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!) 

Translating Between Vernaculars in the (Long) Tenth Century

Dudo of Saint-Quentin has an interesting story in Book III of his Historia Normannorum. William Longsword is at an (entirely fictional) peace conference with the East Frankish king Henry the Fowler, alongside one Duke Cono (supposed to be Conrad the Red?). During the course of the conference, William is mocked by the East Frankish nobles. William’s command of Old Norse allows him to understand the gist of what they’re saying – he gets angry. Later in the conference, Hermann Billung of Saxony starts talking to William in Old Norse, claiming to have learned it whilst a captive of the Vikings. These stories have always struck me as odd. Dudo is particularly concerned with who can and cannot speak Old Norse, and is especially keen that all of his dukes can, as a marker of their Norman (and not Frankish) identity. He is an anomaly, though, because other tenth-century historians are basically uninterested in the question of comprehension between vernacular languages. This slightly surprises me, because there are at over half-a-dozen vernaculars in the tenth-century West Frankish kingdom (Breton, northern and southern varieties of Romance, Old Norse, Old English, probably at least three flavours of old German dialects; also Arabic, although I doubt that one matters so much to most of the people I write about) but no-one amongst the lay or clerical elites ever seems to have trouble talking to one another. Now, perhaps I’m unusually sensitive to this, having spent several years abroad in countries where my grasp of the language wasn’t fantastic; but it is interesting that, say, Louis IV (whose first language was probably Old English) and Raymond Pons of Toulouse (Old Occitan?) don’t have to deal with any language barriers.

The obvious inference one can draw is that, at the elite level, multilingualism was so widespread as to be ubiquitous. This raises the question, how did it get that way? From the sources I know – and this is largely something I’ve picked up in passing rather than something I’ve actively researched – I can see three answers.

First, mutual comprehension. Speakers of some dialects seem simply to have been able to automatically comprehend others without having to actively learn another language. Lots of work has been done on this in the context of Old Norse and Old English, but the upshot is that the two languages would have been mutually comprehensible – a speaker of one would have been able to get by with someone speaking the other, like the Scandinavian languages today. Such mutual comprehension would expand outwards: Old English and Old Saxon are basically the same language (Flodoard, in describing the 948 Council of Ingelheim, says that the Latin was translated into ‘the Teutonic tongue’ for the convenience of Louis IV and Otto the Great – he clearly saw no difference between Louis’ English and Otto’s Saxon). This is shown neatly in Dudo’s example, where William’s Old Norse lets him understand Saxon nobles, at least to an extent. We can imagine further overlaps with version of Old Dutch and Old Frisian, if these were spoken by the counts of Flanders and/or Holland.

Less work that I know of has been done on the mutual comprehensibility of Romance dialects. There’s been quite a lot on whether Carolingian-era Romance speakers could have understood oral Latin on that basis (answer: maybe? Widukind’s description of the languages spoken by Otto the Great seems to imply that this was not true at least of people who knew Romance as a second language…). To an extent, evidence from silence implies that different Romance dialects were mutually comprehensible – someone like Bernard of Angers, author of the Book of St Foy, doesn’t complain about any language troubles between Anjou and the Rouergue, although he might well have had Latin to fall back on. Nonetheless, it seems likely that speakers of different Germanic dialects on one hand and Romance dialects on the other could understand each other within their own language groups. But what about between Romance and Germanic speakers?

This brings us to the question of language learning. There is surprisingly little evidence for this, although we know it was done. Some of the evidence comes from manuscripts. Two in particular, the ‘Kassel Glosses’ and the ‘Pariser Gespräche’, are phrasebooks from our period, the latter apparently aimed at lay aristocrats and giving translations of Latin phrases into German. These include such useful phrases as the words for ‘give me my spear’, ‘brave vassal’, and ‘a dog’s arse in your nose’.

So, when I describe the Pariser Gespräche as a ‘phrasebook’, I might be giving it rather too much credit for useability… (source)

The evidence from narrative and epistolary sources, though – which is again pretty limited – suggests that learning from instructors was skewed in a particular direction. In Dudo’s work, Richard the Fearless was sent to Bayeux to learn Old Norse from Botho (which may or may not actually be true), and Hermann Billung learned it in captivity. In the mid-ninth century, Abbot Lupus of Ferrières addressed a couple of letters to the abbot of Prüm dealing with a few of his (Lupus’) monks who he sent there to learn German (which he was very clear on the importance of learning). Lupus’ letters may well be the tip of an iceberg; but either way, what this suggests is that language learning more often happened as the outgrowth of movement of people, whether as guests, foster-children, hostages or captives, rather than at home from tutors. The main exception I can think of for this is Empress Theophanu, who seems to have been taught Latin (but not German?) before she arrived in the West.

The other option would be translation. As we saw with Flodoard, there is some evidence for this, but virtually all of it is into or out of Latin. The most prominent example I know of is found in the Historiae of Richer of Rheims, who describes an audience between Otto II, Hugh Capet, and Bishop Arnulf of Orléans at Rome in 981. Arnulf entered with Hugh ‘in order that, since the king was speaking Latiariter, the bishop, interpreting the Latinitas, could indicate to the duke whatever was said’. (This is usually interpreted to mean that Hugh couldn’t speak Latin at all; personally, I think it means that Otto was speaking in really high-flying purple language – according to Ekkehard of St Gallen, Otto was apparently fluent enough to act as a translator himself on occasion.) It is interesting that they are speaking Latin rather than either Old Saxon or Romance here. This passage has in fact been used to argue that Hugh Capet didn’t know any Germanic dialects and that Otto didn’t speak Romance, neither of which seems terribly plausible to me: what, all the times Hugh Capet met his uncle Bruno of Cologne alongside his mother Hedwig he couldn’t speak to either of them in their native tongue? Otto II just stood by grinning vacantly (despite knowing Latin) whilst Otto the Great was talking to people in Romance next to him, as he does in Ekkehard’s Casus Sancti Galli? We’ll revisit this episode in a few weeks for an entirely different reason; for now, let’s just say that whilst in terms of its historical accuracy this is another case of Richer not letting his complete lack of knowledge of events getting in the way of a good story what it indicates for our purposes is that real-time translation was an option for tenth-century people, even if evidence for translation between different vernaculars is limited.

There is one final option: counts, dukes, margraves, bishops and the like did have serious language difficulties. Let’s take another episode in Richer, his account of the Synod of Mouzon. Richer says that at this synod, Bishop Haimo of Verdun did the talking because (unlike the other East Frankish attendees) he could speak Romance. As it happens, Richer is wrong again and this time we can get a decent idea of why, because the synodal acts survive: these say simply that Haimo did speak in Romance, not that he was the only one who could. Given the high-level participation of laymen, notably Count Godfrey the Prisoner of Verdun, in the synod, the distinction being drawn by the acts is probably not between different vernaculars spoken by the different bishops, but between the Romance spoken by the laymen and the high-flying Latin that the bishops would have used between themselves on their own. Nonetheless, even though Richer is wrong his account gives an important insight into the mentalities surrounding tenth-century language use: where difficulties might arise, at elite level they could be planned for in advance.

This, then, is the inversion of the positive side of language learning. Tenth-century people could take advantage of continuums between Romance and Germanic vernaculars, they could seize opportunities (whether desirable or not) to learn languages, they could get hold of phrasebooks, or they could just get a translator. However, they could also just send in the guy who spoke Romance into the right situation. These factors together probably explain why there are no examples of vernacular misunderstanding at elite level to compare with the most famous example further down the scale, upon which I will leave you. Ekkehard of St Gallen describes how, one day, a Romance-speaker who was fraudulently pretending to be lame to get alms showed up at the monastery. He was assigned a Germanic-speaking servant to bathe him. The Romance-speaker complained that the water was too hot: cald, cald est (modern French: c’est chaud, c’est chaud)! The German-speaker thought (to give the modern German form): “es ist kalt? (It’s cold?)” OK, sure: he poured in a kettle of boiling water, causing the Romance-speaker to bound shrieking out of the bath and expose him as a fraud.

Name in Print IV

Well, this was a bit of a surprise. The forms were all signed, the changes were all done, but when the new Journal of Medieval Latin showed up at my door today, it was unexpected. Pleasantly so, because I am in it! Now available to the public is my new article, ‘A Post-Carolingian Voice of Dissent: The Historia Francorum Senonensis’, The Journal of Medieval Latin 28 (2018), pp. 15-47. This is not just a new article, which would be exciting enough; it’s also my first foray into publication as a translator, because attached as an appendix to the article is a translation of the Historia, all peer-reviewed and everything!

Proof, were any needed

It is, certainly, a long one. I got invited to do a close-reading of this text at a seminar in Sheffield, and it proved to have a lot in it. I also ended up reading an article on Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés’ sermons at the same time and therefore ended up thinking about ideas about what the realm was in the work. It turns out that if you follow the logic of this text to its ultimate conclusion, you end up in some strange places. The Historia’s author was concerned about family and about violence, but not so much about the kingdom as a separate entity from its kings. And, ultimately, he just didn’t think much of lay power at all.

The bad news is that if you want to read it, you’ll have to find a physical copy of the journal, because it’s not Open Access and I don’t have a PDF or even any offprints, which is a shame. It’s probably a good sign that this is the least accessible thing I’ve ever published, but it’s sad that what may be the most generally useful bit of my writing in print is going to be relatively tricky to get hold of… Still, if any of this tickles your fancy at all, you should check it out!

It’s not freely available online, but I do have a PDF if you can’t get hold of the journal – you can find my contact details under the ‘About’ page on the right-hand side of the blog.

The gritty details: Not particularly gritty, in this case. It started life as a ‘masterclass’ for MARS at Sheffield in 2016 which went OK, despite the fact that I still don’t know what a masterclass is, and despite the fact that the audience I had prepared for was radically different to the audience I got (as in, I had been told to prepare for an audience of about half-a-dozen expert early medievalists and got one of about thirty people including an engineering undergraduate. Still wasn’t very clever of me to forget to number the handout…). I wrote it up over winter 2016 and submitted it first thing 2017. Two rounds of reviewing later (one of which was very… idiosyncratic, and by that I mean that they re-reviewed the first draft) and it was in the queue by start of 2018, coming out now! The first draft was a bit of a Siamese twin, and on the advice of the reviewers I cut a very large chunk of the actual history of the archbishopric of Sens out, which will probably get written up in the next few months for publication elsewhere. My old doctoral supervisor wrote an article in the ‘80s on ‘The Carolingian Kings and the See of Rheims, 882-987’ where she lamented the absence of the equivalent for Sens, so there’s long-standing demand here. I must also say that the editor for JML is very good and scarily diligent…