17.02.08, Dearnley, Translators and their Prologues in Medieval England

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Leah Tether

The Medieval Review 17.02.08

Dearnley, Elizabeth. Translators and their Prologues in Medieval England. Bristol Studies in Medieval Cultures. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2016. pp. xiii, 300. ISBN: 978-1-84384-442-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Leah Tether

Elizabeth Dearnley's book on prologues in medieval literary texts translated from French to English sets out with the premise of using prologues as a tool for measuring the growth and development of English as a literary language. Prologues form, in Dearnley's opinion, a kind of genre, with translators' prologues representing a subset or subgenre thereof (2-3). Whilst I am not sure Dearnley does quite enough to introduce (and to justify) the application to these short passages of the particularly thorny epithet that is genre, it seems legitimate enough to mark out prologues as a kind of distinguishable text-type. In this sense, they represent as good a test-bed as any for exploring that which Dearnley puts at the core of her study: the ways in which French-to-English translation distinguishes itself from other kinds of translation happening at the same time throughout Europe.

Dearnley splits her analysis into eight chapters. The first two of these consider the antecedents for prologues, first, in the Latin and French traditions and, second, in the German(ic) and Anglo-Saxon (Old English) traditions. Dearnley argues that prologues adapted from Latin by Anglo-Norman translators played a key role in giving literary texts an authority, whilst also setting out the ways in which English, as a Germanic vernacular language, had the advantage of possessing a natural bridge with Latin, and, by extension, with Latin's implied authority. Dearnley's careful presentation here allows her to set up the notion of prologues as a crucial window onto the negotiations of authority that translators had to manage and navigate as part of their craft. Chapter 3 brings Dearnley to her central corpus of French-to-English translators' prologues. Dearnley's twenty-six selected examples come from a wide enough range of texts, from chronicles to works of religious instruction, and from verse to prose texts. What is missing, however, and what would have been useful, is some sense of why these particular examples were chosen: can they be considered indicative examples? Or are they special cases? Either would be justifiable, but a clearer exposition of the basis for methodological choices was really needed so that the reader can more accurately grasp the actual and potential ramifications of the study. This said, the chapter otherwise sets out a persuasive case for the gradual, though not chronologically linear, movement towards English as an accepted medium for literary translation.

Chapter 4 offers an insight into the biography of translators, focusing particularly on the ways in which they are depicted, both by themselves and by others. This is a helpfully illustrated chapter, which looks both at what translators say about themselves, and how illuminators present translators in miniatures and decorated initials. Dearnley meticulously sets out her evidence and produces a highly readable and often very astute analysis. It is perhaps disappointing to learn here that translators, for the most part, do not seem to have been distinguished from the more general author/narrator figure seen elsewhere. However, Dearnley could perhaps have leant more on the consequent elevation of the translator in this respect: that is, as an essential creator in ways regarded as equivalent to an author and/or narrator. Chapter 5 brings the reader to the crucial subject of how translators acquired their French. As a more general contextual study, it feels as if this section needed to come before Chapter 4, especially as much of what Dearnley sets out here has to remain tentative, as she herself admits (161). The overall assertion, though, that competence in French developed from active to passive seems fair, and is well argued. Chapter 6's focus on women might have been better had it been rolled into the overall analysis, since the conclusions drawn here do not really serve to set apart the practices of male and female translators, but the actual textual analysis of prologues here is to be counted as amongst the most successful in the book as a whole. Dearnley's strengths are most obvious when she is undertaking this kind of in-depth textual exploration, as this is what provides some of the most tangible support for her central thesis. Chapter 7 offers an interesting, if all too brief, consideration of the afterlife of the prologue, taking the reader through a variety of examples of the ways in which translators' prologues are later adapted for new audiences. In some ways, this is perhaps the most interesting and pertinent chapter, as it offers evidence as to how translation was viewed by contemporary audiences. For this reviewer, had this been extended a little further, this would have been the obvious place to end the analysis, but Dearnley's final chapter broadens the analysis out once again to look at the prologues of translations between French and Middle Dutch. These she employs as a comparator for highlighting the distinctiveness of the phenomenon as practiced in England, as well as to provide a springboard for the further study of translators' prologues in a pan-European context, something she calls for in her conclusion. The analysis here is well executed, but it is curious that it is only at this point that we have, in some cases, the first mention of certain forms of translation and literary theory. It itself, the chapter works well, but it feels a little as if some of its content is floating, having needed just slightly earlier introduction.

In sum, this is a well-written and fascinating study. It undoubtedly contributes to knowledge, as is beautifully illustrated by means of images and figures, as well as tables and appendices. At times, this reviewer was left wondering if we had really learnt all that much about how translators specifically were to be distinguished from other writers/authors/narrators and, if they could not be, then why a study of them is valuable nonetheless. It is also curious that Dearnley never really broaches the question as to what, precisely, constitutes translation (of course, various forms of medieval rewriting might fall into this category), rather leaving it implicit that what she really means is interlingual translation. Even if we accept this, it still leaves nebulous her particular approach to, and understanding of, the various complications associated with a translation that is not just driven by direct language-to-language transliteration, but also the not infrequent rewriting of content for culturally distinct audiences. The strongest parts of the analysis are those where Dearnley interacts directly with her core corpus in the shape of in-depth textual analysis of the prologues themselves, and certain sections, particularly the first two chapters, might have been enhanced with more of that kind of enquiry. But Dearnley certainly succeeds in proving her thesis that prologues are crucial sites of information regarding language competencies, the position of translators and the negotiations of authority when translating between languages, and that they therefore require more attention that they have received hitherto. Most particularly, what Dearnley clearly contributes is an enriched view of the ways in which English slowly became established as a literary language of authority.

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