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Translating the Middle Ages ed. by Karen L. Fresco and Charles D. Wright (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 118-120 | 10.1353/art.2013.0051

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Translating the Middle Ages is an excellent demonstration of the rich diversity present in medieval translation studies. Although the Editors’ Foreword refers to a ‘memorable’ meeting of translators W.S. Merwin and Robert Pinsky at the 2008 conference that inspired this volume (xi), only one of the volume’s thirteen essays (that of Catherine Batt) concerns the modern translation of a medieval text. Yet Batt, who also provides the volume’s introduction, reminds readers that ‘the medievalist has to be a translator ….to justify and interpret the value of the past to present audiences’ (4). In this sense, the volume ‘translates’ a range of medieval textual activity, examining not only cross-linguistic transmissions of texts, and their histories of production and material records, but also wordlists, macaronic writing, transcription, transliteration, and even illustration. Although French and Latin texts and the late medieval period garner the most attention, the volume embraces a broad temporal and linguistic span of materials and the rationale for its five sections displays another form of diversity: only the third section pairs essays according to the language of texts studied; the other sections reflect the flexible categories of ‘lexis; the conceptualizing of spiritual selfhood; literature within, and across, boundaries of nation, space and time, and genre; and translation’s implication in ideology, politics, and religion’ (5). Brief section introductions and an index identify connections between essays; the bibliography wisely encompasses works cited without attempting fuller coverage of a field so diffuse.

Heterogeneity is nowhere more apparent than in the first section, although both of its essays concern wordlists. Brian Merrilees describes two interrelated groups of anonymous late medieval French-Latin dictionaries; warning against facile readings of these sources as indices of actual practice, Merrilees suggests the scholarly contributions offered by their on-going conversion to electronic media. Russell Hopley expounds the context of a twelfth-century Arabic botanical treatise; Hopley considers the significance of linguistic pluralism and errors in the transliteration of non-Semitic words, but his ultimate concern is the treatise’s author, al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī, ‘himself a work of translation’ (29) as a Muslim prince in Sicilian exile and in his use of Greek and Muslim sources.

The second section’s three essays discuss a manuscript compendium, treatise, and cycle play, respectively, none of which would typically be designated ‘translations.’ Yet each essay presents translation as integral to the medieval portrayal of spiritual identity. Aden Kumler asserts that the images of the fourteenth-century Legiloque collection translate their reader-viewer into a particular, gendered type of devotional figure, in concert or in competition with the collected texts; Kumler’s lexis of ‘translation’ represents an argument in itself as these text-image relations could be conveyed in other terms. Catherine Batt’s essay returns to translation in a stricter sense; Batt elucidates her choices as the modern English translator of Henry of Lancaster’s Anglo-Norman devotional treatise, mindful of Henry’s ‘polyglot cultural context’ (56) and his treatise’s competing claims of social elevation and spiritual abjection. Robert Barrett’s essay concludes the section, emphasizing the Whitsuntide context of the Chester Pentecost play and its miraculous, macaronic presentation of hymns and the Creed in order to challenge ‘the nation-centered master narrative of Catholic to Protestant and Latin to English’ (79); the rhetoric of ‘multilingual redemption’ (67) that employs translation to forge communal identities evades simplistic categorizations. As does this volume: although Translating the Middle Ages is written entirely in English, only Barrett and Russell Stone—discussed below—make predominantly Middle English texts their primary concern; none focus on Old English.

The third section pairs essays on Italian works; both touch on the idea of ‘vernacularity,’ although so differently that more integrated analysis seems desirable. Christopher Kleinhenz compares examples of flexibly defined ‘translation’ within Dante’s Comedy with evidence for the resistance or incitement to such rewriting of the Comedy itself, including later pictorial representations. Alison Cornish meticulously tracks how ‘reader-writers,’ often considered mere copyists, in particular Lapo di Neri Corsini, reshape Italian translations from French renderings of classical texts. Kleinhenz proffers instances of reverence for Dante’s translations and Italian; Cornish describes how Lapo’s choices in textual intervention indicate...

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