Translation and Tradition: Reading the Consolation of Philosophy Through King Alfred's Boethius
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Translation and Tradition: Reading the Consolation ofPhilosophy Through King Alfred's Boethius David A. Lopez Deep Springs College Comparative textual studies between original texts and later translations, such as those presented by my colleagues in this volume, have significantly improved scholars' understanding of many facets of ancient and medieval societies. In the process of examining how political motivations of the translators differed from those of the original authors, much insight has been gained into the broad relationships between text and society. In these studies, it has generally been assumed that differing political motivations must fundamentally alter the roles of the original and the translation. I would like to suggest here, however, that such a fundamental alteration is not necessarily a consequence of translation; it is possible, despite differing political motivations between author and translator, that both the original and the translation maintain essentially the same roles within their respective societies. To demonstrate how this might be so, I will concentrate on Alfred's Boethius, a ninth-century translation from Latin into English of Boethius' sixth-century Consolation ofPhilosophy. Boethius composed the original about 524--0stensibly as an apologia for his actions-after having been imprisoned by Theoderic, the Arian Christian king of Ostrogothic Italy, under charges of treasonously plotting with orthodox senators in Constantinople to overthrow Theoderic (O'Daly 1991). Alfred's translation was made about 887, as part of a broad effort of educational reform undertaken to help reinforce royal authority and Christian administration in the West Saxon kingdom, in the face of nearly overwhelming Viking invasions (Otten 1964; Frakes 1988). I shall demonstrate my thesis by addressing one question central to the interpretation of the original text that has not yet been answered in a satisfactory manner: namely, the nature of its relationship to Christianity. Of the six texts chosen by Alfred to compose the core 70 THE POLITICS OF TRANSLATION library for his education reforms, the Consolation is the only one not explicitly Christian and orthodox; but Alfred, relying on a tradition of Boethius' orthodoxy, has little trouble making his version explicitly Christian. Alfred's reading of the Consolation as a Christian text despite its non-Christian appearance begs the question: Why is there no explicit Christianity in the Consolation? Previous answers to this question have been shown to be untenable. It was once advanced that there might be two writers named Boethius, one a Christian, the author of the five theological tractates that bear that name; the other pagan, the author of the Consolation. It has since been proven through textual analyses that the author of the theological tractates was almost certainly the same person as the author of the Consolation (Rand, Stewart and Tester 1973). The suggestion was then entertained that this single Boethius became disillusioned with Christianity after his arrest and the failure of the Roman clergy to support him, and apostatized in prison; but as Henry Chadwick has successfully argued, If the Consolation contains nothing distinctively Christian, it is also relevant that it contains nothing specifically pagan, either.... [T]he Consolation contains no sentence that looks like a confession of faith either in the gods of paganism or in Christian redemption.... Everything specific is absent, and probably consciously avoided. The ambiguity seems clearly to be deliberate (Chadwick 1981, 249). In formulating his own answer to the question, Chadwick ignores the possibility that the tradition of Christian interpretation of the Consolation, and particularly Alfred's translation of it, can profitably be considered. 1 The only solution that Chadwick can thus propose to account for the religious ambiguity of the text is an assertion of "humanism" for Boethius. Such an assertion does not, however, answer the question in a meaningful way. Boethius' humanism did not, after all, prevent him from being unambiguous in the theological tractates; why should it have done so in the Consolation? A close comparison of the Consolation and Alfred's Boethius does, I believe, illuminate the nature of Boethius' ambiguity. Alfred in his translation connects the two themes of human tyranny and divine rule of the cosmos that recur 2 throughout the Consolation, themes with which modem scholarship has only dealt separately (O'Daly 1991, 75-98). But, I believe, precisely in the contrast between these two themes can be found the key to understanding the Consolation's religious ambiguity and its relevance to the circumstances of its composition. KING ALFRED'S BOETHIUS 71 Boethius introduces the theme of divine rule quite early in the work . He insists first on the...


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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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