Saturday, 30 July 2011

Traduttore traditore: a plea for intellectual history

Working on a medieval Latin dictionary confronts me with material for which my training in intellectual history is little help – financial accounts, legal charters, historical chronicles, etc.  Rest assured, though, that when I'm out of my depth I ask an expert.  This post amounts to a plea for strangers to intellectual history to do the same.

The prestigious Oxford Medieval Texts series of critical editions with facing-page translations mostly steers clear of intellectual history, but occasional contact is inevitable.  One such occasion is the appearance in Thomas Walsingham's Chronica majora of John Wyclif's Declarationes (1378), which contains the following sentence:
Sicut enim omne verum est necessarium [ex suppositione], sic omne falsum est impossibile ex suppositione, ut patet testimonio scripturae et sanctorum doctorum loquentium de necessitate futurorum.
This is more or less bread-and-butter stuff for anyone with the faintest acquaintance with scholastic philosophy:
For just as every truth is [hypothetically] necessary, so every falsehood is hypothetically impossible, as is clear from the testimony of scripture and of the holy doctors who speak of the necessity of the future.
But here's the OMT translation by Leslie Watkiss, praised by Antonia Gransden as ‘good’ and by Geoffrey Martin as of a ‘high standard’:
Just as all that is true is necessary, so all that is false is of its nature impossible, as is made clear by the testimony of Scripture and the learned saints when they speak of future sufferings.
Now, although scholastics are more interested in doctors than saints, ‘learned saints’ is a possible translation of ‘sanctorum doctorum’ (as if formed from the nonce-phrase ‘sancti docti’ rather than from the common phrase ‘sancti doctores’).  But the other two mistakes are howlers that make a nonsense of what Wyclif was trying to say.

Impossibility ex suppositione – that is, hypothetical or conditional impossibility – was often called per accidens precisely because it is not intrinsic.  It is not ‘of its nature’ impossible that Bush won the 2008 election; it is, however, impossible given the current facts.

And as for the surreal intrusion of ‘future sufferings’, one can only wonder how anyone could have missed the connection between the ‘necessitate’ here and the ‘necessarium’ in the first clause.

As it happens, these particular howlers (like so many others) could have been avoided by spending 5 minutes with Google.  Generally, though, the best way of spotting such mistakes would be to have the translation read by someone who does have the relevant background – ideally, in this case, a Wyclif expert, but certainly someone with a serious interest in medieval intellectual history – but apparently neither the editors of this OMT volume nor the general editors of the series saw fit to take this elementary precaution.  Thanks, guys.

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