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22.09.11 Hurley, Translation Effects

22.09.11 Hurley, Translation Effects

Translation was central to medieval literature, and medieval theories and techniques of translation have received much scholarly attention in the last three decades. Mary Kate Hurley broadens the field further, arguing that the culture of translation leaves traces “that reveal their imagined political, cultural, and linguistic communities”: “translation effects” creating “imagined textual communities that are temporally heterogeneous and geographically expansive” (1). These communities can be found only on the page, not in any specific place or time: a translator, writer, or scribe reworks in the present a text written in the past for an imagined future audience. Hurley studies texts beyond those we typically deem translations. She focuses on the textual means and stories that create and reveal imagined communities rather than how linguistic equivalents are made (or not) through Old and Middle English texts and manuscripts.

Each chapter focuses on a different set of texts and effects, showing the flexibility and explanatory power of Hurley’s approach. The introduction explains Hurley’s methods. She takes a very wide view of translation, citing medieval notions of translatio studii and translatio imperii (transfer of learning and transfer of empire); not all translations have a specific source text in another language. She concludes the chapter with a demonstration analyzing Cædmon’s Hymn in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and its appearance in modern textbooks. This foundational moment in English poetry is one of translation: Bede relates the poem only in Latin prose, and Cædmon produces further vernacular poems from Bible stories monks tell him, presumably in English from a Latin Bible. Later scribes reversed Bede’s decision and included an OE Hymn. Hurley suggests this version may be a back translation from the Latin and that “Bede may have created [the Latin] wholesale” (23). (I would have liked more consideration of the possibility that a genuine early Old English Hymn was transmitted alongside Bede’s work.) Current anthologies too print Old English, overruling Bede and obscuring their own acts of translation; translation effects continue into our own time.

Chapter 1, “What Orosius Said,” examines the repeated interjection “cwæðOrosius” in the Old English translation of Paulus Orosius’s History against the Pagans. This tag attributes sentiments to the source author that come from the perspective of a translator roughly five centuries later, drawing attention to the narrator while creating a temporally heterogeneous readership. The text asks the audience to think as medieval Christians but also “to be Roman in its reading practices and therefore to acknowledge the truth of the Orosius-narrator’s understanding of history” (48). The tag calls attention to the translator’s decisions to shorten or break chapters and to include or omit material, inviting the audience to share his judgment of what should be remembered and how, and ultimately his reading of Christianity as improving the Roman Empire.

Chapter 2 explores how Ælfric’s Life of Oswald constructs “a genealogy of holiness proper to England” (54) to create an English textual community across boundaries of time and older kingdoms. In the Latin preface to the Lives, Ælfric voices his concerns about the transmission of his texts, looking to future audiences even as he recasts his main source. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History depicted Oswald as a Northumbrian king, creating an identity “that would have been unrecognizable to the historical king” (70); Ælfric in turn describes an English king whom Bede would not have understood. English saints appear among late antique saints in Ælfric’s collection, placing them in a wider Christian community. Ælfric selects details and scenes to emphasize Englishness and avoids those that show conflict between English kingdoms and repeated lapses in Christianity. He makes Oswald a translator who already speaks Irish and can interpret for Bishop Aidan, portraying conversion as faster and smoother than it was. Oswald’s holiness transfers to the sites of his two most important battles and beyond: both his story and moss and dirt from the sites can be relocated to holy effect. Ælfric’s text creates a unified Christian English textual community with its own holy places.

The third chapter sheds more light on questions of reception and audience as Hurley explores manuscripts of homilies by and attributed to Ælfric and how scribes create “communities of the page” in the early Middle English period. Glosses interrupt a reader’s interpretive process to direct a specific reading and foreclose others. They can also make manuscripts more accessible. First, she examines how the Tremulous Hand of Worcester provides a valuable example of a scribe’s multidirectional, multitemporal, multilingual work as he revises or adds to his own earlier work, connecting Old English, Latin, and Middle English as his interests and knowledge develop. Other scribes used visual translation effects: color and punctuation privilege Latin and help readers quickly see where Latin units end and vernacular equivalents appear. Some manuscripts add verbal cues. One manuscript of De octo vitiis has marginal additions supplying information, interpretation, and other content whose connections are more obscure, in both Middle English and French. The scribes envision a future multilingual audience and address their tastes and needs, “creat[ing] a community of both readers and of stories” (124) who share texts and approaches to them.

The fourth chapter examines the Constance story and understandings of England’s conversion through different translation effects in Trevet, Gower, and Chaucer. Trevet’s French version presents a Constance competent in multiple languages; Olda even thinks her Saxon royalty because of her speech. Her abilities effect conversion. Gower elides language differences, and his Constance hardly speaks; she uses language mainly to convert. Chaucer alone calls attention directly to language difficulties, from human inability to read the stars to Custance’s use of vulgar Latin in Northumbria. The writers present different understandings of history as well. Trevet may have known Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and followed his idea that the Britons lost power due to their failure to convert the Germanic newcomers; in his telling, Saxons replace Britons in power and religion. Chaucer may not have known Bede, and Britons remain key for him: British Christians live quietly in Northumbria, and the English use a British gospel book at the trial resulting in Alla’s conversion. Each author uses different translation effects, but in all, an English Christian community emerges from translation.

In chap. 5, “Beowulf’s Collectivities,” Hurley argues that Beowulf uses translation effects to understand human communities even as it shows their limitations in the face of collectivities, larger organizations with non-human actors. Beowulf is not itself a translation, nor does it deal directly with issues of human language. Yet the poem is deeply concerned with the transmission of stories and even more concerned with the fragility of stories and communities than the texts studied earlier. The Creation Song presents a first translation effect: difference in language and society from the start of Genesis to this moment are elided, as are differences between the Danish characters and the English audience. In hearing and reacting to the story, Grendel changes its meaning, from celebration to lasting enmity. The song links monsters to deep time even as Christian typology appears: Grendel both descends from and acts like Cain; Heorot is like a church violated by enemies. The characters hope to end violence and build stable communities, but the song and Beowulf itself suggest inescapable cycles of violence. The Lay of the Last Survivor too presents the end of a community, its culture, and the human use of objects such as harps and swords. Yet hawks and horses remain when humans are gone, and even manmade objects serve new purposes in a dragon’s hoard. The thief connects the non-human collective of hoard and dragon with the human community, to the detriment of the latter. Larger collectives operate on far longer time frames and outlast human communities, as both the main narrative and the digressions illustrate.

Hurley’s “Coda” looks briefly at translation effects for us: how do we read these stories now? She rejects white supremacist readings of Beowulf and other medieval texts, calling on scholars to oppose white supremacy actively and resist single readings that flatten the past and support supremacy. Medieval England had no time of “monolithic identities” but was part of “a profoundly interconnected world: a network of people, times, and stories” (188).

The book would have benefitted from more detailed consideration of audience: each chapter talks about a text or manuscript envisioning its own audience, but often no clear image of that audience appears to us. What would it mean to read as a Roman about Roman wars in the Orosius while Alfred, Edward, and Æthelstan fought off Vikings and then sought to conquer from them lands that would become England? Do Ælfric’s Lives address a purely English audience, or do they reach out to contemporary Scandinavians and their descendants living in England with varying degrees of assimilation? Does the Beowulf-poet write of Scandinavian victories and losses for audiences before or after Viking raids start? Do they envision Scandinavians among its audience? What appeal do Scandinavian stories have for English audiences? The chapters on Ælfric manuscripts and Constance stories conclude that scribes and authors anticipated multilingual audiences, with some limitation on their Latin skills and varied ethnic backgrounds. More such consideration would have enhanced the monograph.

That the book raises more questions than it can answer, however, is partly an effect of its own broad vision. Hurley gives us new ways to understand the multiple identities of writers, scribes, and their anticipated audiences. Translations most visibly show authors grappling with the difficulties of transmitting knowledge through stories, but Hurley also shows how we can see similar traces in glossed works and even Beowulf. The concept of translation effects gives medievalists a flexible tool to find new meaning in individual texts and a better overall understanding of a culture saturated with translation.