Translation of Texts and of Relics As Symbolic Capital In Caballero Zifar
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Translation of Texts and of Relics As Symbolic Capital In Caballero Zifar

In the prologue to the Libro del Caballero Zifar (=Zifar), the author of the prologue tells us that the work is not his own creation, but rather that he found it and translated it into Castilian:

E porque la memoria del ome ha luengo tienpo, e non se pueden acordar los omes de las cosas mucho antiguas sy las non fallan por escripto, e porende el trasladador de la estoria que adelante oyredes, que fue trasladada de caldeo en latin e de latin en romance, puso e ordeno estas dos cosas sobredichas en esta obra, por que los que venieren despues de los deste tienpo, sera quando el año jubileo a de ser, porque puedan yr a ganar los bien auenturados perdones que en aque tienpo son otorgados a todos los que alla fueren, e que sepan que este fue el primer cardinal que fue enterrado en España.

(González 70–71) [End Page 115]

Critics have argued over the question of Zifar’s translation for some time. Most agree that it was not itself a translation from Arabic, but was written in Castilian around 1300. Roger Walker, the only critic to argue in favor of an actual translation, writes that Zifar has a “clearly Semitic ring” to it (Walker 33 n 29). Perhaps more interesting than whether or not the work is a “real” translation is this: If the work is not a translation from Arabic, why does the author use so many proper nouns and place names that appear to have been adapted from or invented in imitation of Arabic? What is the meaning of the “clearly Semitic ring”? Why the performance of translation?

The answer is complicated and lies at the intersection of Western Christendom’s relationship with the East, Castile’s relationship with Western Europe, and finally, Castile’s relationship with al-Andalus, its neighbor to the south that was rapidly being incorporated into Castile itself. In short, relics and texts were arms and currency in a pan-Mediterranean struggle for military, spiritual, and economic supremacy between Latin Christendom and Islam.

The prologue to Zifar describes the quest of Ferrant Martínez to translate the remains of the Mozarabic Cardinal Gonzalo Gudiel, from Rome to his native Toledo.1 This act of physical translation, according to the prologue’s author, required the same sound judgment, wisdom, and mettle required by the knight Zifar himself to meet the challenges he faced in his wide travels and fantastic adventures (Hernández and Linehan 400–01).

The book is the story of Zifar’s quest to restore the honor of his family, who were once kings but have fallen due to their poor behavior and weak moral values. Zifar is, like all protagonists of chivalric romances, an impossibly talented knight. However, he suffers a curse: his horse dies on him every ten days. This defect, perhaps symbolic of his ancestor’s abuse of their noble station, only emphasizes his excellence at arms: even without a horse, [End Page 116] Zifar can best all comers (Arbesú-Fernández). Following the script of the knight errant, Zifar departs from court in search of adventure and a better future. What follows is a loose adaptation of the legend of St. Eustacius, laced with lots of knightly adventure, a healthy chunk of Mirror-of-Princes type lecturing, and loads of refrains and proverbs peppering the dialogue (Gómez Moreno 132). The work’s structure is similar to that of a Byzantine novel, with shipwrecks, plot twists, separations and reunions. In the end, Zifar becomes king of the land of Mentón, and his son Roboán sets out on his own adventures and becomes king of Tigrida, a land situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In the prologue to the book, the author describes the adventures of the Archdeacon of Toledo, Ferrán Martínez, who undertakes a journey to Rome, where he pleads with the Pope to allow him to repatriate the body of the recently deceased Cardinal Gonzalo Gudiel to his native Toledo. Apparently the Cardinal had made his protégée Martínez...