Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The translation

The Vita Ludovici, like the vast majority of texts written before the age of the printing press, survives in a fairly large number of manuscripts, all of which differ from one another in a variety of ways, but most of which were copied during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the text was most popular. This translation uses Manuscripts A-H. I have used a translation made by Jean Dunbabin as the basis for this work though I have checked the Latin texts of Molinier and Waquet, three French translations and the one translation published in English making alterations to improve both their accuracy and readability. The annotations are grounded in Henri Waquet’s edition and translation though I have substantially extended them.

I decided not to ‘re’ construct and translate ‘the’ text as it hypothetically left the pen of its author, but to make available ‘a’ text of Suger’s history that was actually read, or which (at least) was actually present in someone’s library collection. This translation is my own attempt at a ‘critical edition’, that is yet another composite version of the various manuscripts. However, the version presented here is the result of my becoming increasingly persuaded that ‘editions’ of medieval texts can only be, at best, misleading.

I was first introduced to the debate over the value of so-called ‘critical editions’ approximately fifteen years ago, when I read an article by Leonard Boyle. Boyle argued that despite the enormous difficulty inherent in any attempt to ‘re-create’ the ‘original’ version of a pre printing-era text as it left the pen of its author, if the editor were careful and painstaking enough, taking into account every possible clue offered by the various manuscript witnesses, he could succeed. At the time I was persuaded by his arguments and it was under the influence of his call for scrupulous transcriptions that I began my own attempt to establish ‘the’ translation of Suger’s narrative. However, Boyle’s arguments soon came to appear, to my mind, completely beside the point. It now seems irrelevant whether we can or cannot re-construct accurately the version of a text produced by a given author at a particular moment. If we succeed, we will still only offer to our readers a text that probably no one ever saw; if, as is more likely, we fail, we offer to our readers a text that no one ever saw, a figment of our own imaginations. Some of the more radical participants in recent literary-critical debates have attacked the very idea of an author for pre-printing-era texts.[1] I do not deny the importance of the person of Abbot Suger, but I do insist that we shift our focus, when dealing with pre-1450 texts, away from the ‘modern’ construct of the edition and towards the pre-‘modern’ concrete reality of the manuscript.[2]

Unfortunately, my courage has sometimes failed me. I made concessions and compromises and have, in a number of ways, sacrificed ‘authenticity’ for ‘readability’. The chapter divisions, sentence divisions and intra-sentence punctuation of the translation are largely those of Manuscript A. Paragraph structure can play a large role in determining meaning, in determining how a given text is read. It is important to keep in mind the artificiality of the breaks in the translation. Also, neither Arabic numerals in general nor the convention of citing texts by numerical indicators, both of which are standard features of ‘modern’ scholarship have any relevance to medieval France around the year 1140. Finally, twelfth-century Latin scribes rarely capitalised anything. Therefore, the vast majority of capitalised words which do not begin new sentences (most significantly words referring to the God of the Christians) are concessions to ‘modern’ conventions. The result is a modified version of the manuscripts of the Vita Ludovici representing a compromise of the ‘text’ and the need for its ‘translation’.


[1] For instance, Masters, Bernadette A., Esthétique et manuscripture. Le 'Moulin à paroles' au moyen âge, Heidelberg, 1992; note, however, that Masters does not merely attack the idea of an author so much as she proposes a completely new way to conceptualise the pre-’modern’ author as a collective person.

[2] A recent example of this approach is Gehrke, Pamela, Saints and Scribes: Medieval Hagiography in its Manuscript Context, Berkeley, 1994.

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