- The Ars and TranslationRamon Llull’s Strategies for Communicating Truth
Ramon Llull, translation history, Antichrist, exegesis, affatus, Miramar, missionary colleges
Only a brief perusal of the major publications and collections of essays in the field of translation studies during the past several decades reveals a dearth of materials exploring either the theory or process of translation during the period of the European Middle Ages. Introductory surveys and authors’ prefaces have a distinct tendency to leap from brief references to Cicero and Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible straight to the world of eighteenth-century Romanticism with occasionally a perfunctory touchdown in the environs of the Renaissance humanists or the rationalists of the Enlightenment (for example in the collections of essays in Baker 2010; Munday 2008; Schulte and Biguenet 1992; Venuti 1995). This can be forgiven, of course, in light of the fact that it can be argued that extensive and systematic discussion of the problems and challenges of translation—translation theory itself—only really begins in the eighteenth century. However, “medieval Latin Christendom was to an unusual degree a culture of translations” (Burman 2012, 86), [End Page 139] both relying upon and producing translations in a surprisingly vast array of languages on an almost equally broad range of topics. In fact, one of the reasons why some Renaissance humanists looked down on medieval intellectual culture, describing it with the pejorative epithet “gothic,” was because of its reliance on translation, particularly of the Arabic texts that, ironically, had transmitted a tremendous portion of the classical Greek heritage they so loved to the West during the twelfth century (Tolan, Veinstein, and Laurens 2013, 105–7). If, perhaps, our medieval sources are frequently silent when it comes to explicitly articulated theories about the process and methods of translation on the one hand, or how to cope with the ambivalencies of translated foundational texts on the other, the attentive historian can tease out insights into medieval views on such subjects by paying careful attention to the texts and contexts of the multitudes of translated works produced throughout the Middle Ages. Such study can yield rich insights into the complex and surprisingly sophisticated relationship between medieval people and their books, benefiting historians of medieval culture and historians of translation alike.
The life and works of one particularly colorful and prolific author of original texts and translations during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries open a window onto the complexities of language and the language communities of the Mediterranean world of his time—a “contact zone” extraordinaire (Pratt 1992). This is the Catalan polymath Ramon Llull who, in his writings, very self-consciously created an identity—maybe more than one—of someone whose very world was bound by questions surrounding language and translatability. His career and his oeuvre of some 265 books and short treatises originally written in Arabic, Catalan, and Latin, and translated into a range of languages, provide evidence for a number of late medieval strategies for communicating across religious, and therefore, by implication, also cultural, social, and political boundaries (Badia 2009). Admittedly, Llull was exceptional in almost every sense of the term (Hillgarth 1971; Bonner 1993a). However, it is precisely because of the simultaneously eclectic and sui generis character of his thought that he can serve as a wonderful case study of the nature of multilingualism and the practice of translation in the later Middle Ages. I will organize my comments into three general areas of investigation [End Page 140] and then conclude by looking at the translation of one particular text as a concrete example of key elements of Llull’s ideas about language and translation.
The Doctor Illuminatus and His Art
Although Llull did not write more than a few scattered paragraphs about translation per se, we are lucky to have an extraordinary document that helps to contextualize and explain his great interest in language and translation. This is the Vita Coaetanea, or Contemporary Life, which is a semiautobiographical text dictated by Ramon to his friends in the Carthusian monastery of Vauvert in Paris in 1311 when he was already almost 80 years old. It is a...