Introduction: The Middle Ages
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Introduction: The Middle Ages Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski University ofPittsburgh How far back should we go to speak of medieval translation? When were writers first aware of the specific problems presented by a society using a learned language-Latin-as well as a number of vernaculars? One could start with Saint Jerome, who already in the fourth century in his translations from Greek to Latin addressed one of the major points of contention for the medieval-or, for that matter, any-translator: whether a translation should be faithful to the letter of the original text or to its sense. While he translated the Bible as accurately, or word for word, as he could, he argued that non-biblical texts should be translated "non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu" [not word for word, but according to the sense] (Pratt 1991,3). For medieval scholars, this problem of faithful translation took shape slowly because most of the early translations from Latin into various vernacular languages were adaptations, recasting the original text or even combining it with others. Some of these adaptations were almost indistinguishable from other exercises within the trivium, such as "commentary, amplification, or paraphrase" (Buridant 1983, 95). One of the earliest terms used to designate translation was transferre, evoking the Greek metafero' In Old French, translater appears in early Bible translations. Other common expressions are mettre or torner en romanz: espondre en romans (harking back to the idea of explanation or commentary), or transporter/transposer/traire du latin en romans (evoking the idea of [cultural] movement). Certainly, the early methods of-and terms fortranslation were as varied as the motivations behind it. Charlemagne, with whom Claude Buridant begins his important study of medieval translation, saw the Christianization of the entire empire and the surrounding areas as one of the important points on his political agenda. Many of the translation projects he initiated and commissioned were tied to this desire of spreading the Christian message to those only capable of understanding the vernacular (1983, 85). The activities at the abbeys of Reichenau and St. Gall thus made available texts for the edification of relatively uneducated people and at 18 THE POLITICS OF TRANSLAnON the same time restored Latin to a level consonant with the rebirth of classical ideals in the Carolingian Renaissance. As W. D. Elcock observes, "The real restoration of literary Latin was brought about through the personal interest and energy of Charlemagne" (1975, 337). It was thus one powerful ruler who initiated two important cultural developments: a commitment to translation into the vernacular coupled with a concern for the quality of Latin, which distanced the written Latin of the Church and schools further and further from the spoken Vulgar Latin of the earliest Middle Ages. These two activities, then, contributed to the widening gap between learned Latin and the vernaculars of the many regions of the Carolingian empire, making translations ever more necessary. Two generations after Charlemagne, the Strassburg Oaths, sworn between two of the emperor's grandsons (Charles the Bald and Louis the German) against the third (Lothaire) in 842, bear testimony to the importance of translation, this time in a distinctly political context: The trilingual oaths were supposed to ensure that each party promised to uphold the same principles in their alliance against Lothaire. And because the soldiers themselves were required to swear the oaths (they are the christianes folches and christian poblo in the German and French versions), the use of the vernacular was of the utmost political importance.' Another ruler, Alfred the Great in the ninth century, was responsible for commissioning and executing a series of important translations into Old English. At the other end of our period, we find an important group of translators in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France working on explicit orders of their rulers, Charles V and Charles VI. Given this commitment on the part of various monarchs to translations into the vernacular, we must pose the question of the political aspects of these enterprises: What could be the ideological underpinnings of these cultural activities? How could translations be politically useful? Two of the areas where medieval monarchs and aristocrats found useful material in ancient Latin texts were the establishment of the legitimacy of their rule (especially in the case of new dynasties taking over) and precepts for government and kingly virtue. Thus Alfred the Great, the subject of David A. Lopez' essay in this volume, supported an extensive educational reform program of which a crucial part was translations...


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Subject Headings

  • Translating and interpreting--Europe--History--To 1500.
  • Translating and interpreting--Europe--History--16th century.
  • Civilization, Medieval.
  • Renaissance.
  • Literature, Medieval--Translations--History and criticism.
  • European literature--Renaissance, 1450-1600--Translations--History and criticism.
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