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  • The King's English: Strategies of Translation in the Old English Boethius
  • Kathryn A. Lowe
The King's English: Strategies of Translation in the Old English Boethius. By Nicole Guenther Discenza. Pp. 224. New York: State University of New York Press, 2005. Hb. £35.25.

Discenza's book offers us a study of the Old English translation, traditionally attributed to King Alfred, of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae examined through the dual perspective of modern translation theory and, more unusually, the prolific writings of Pierre Bourdieu. On almost every page she shows her debt to the French social anthropologist, either in the form of direct quotation or in the useof Bourdieu's terminology: cultural and symbolic capital, fields, dispositions, markets, and habitus pepper her prose. A full-length discussion of the Old English Boethius is certainly welcome; whether Discenza's study is enhanced by its theoretical framework is a question to which I shall return.

In the first chapter, 'Treasures from the Latin Hoard', Discenza discusses the Boethius translation in terms of adequacy. Alfred, she argues, translates largely according to the idiom of English usage and its norms, not Latin; however, he retains many proper nouns, frequently adding a gloss to introduce his readers to 'previously closed fieldsof discourse' including classical mythology, Roman history, and the natural sciences. There are some odd statements here: Discenza tellsus that Alfred avoids loan-words in his translation. Given the same tendency in the Old English language as a whole (one estimate puts the number of loanwords at only 3% of the recorded vocabulary), this isa meaningless observation without some numbers ('a very small set'will not do), or comparison with other texts. Here as elsewhere, some division of material into sections might have helped; Discenza's closing consideration of words to render different types of eternity is different in kind from the more general discussion which precedes it and therefore sits rather uneasily with it. It's not always clear where the discussion is heading; again, section layout might have helped to orient the reader.

The second chapter, 'A Christian Act of Reading', examines the Christianization of the source text in order to accommodate the habitus [End Page 265] (in Bourdieusian expression) of the reader, arguing that many themes in Boethius, particularly those of the notion of God as highest goodand the rejection of the world, are shared with explicitly Christian works. Discenza argues that Alfred's familiarity with the Scripturesand, importantly, with two other works associated with his translation programme, the Dialogi of Gregory the Great and Augustine's Soliloquia, allows him to construct a model of Christian authority, at the same time demonstrating his own knowledge of the tradition. The resulting translation, she argues, achieves both adequacy and prestige.

The third chapter, 'The Making of an English Dialogue', discusses the translation in terms of acceptability. Discenza is perceptive on its frequent use of doublets. She notes how common they are in vernacular works and therefore argues that they are not there to fulfil adequacy, but rather acceptability. She argues that Alfred adds images drawn from contemporary norms intended to make his readers more at ease with the narrative. He also incorporates oral devices such as frequent useof repetition and anticipation. The narrative is marked by a shift away from syllogism to a relationship between characters which is less formal and more friendly in tone than its source text. She argues that the new emphases on comradeship and kingship that emerge are of particular resonance in Anglo-Saxon society.

Part of the fourth chapter, 'The Translator's Cræft', is adapted from an article originally published in Anglo-Saxon England. Here Discenza considers lexis, looking at the range and use of two words, dysig (frequently rendering uulgi, stultus, and caecus) and cræft, which the translator uses not only in the usual meanings of physical or mental ability or power but also, less commonly, spiritual merit, and a sense, recorded only here, of 'virtue' (Latin virtus). For Discenza, Alfred 'synthesizes three contexts – Boethian, Christian, and Anglo-Saxon – to create new meaning for the word'. In this wide-ranging and accomplished chapter, she also discusses Alfred's elaboration of the images of...


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pp. 265-268
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Archived 2009
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