Translating Latin Texts: Le mot juste

Recently, I was doing some peer review on a translation. I thought it was a good translation, and recommended it be published with only a few tweaks, but it was one of several things I’ve seen recently that raised a question which might be interesting to discuss. We do a lot of translation on this website, and if you’ve read them you’ll know that we tend to render every word in English. The translation I was reviewing, and it’s not the only one I’ve seen, kept several words in Latin. I’ll say up front that there’s a case for either approach and I don’t think either is objectively worse, depending on your perspective and goals; but it may be worth writing down why I go for the former option.

First, let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. Here’s a passage from the Bachrach and Fanning translation of Flodoard of Rheims’ Annals (chosen because it’s the easiest example of this in print for me to get – as I write this, which is several weeks before it will go up, I’m in isolation with COVID so my resources are a bit more limited than they otherwise would be):

…King Louis gave the castrum of Amiens to Erluinus. Heribert’s sons took the munitio of Clastres, in the pagus of Vermandois, due to the treachery of Raoul, one of King Louis’s fideles. This Raoul secretly slipped out of the stronghold when Heribert’s sons entered it and plundered the treasures before abandoning the deserted municipium.

B.S. Bachrach & S. Fanning (trans), The Annals of Flodoard of Rheims (Toronto: 2011), p. 39.

As you can see, in these two sentences, five words are untranslated: castrum, munitio, pagus, fideles and municipium. Were I translating the same passage, I would have rendered them as ‘citadel’, ‘fortress’, ‘district’, ‘followers’ and ‘fortress’ again. So what arguments could justify either approach?

I wish my translation work was this well remunerated… (source)

The main argument for leaving some words in Latin is that the word is ‘untranslatable’. In some cases, English can’t convey any of the nuance. Take Vergil’s Aenid, which repeatedly refers to its main character as pius Aeneas. That seems like it should be ‘pious Aeneas’, but a Classically-trained friend of mine once spent a good fifteen minutes explaining to me that this is a very flat translation: pius doesn’t mean that Aeneas is religious, necessarily (although it does include that meaning with its ambit) but that he is dutifully loyal in appropriate ways, especially towards his family. In other cases, English can’t convey wordplay or puns. Gregory the Great’s famous pun that beautiful English slave-boys looked like non Angli sed angeli (‘not Angles but angels’) does work in English, but his follow-up puns don’t – they were from the kingdom of Deira (modern Yorkshire), and Gregory responded bene Deiri, de ira eruti (‘Deira is a good name for it – they will be snatched from God’s wrath’). Or – my favourite – the description of Dominicans as domini canes, ‘the dogs of the Lord’, which also doesn’t really work in English (‘Dominicanines’?). Finally, there are technical terms which some translators deem more appropriate to keep in Latin, in much the same way that people who work on eighteenth-century France tend to keep the French word gabelle rather than putting it into English as ‘salt-tax’. I see these most often in the case of titles (dux is probably the most significant, but marchio also gets this treatment) and fortifications (some well-known medievalists have argued that the endless different Latin words for ‘fortified place’ – arx, castrum, oppidium – and so on all have different technical meanings and so leave them untranslated). I personally find this last point the least sympathetic, not least because at least a few of the arguments that X or Y is a technical term are tendentious and not translating them smells too much of stacking the deck. That is, by leaving these terms untranslated, an artificial sense of a coherent technical terminology is created which might be as if not more misleading than just putting the word in English. Nonetheless, there are certainly ambiguities. Dux is a case in point: I don’t think anyone would object too strenuously to translating dux Normannorum applied to the Viking leader Ragnar in 845 (as indeed it is) as something like ‘Viking chief’ or ‘Scandinavian warlord’; or to translating the same phrase applied to William the Conqueror as ‘duke of Normandy’ in 1066 – but what about when applied to Richard the Fearless c. 970?

All these points are valid, but to leave words untranslated because of them seems to me like an abdication of responsibility. This is a personal point of view – another person may very well see it as due caution – but let me try and explain. To start with, I don’t think translation is the process of transparently rendering a Latin text into an English one; it is (in an academic context, at least) a work of mediation and explanation, a tool to help with understanding the original version. This is so far from being a controversial opinion that it might be almost a commonplace – to go back to the example from Flodoard at the top of this post, the word ‘stronghold’ in the translation isn’t in the Latin but has been added by the translators, making the structure of the sentence smoother in English but also providing a gloss on munitio and municipium – but I think an approach which says that some words are translatable and others aren’t runs the risk of implying it. To take the Bachrach/Fanning translation as an example again, they choose to leave dux in the Latin but render comes as ‘count’, which implies that a comes is straightforwardly comprehensible to English speakers in a way that a dux isn’t – and I am on record on this very blog as not thinking that’s true.

What that means is that not translating Latin words hamstrings a translation’s value as a tool to aid understanding. An important part of translating a text is deciding what the words mean, and refusing to do that in (say) 3% of cases means that the translation is only 97% useful as a tool. It certainly means you as a translator have to make interpretative judgements; but the whole translation is an interpretative judgement, making refusal in particular cases somewhat arbitrary. Sometimes, choosing one rendition of a word or phrase is tricky – but this is exactly the sort of thing that scholarly apparatus exists to discuss: nuance, wordplay and technicalities find their home in footnotes. This does mean that translations are not very useful for doing detailed linguistic analysis of sources. On the other hand, that’s not their job: a translation isn’t a source, it’s a translation of a source, and anything which rests on particularities of the language needs to be related back to the original text. For this reason, I think my comments apply even to translations aimed at an audience of academics, who might have more grounding in the source languages than interested non-academics – anyone who is going to be doing serious research based on an historical text will need to have a copy of the original to hand anyway if the language matters, because by their nature translations are useful but not dependable for this: trust, but verify, as the saying goes.

As I’ve said several times, I think leaving words untranslated is a legitimate choice, and I don’t find it reprehensible or unjustifiable. However, I do think that translating all the words, even the difficult ones, is more helpful, and that’s why I do it.

(Oh, and it almost goes without saying that calling this a post about ‘translation philosophy’ is a little pretentious – there is a large literature which is actually about translation philosophy, to which my only exposure is a couple of comments at the front of Penguin Classics. Consequently, these are only the little musings of a rough-and-ready practitioner and may seem rather naive to anyone who’s actually well-versed in these ideas!) 

Lectiones Difficiles: More on Provence

Wow, the last post got a real reaction.

I mean, it’s the Fallout: New Vegas guy! Do you know how many hours I sunk into that game?               <pauses, thinks> erm… none I should have been spending doing thesis work instead, honest…

This is a little surprising to me, because it was dealing with an extremely difficult, abstruse and technical question. Hopefully it’s comprehensible; or if it isn’t, that’s because I don’t have a full grasp on what’s going on yet. In either case, there’s more to say on the subject, because I need to get this sorted out. Despite an agonizing wait over the weekend to get hold of some key articles on the issues raised last time, I’ve had a few days to familiarise myself with the sources and historiography around the kingship of Lower Burgundy (where I discovered that, happily, there is actually a debate around this), and the conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s really hard, you guys. I actually received two responses on the issue, for which I am grateful: both were thoughtful, considered, and diametrically opposed to one another about whether the Radulfus from Burgundia mentioned in Liutprand of Cremona’s Antapodosis 3.48 is King Rudolf II of Upper Burgundy or King Ralph of West Francia. So you’re getting another blog post going into more detail about the evidence and its problems.

First, Liutprand. There are four main arguments in favour of Rudolf II of Upper Burgundy being Liutprand’s Radulfus. 1) that Liutprand’s relative chronology seems to place the deal between Radulfus and Hugh in 933; 2) that every other time Radulfus and Burgundia appear in the text, it is Rudolf and Upper Burgundy which is meant; 3) that Rudolf has much more reason to be involved in Italian politics than Ralph has; and 4) that Liutprand was actually a page-boy in Hugh of Arles’ court at the time, so it would be odd for him to get it wrong.

Points 1) and 2) are not, to my eyes, very convincing. Liutprand’s chronology here is vague in the extreme. He doesn’t actually give any concrete dates, simply saying ‘around this time’. Given that what we’re talking about largely concerns events in Gaul, where Liutprand can get very fuzzy, I’m open to the idea that he’s filling in a lot of his own blanks. If what he actually knows is that at some point around 930 Hugh made a deal about some land in Gaul with a Radulfus from Burgundia, he might well assume it’s Rudolf and Transjurane Burgundy not Ralph and ducal Burgundy simply because he knows that the former had much more to do with Italy than the latter.

Point 3) is much more of a problem. One can argue around it in two ways: first, that although Rudolf II was in fact very heavily involved in Italian affairs and Ralph not, the Italians did sometimes look to seemingly-random West Frankish aristocrats to intervene in their affairs – in the mid-1020s, apparently quite serious plans were made to offer the Italian crown to Duke William V of Aquitaine. Second, that Liutprand doesn’t actually know the context of the deal, and is making assumptions, albeit plausible ones, about what happened: why did Hugh offer his land to Radulfus? Because he must have been in trouble, as he was in 933, and because some Italian nobles had offered Radulfus the crown, again, because that kept happening. Still, no matter which way you slice it, Rudolf is a better fit for the Italian context than Ralph.

Point 4) could go either way. Yes, Liutprand was there in the early 930s – but he was pre-pubescent or barely a teenager, and he was actually writing his book about thirty years later. This is significant because his story doesn’t match up very well with that of Flodoard of Rheims. The reason the deal between Hugh and Rudolf II is placed in 933 is because of the way Liutprand’s relative chronology, describing Hugh being kicked out of Rome, syncs with Flodoard’s absolute chronology, for it is he who describes it as being in 933. This is actually a problem, because we have a good idea about Flodoard’s information here – in 933, two messengers from Rheims came back to that city with a bit of archiepiscopal bling for the local prelate, and they gave Flodoard what appears to have been a decent bit of information on Italian affairs. In general, Flodoard is interested in what’s going on in Italy, and in the early-to-mid 930s, he has a decent amount of information on it, including a trip he himself made to Rome sometime around 936. It is therefore a bit odd that he doesn’t mention a deal made in the 930s, given that it would presumably have impacted the land his church held in the area around Lyon. As I said, it could go either way when dealing with an argument from silence: it could be that Flodoard was too far away to have the relevant information, despite being interested and contemporary; or it could be that Liutprand was too chronologically distant and confused, despite being a member of Hugh’s court.

Moving from our narrative sources, we need to look at the Lower Burgundian context. Here, it seems to me that the identification Radulfus=Rudolf has been finding increasingly little favour amongst researchers. The reason for this is simple: there’s lots of evidence that Ralph of West Francia was doing lots of exciting things in Lower Burgundy around 930, and very little for Rudolf.

However, that brief description underplays just how confusing the evidence is. I should therefore say that most of what we’re dealing with is charter dating clauses. These are important, because charters are mostly dated by the reigning king, and therefore they give us a glimpse of who people thought was in charge. And we are dealing here with three main types of dating clause. First, charters dated by the reign of King Ralph, from Vienne and from Lyon (we have hardly any evidence at all from further south, although Fournial suggested that charters from the Vivarais and environs dated by Ralph’s successor Louis hinted that Louis had inherited his position from Ralph). Second, a couple of charters for the monastery of Savigny near Lyon dated by Rudolf II’s reign. Third, and most importantly, there are a lot of charters from all over Lower Burgundy which continue to be dated by the reign of the late Louis the Blind, right up through the early 930s.

What is clear from this is that the situation was itself conflicted. Evidently, there were a lot of people, some of them very important people, who did not think that there was a legitimate king after Louis the Blind’s death. Thus, our tiny hints about what Ralph was doing in 928-930 (maybe issuing a diploma for Uzès, possibly trying to assert himself further south, probably minting coins in his name in Lyon, and definitely making concerted efforts to bring Vienne under his sway, even though for reasons which are utterly opaque it keeps falling away) suggest that although he was the biggest player in Lower Burgundy at this time, he wasn’t the only one. However, the evidence also suggests that his biggest opposition was small-scale and localised, rather than his fellow-monarchs: other than a couple of hints for the Lyonnais, Rudolf II doesn’t appear to have played much role in the area, and I actually think that a charter from 929 suggests that the West Frankish and Upper Burgundian kings had come to some kind of accommodation. What we have, then, says that if Rudolf fits Italy better than Ralph, Ralph fits Italy better than Rudolf.

To summarise what we’ve got so far, both arguments have important problems. (I haven’t even mentioned the diplomas issued by Hugh of Arles, which raise severe issues no matter what you think is happening.) If the traditional identification of Radulfus=Rudolf is wrong, and the event described by Liutprand can be identified with the deal between Hugh of Arles and Ralph in 928, then it solves a number of issues, chiefly that of why there is so little evidence for Rudolf II in Provence, and the problem of reconciling Flodoard and Liutprand. On the other hand, if the traditional identification is right, it fits much more clearly with Liutprand’s text, as well as providing a reason for the hints that we do have of Rudolf’s involvement in Burgundy in the 930s. Personally, I tend to lean towards Hofmeister, Brühl, and the French historians who think it is more likely that Radulfus is Ralph of West Francia. The issues this creates with Liutprand are extremely serious, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable; and on the other hand, the Radulfus=Ralph identification does fit better with the Lower Burgundian circumstantial evidence and deals with the problem of Flodoard’s silence. With that said, in the absence of a smoking gun one way or another, the issue remains to be decided.

Which Ralph? Italy, Provence and the Succession to Louis the Blind

Happy New Year, y’all. Apologies for the delay in blogging – I had meant to start yesterday, but I’ve been polishing off an article for the proceedings of the Power of the Bishop conference I went to last year, and between that and the Humboldt Lecture I’m supposed to be giving at the start of February, things are fairly hectic. It’s a shame, because what I really want to be doing is tapping away at writing a detailed narrative history of post-Carolingian France (well, that and working my way through a) Adhemar of Chabannes and b) the charter evidence from Limoges). But I’m putting in the odd hour on it here and there, and at the moment I’m writing about the year 928. 928 is an important year, once again because of a succession crisis (I am finding, a bit, that you can write the entire history of the century as one succession crisis after another). Specifically, the death of Louis the Blind, emperor and king of Provence, in June of that year.

This is an issue for me, because I hardly ever go that far south-east, and because Italian history is largely a closed book to me. But because it’s clear that King Ralph gets involved in the transfer of power in the region to – well, that’s one of the questions – it behoves me to get involved. And I’ve got a question about Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, which hopefully someone can answer for me, and the question is this. In Antapodosis 3.48, Liutprand describes how the Italians ‘sent for Rodulfus in Burgundia’; whereupon Hugh of Arles, king of Italy since 923 and old right-hand man of Louis the Blind, promised him all the land he had in Gaul in return for a promise that Rodulfus wouldn’t interfere in Italy ever again.

Historians are, as far as I can tell, almost unanimous in dating this to around 933, largely because it comes in the text after a description of Hugh of Arles’ expulsion from Rome, which according to Flodoard happened around this time, and his granting the march of Tuscany to his brother Boso, which happened shortly before 931. Equally unanimous is the opinion that the Rodulfus in question is Rudolf II, king of Transjurane Burgundy: Rudolf had been an active contestant to be king in Italy for several years, and the deal described by Liutprand seems to explain how Provence ended up under Burgundian rule. But, there are some issues here, at least if we follow Janet Nelson (who isn’t concerned with this story and brings them up quite separately): first, Burgundian rule in Provence appears to be, in practice, several decades later. Second, Rudolf may have given up his claims to rule in Italy years earlier, in 926. Third (and this is me), the Italians had kicked Rudolf out only a few years previously. I know Italian politics is turbulent, but is it that turbulent?

Here’s another story. The Rodulfus and Burgundia aren’t Rudolf and Transjurane Burgundy, but Ralph (which is the same name as Rudolf) of West Francia and ducal Burgundy. A faction of Italians invited him to be king as the closest living already-royal relative of their one-time ruler Louis the Blind (his first cousin), and Hugh of Arles bought him off with a grant of land which is the same as Flodoard records in 928.

This story also has problems. First, it requires Liutprand to have made an error. Evidently, this is not so implausible – in the aforementioned story about the Romans expelling Hugh of Arles, he makes it sound as though the local bigwig did it with the Pope’s help rather than (according to Flodoard) imprisoning him. Plus, Rudolfus and Burgundia could well be quite confusing without other qualifiers. But still, it’s an issue. Second, the 928 grant of land Flodoard describes is the land of ‘the whole province of Vienne’ being given not directly to Ralph but to the son of Count Heribert II of Vermandois; whereas Liutprand describes Hugh giving Rodulfus ‘all the land he had in Gaul’. This could be poetic license (if ‘province of Vienne’ means ‘ecclesiastical province’ rather than just ‘region of’, it’s not actually that much poetic license), but it’s another issue.

It also fits oddly into the political context. On one hand, it explains why Ralph isn’t in the north of the West Frankish kingdom for the whole of 929 – he’s dealing with matters in the south which are a bit more important, trying and (eventually) failing to assert himself in the region. It also explains why so many diplomas in the region keep being dated by the reign of the late Louis the Blind – that’s what you do when kingship is contested. On the other hand, Hugh of Arles spent the latter months of 928 issuing diplomas for recipients in Vienne and the surrounding regions, which implies that he made a deal and immediately abrogated it. (On a third hand, this is also fairly odd anyway, given he’s supposed to have granted it to Heribert’s son.)

As you can tell, I’m not fully convinced by the Rodolfus-is-Ralph story. So what do you think? Is there any outstanding reason to favour one version over the other?

Assembly Politics encore une fois

Special treat today, folks, because I’m supposed to be presenting about this in about three weeks and the grand theory I presented here earlier has fallen apart somewhat. So this post’ll work through the options for alternative theories, and we’ll see what you all think.

The situation, if you remember from last time, was that during the reign of Louis IV, the West Frankish tradition of Church councils came to an abrupt end. My explanation for this was that Louis, coming from an Anglo-Saxon background where Church councils had been subsumed into a broader culture of royal assemblies, had simply brought this background with him when he returned to the West Frankish kingdom as an adult.

What I have subsequently discovered is that it’s not just Church councils. Under Louis, assembly politics as a whole appears to collapse, and it’s very abrupt: the year before, his predecessor King Ralph held a major assembly at Soissons. Then Louis shows up as the new king, and we just don’t see gatherings of any kind under his auspices. Close-reading our narrative source for his reign, the Annals of Flodoard, illustrates this: Flodoard has a number of terms he uses for the various kinds of assemblies, notably synodus for more Church-flavoured assemblies and placitum for those who prefer the tangy taste of kingship; and the instant Louis shows up these terms disappear, and Flodoard starts using mostly verbs to describe encounters between the king and his magnates, such as locutus (‘spoke with’) or habere obviam (‘went to meet’). The impression, supported by evidence from Louis’ diplomas, is that rather than the kind of big assemblies going back to the ninth century, Louis’ kingship runs on small, private meetings with groups of magnates.

Now this is weird in any case, and it certainly destroys any argument for a simple exporting of Anglo-Saxon norms. Under Athelstan, Anglo-Saxon royal assemblies were only becoming bigger, fancier, and more important. So what’s going on?

The first thing to go back to is the question of agency. Is this change coming from the top, or is it a response to outside circumstances? Here I think that the point I made last time holds up: the change is so abrupt in this respect, but not in terms of the power of the magnates respective to the king, the level of Viking attack, the amount of experience in running gatherings of this kind the king could draw on, or the level of civil war in the kingdom, that it must be top-down.

So where’s Louis getting his ideas from? I still doubt it’s West Frankish. In addition to the fact that assembly politics was a hallmark of all of his predecessors, his initial West Frankish handlers, such as Hugh the Great, had participated in King Ralph’s assemblies, and there’s no particular reason to think that they were chafing at the burden. In Hugh’s own Neustrian March, indeed, there was a thriving culture of regional political assemblies.

But it’s not obviously Anglo-Saxon, or at least not contemporary Anglo-Saxon either. My best hypothesis is that Louis’ influence here comes from his mother, Queen Eadgifu. Eadgifu herself had been quite young, probably late teens, when she married Louis’ father Charles the Simple. She was brought up in the court of her own father, Edward the Elder; so what did her political background look like?

Well, early tenth-century West Saxon kingship doesn’t appear to have placed an awful lot of emphasis on political assemblies. Asser’s biography of King Alfred suggests that he deliberately split up his nobility rather than gathering them together; in any case, charter evidence suggest that grand meetings were rare. Edward the Elder doesn’t seem to have held many at all, although here we have the problem that we have no diplomas, a key type of evidence, from the second half of his reign. It’s important to stay cautious here; but to me at least the suggestion is that in the period c. 900-920 when Eadgifu would have been growing up, assemblies were not a major part of Anglo-Saxon political culture.

So then, she got to the West Frankish kingdom c. 920. What’s going on here? Well, one of the first things that must have happened to her as West Frankish queen was the fateful 920 assembly at Soissons which kicked off the rebellion against Charles the Simple. Eadgifu herself fled with Louis back to England only a couple of years later; and her experience of grand assemblies would have been their presence as a secondary element in England and a forum for subversion and rebellion in the West Frankish kingdom. Perhaps she came to believe that assemblies were dangerous for kings, perhaps Louis picked the idea up from her and changed his style of kingship accordingly?

Lots of maybes there. The whole thing is very puzzling, and it feels a bit like I’m stumbling blind. What do you guys think?