument to the skill and ingenuity of its author. Merrilees concludes with a quick review of databases available to assist in lexicographic research, a section that appears in the essay's title but relates less well to the theme of the volume. Merrilees points to vocabulary created in the Middle Ages that has yet to be accepted by guardians of the French language: he offers the example of escrivaine (a woman writer), a word not yet recognized by the Trésor de la langue française, though the term has existed since the fourteenth century and was cited by Frédéric Godefroy (Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française et de tous ses dialectes du IXe au XVe siècle [Paris, 1881-1902] v. 3, 443a) over a century ago.

"The Translation of Nature: Al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī on the Plant Life of the Western Mediterranean" by Russell Hopley continues the discussion of translation in its traditional sense. Hopley shows how Idrīsī (a scholar born in 1100 in today's Ceuta, Morocco, educated in Spain, ending his career at the Norman court in Palermo), composed his botanical treatise, the al-Jāmi' lī-ṣifāt ashtāt al-nabāt wa ḍrūb anwā' al-mufradāt (A Compendium of the Characteristics of Diverse Plants and the Varieties of Simple Medications). This scientific work serves not only its titular purpose, but also offers translations between multiple languages, demonstrating Idrīsī's own knowledge and also the interests and backgrounds of his readers. As Hoply notes, "Each plant is initially identified by its Arabic name, and its designation is frequently provided in Classical Greek, Byzantine Greek, Hebrew, and, not infrequently, Sanskrit, Turkish, Kurdish, and Berber" (25). Hopley observes that Idrīsī moved from faith community to faith community, "translating the vocabulary of one culture into that of a second, and sometimes a third and fourth" (29). Hopley concludes that the twelfth-century scholar sought "to translate and preserve the accumulated knowledge of a civilization on the brink of profound change" (29).

Part 2 is subtitled "Translation and Devotional Selfhood" and includes three papers that relate to spirituality. In "Translating ma dame de Saint-Pol: The Privilege and Predicament of the Devotee in the Legiloque Manuscript," Aden Kumler argues for the integration of image and text as both "transform the reader into a pious subject" (33). She addresses some of the twenty-seven illustrations found in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, n.a.f. 4338, known as the Legiloque after the title of the first work included; the manuscript is a collection of nineteen texts intended to instruct readers in morals and faith. Kumler focuses on those illustrations that feature a woman; she sees the illustrations and text working together, using themes from the secular world to move the reader to a devotional mindset. The explanation of the images is well-done, though I would have preferred that we see the images in the order they appear in the manuscript, rather than out of order (Kumler presents the illustrations in this order: f. 134r, f. 131v, then f. 132v). As Kumler concludes, "the Legiloque manuscript involved its anticipated reader-viewer in a gendered tradition of moral-spiritual translation, a tradition both authorizing and, inevitably, conscriptive" (53).

Catherine Batt's "Foul Fiends and Dirty Devils: Henry, Duke of Lancaster's Book of Holy Medicines and the Translation of Fourteenth-Century Devotional Literature" takes a more traditional approach to the translation question, from her perspective as translator of the Middle-English treatise. She reminds us that "translation decisions...[are] assimilated into interpretative processes and networks at once cultural, literary, linguistic, and historical" (57). She recognizes the many issues addressed by translators, with emphasis on the particular alterity of the Middle Ages.

Discussing a slightly later work, Robert W. Barrett, Jr. considers Renaissance theater. His "Languages Low and High: Translation and the Creation of Community in the Chester Pentecost Play" deals with multilingualism in Play 21 of the Chester cycle. Barrett understands the play as considering Reformation issues; that actors use code-switching as a means of establishing ties with the audience, and that "the fluid ease with which a local, lay production like Play 21 shifts between the two languages [Latin and English] challenges the nation-centered master narrative of Catholic to Protestant and Latin to English" (79). As Catherine Batt notes, "The Chester audience members...are also invited, from their perspective of religious conviction, to see as a gift of grace their ability to translate the language of the everyday into spiritual blessing" (33).

The volume now turns to Italy, first with "Dante's Comedy: The Poetics of Translation" by Christopher Kleinhenz. As Kleinhenz states, Dante "is the consummate translator of the Middle Ages" (85, Kleinhenz's italics); "in his "translation" of the Book of the Universe, whose author is God, Dante achieves his greatest and most sublime goal" (86). This impressive essay demonstrates Dante's mastery of his idiom and his success in using the knowledge of his medieval audience to advance his own purposes. Having shown Dante's success in translation, Kleinhenz concludes with a brief discussion of imperfect translations of the Florentine author, showing that Dante's care in the creation of his text can be exceedingly hard to transfer to a different idiom.

Alison Cornish takes a different approach, with perhaps too much emphasis on theory, in her "Traces of the Translators in Late Medieval Italian Vernacularizations." The author of primary interest to Cornish is Lapo di Neri Corsini, the early fourteenth-century author-copyist of an Italian version of the Fait des Romains. Lapo used the base text of the Fait des Romains as an opportunity to interpolate other material, so that his version is, in many ways, his own creation, his own volgarizzamento. Cornish concludes, "Volgarizzamento is, essentially, commentary, wherein 'preserving the continuing vitality of one text necessarily meant constant alteration of the other'" (Cornish is quoting James Zetzel, Marginal Scholarship and Textual Deviance: The Commentum Cornuti and the Early Scholia on Persius [London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2005]). Cornish reiterates that any discussion of Italian reworking of texts will have to consider the underlying assumptions of the copyists who quickly become authors or translators in their own right.

Part 4 is devoted to translations of Antiquity and of the Romance tradition, opening with Jeanette Beer's "Translating Julius Caesar." Batt saw the ties between Beer's essay and that of Cornish, as both authors discuss medieval approaches to Caesar's De bello gallico. Beer points the reader to her book, A Medieval Caesar (Geneva: Droz, 1976), and I have the sense that her essay is taken essentially from that earlier publication. Nonetheless, she calls our attention to a medieval French interpretation of the classical Latin text, noting when the translator does translate (e.g. France rather than Gallia), Cornelius Phagita becomes Cornelius le Mangeur, but Lutetia is translated as Lutece, not Paris [114]). Beer concludes that the Old French text was presented "as a model for the new age of princes" (117), though the few paragraphs here did not convince this reader.

A different angle is taken by Russell Stone in "John Lydgate's 'Ugly' Orpheus: Translation and Transformation in the Fall of Princes." Stone argues that Lydgate thought that "the labor of translating allowed him to revitalize history by making the greatest stories of the classical world...accessible and accurate for his fifteenth-century patrons and audience" (119). The character of Orpheus was particularly valuable for Lydgate, allowing the late medieval author to cloak himself in the persona of the Greek poet. "Lydgate's Orpheus becomes, in short, Lydgate himself" (130). One element of Stone's argument depends on illustrations of the Fall of Princes as found in London, British Library MS Harley 1766; unfortunately, the pictures in the book were comparatively small and hard for this reader to interpret.

More successful is "Intervernacular Translation in the Early Decades of Print: Chivalric Romance and the Marvelous in the Spanish Melusine (1489-1526)" by Ana Pairet. As Batt summarizes, Pairet "traces the role of the new technology of printing in facilitating the migration and appropriation of fiction across national and linguistic boundaries...in an argument for how the Castilian printed Melusine comes to occupy an originary position of its own" (110). Pairet shows how "the trajectory of the work--...from Poitou to Basel and Geneva, Lyons and Seville, and further afield--provides a precious example of the reception and ideological transformation of medieval romance, upon which the Renaissance would bestow a new exemplarity" (144).

The final section takes us farthest geographically. The section opens with Boris A. Todorov's "Monks and History: Byzantine Chronicles in Church Slavic." Todorov sees translation as a marker of cultural dependence and independence at the same time. The texts discussed by Todorov include translations of Byzantine universal chronicles such as John Zonaras's Historical epitome (Epitomē historiōn) or Constantine Manasses' Chronicle (Synopsis historikē) into South Slavic languages, many of these in the fourteenth century. Todorov tells us of frustrated scribes, including one "who could not edit the text substantially, yet he used the opportunity to warn against the tendency of Slavic scribes to abridge" (154). Todorov's conclusion is particularly intriguing. He states that the translations and scribal commentaries on them show us a monastic community distancing itself "from the non-Christian administration of the Ottoman Empire" (159); he suggests that translation was used by these monks as a means of promoting introspection. The quotations from primary sources suggest that Todorov knows this material intimately; I would have appreciated more information on the method of transcription, as the original texts are presented in an alphabet that I do not recognize.

"Greek at the Papal Court during the Middle Ages" by Réka Forrai proposes translation as a form of spoliation. Forrai uses an original approach to consider the position of Greek material as a tool for conversion, "to defeat the Greeks on their own ground" (166). This scholar considers holdings in the papal library, insofar as these can be determined from inventories and extent manuscripts. Forrai states somewhat polemically, "literary systems are parts of social systems, and it is therefore justifiable to approach translation projects as ideological apparatuses serving the development of cultural identities" (168). Forrai observes that the pattern of Greek-Latin translations present "a pattern worth investigating, and a history worth telling" (169). I wish her success in this endeavor.

The last essay in the collection is by Ryan Szpiech, "Translation, Transcription, and Transliteration in the Polemics of Raymond Martini, O.P." A native of Aragon, Martini (died after 1284) was deeply involved in Dominican conversion activities; he mastered a number of languages to assist him in this task. While Szpiech is explicit that Martini's Pugio fidei needs a good critical edition, his more important point is that Martini uses quotation from sources as a means of offering authority for his arguments, "the task of translation becomes more than just a window into the sources of his adversaries--it becomes the weapon of his own rhetorical self-justification and the primary tool in polemical assault" (178). Szpiech continues a theme seen in Forrai's essay by speaking of Martini's incorporation of original material into his works as a hijacking of material (187). Szpiech's essay concludes with a brief discussion of the ambiguities of translation, particularly as experienced by his thirteenth-century author. The topics he addresses are superb and totally fitting as a conclusion to a volume entitled Translating the Middle Ages.

There is a single bibliography for the entire volume, with complete bibliographic information provided for all references; we also have a serviceable index. Missing from the index is any indication as to who and/or what was included in it. At random, I sought "Toulouse" (mentioned in Pairet's contribution) in the index, but the city is not listed. Nor do I understand why Li Fet des Romains appears in the index under the letter L, rather than under the letter F (there is, however, a cross-reference). These are very minor quibbles.

Karen Fresco and Charles Wright are to be commended for organizing what must have been an outstanding conference, for marshalling the authors who contributed to this volume of Acts, and for offering the scholarly community fourteen wide-ranging approaches to the theme of translation in the Middle Ages.

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Wendy Pfeffer

University of Louisville