What does that word mean, really?

All medieval historians engage with translation in some way to do research; whether it is simply to read primary sources or secondary literature, to write up research based on variations in translation, to edit translations already made, or to create new translations. Medievalists spend years honing their translation skills and I think it would be fair to say that translating, in its various forms, is one of the hardest parts of my job, not only because it requires significant skills but because it demands space in time and in mind – the two commodities hardest to juggle in my role as a lecturer in a busy history department.

'Oh great, this book's in cow.'

‘Oh great, this book’s in cow.’

My own experience with translation clearly began before I decided to go into research. As most of you will know, I’m a non-native speaker of English and this means that I continuously engage with translation by copying, editing and thinking about the way native speakers use English in speech and in writing. It has often been a process of trial and error – really, lots of errors (so many horror stories that are not suitable to write about here!). Nevertheless, by the time I started my postgraduate studies, this process had left me fairly confident that I could tackle any text with a good dictionary and patience. For several years, I felt that this worked like a charm – mostly – until my research took me in new directions and I had to make completely new translations of the sources I was working with. Honestly, my postgraduate training and a PhD had not prepared me for this. Even small practical things like whether to indicate variations in spellings in the word document using square or round brackets or footnotes became a matter to ponder for days, weeks and months. And, the more translations I did, the less I felt I knew.translation-is-a-puzzle It has resulted in me becoming more pedantic about words and phrases in general and those students and colleagues who know me well, can attest, with great exasperation, to the fact that I start almost every question or objection with “but what does that word mean in practice?”

Next week I, together with the Leverhulme-funded international network ‘Voices of Law: Language, Text and Practice’, will be hosting a postgraduate workshop on editing, translating and using medieval documents. I will be sharing some of the basic problems of translating (yes, maybe I’ll divulge some of those horror stories too), focusing on problems relating to purpose, time, knowing too much/too little, and logistics. I’ll be joined at the workshop by some more experienced colleagues from Cambridge, Copenhagen, Glasgow, and the Frisian Academy, who also grapple with translations. Afterwards, the papers from the workshop will be made available in an online booklet, which will, hopefully, provide postgraduates with some useful guidance on this topic.

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Richard I on tarring and feathering

Occasionally something comes along in the sources that just catches your attention. Take this short legal text issued by Richard I to his followers just before setting out on the Third Crusade:

‘Richard by the grace of God king of England, and duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to all his subjects who are about to go by sea to Jerusalem, greeting. Know that we, by the common counsel of upright men, have made the laws here given. Whoever slays a man onboard a ship shall be bound to the dead man and thrown into the sea. But if he shall slay him on land, he shall be bound to the dead man and buried in the earth. If anyone, moreover, shall be convicted through lawful witnesses of having drawn a knife to strike another, or of having struck him so as to draw blood, he shall lose his hand. But if he shall strike him with his fist without drawing blood, he shall be dipped three times in the sea. But if any one shall taunt or insult a comrade or charge him with hatred of God: as many times as he shall have insulted him, so many ounces of silver shall he pay. A robber, moreover, convicted of theft, shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a cushion shall be shaken out over his head,-so that he may be publicly known; and at the first land where the ships put in he shall be cast on shore. Under my own witness at Chinon.’ (Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene, 4 vols., ed. William Stubbs (London, 1868-71) iii, p.36; Translation from: E. F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, London, 1896)

Initially, what caught my eye about this short text was the reference to tarring and feathering. Partly because it conjured up memories of my primary school library and the many hours I spent there, reading the comics series Lucky Luke – the cowboy known to draw faster than his own shadow, and who was rather fond of tarring and feathering the villains. On a more serious note, my interest was piqued simply because it struck me as an unusual punishment, even for the Middle Ages.

We know that some of the crimes described in the text were so called ‘unemendable’, that is they could not be atoned for with fines but only with life or limb. More commonly, of course, the eyre rolls from the early thirteenth century tell us that those accused of killings, woundings or robbery were outlawed and their property confiscated, primarily because they fled rather than face trial.

In any case, what is clear is that the punishments outlined in the text above do not compare to the punishments for similar crimes elsewhere in English legislation from the twelfth century. The method of accusation, ‘by lawful witnesses’, is similar to what we find in the assizes and the legal treatise known as Glanville, but the punishments are very different. Of course, there would have been good reasons why King Richard needed to keep strict discipline among his fellow crusaders. Lots of fighting men together in a confined space for days on end while on sea probably calls for something stronger than what could be found in current laws.

More surprising, however, is that none of the English laws of the twelfth century contain details of how to deal with transgressions and crime on military expeditions. Given the amount of warfare we encounter in the twelfth century, this is curious, I think. We know that other kings certainly issued laws that contained provisions for military expeditions. For instance, the Law of Jutland, issued by the Danish king in the early thirteenth century, has two small paragraphs relating to crimes committed while on military expeditions. The first one states that if a man in military service is accused of theft by a steersman then he should defend himself with the two men who are closest to him on the thwart, that is, those who sit next to him at the oars. If they convict him, then they should fare with him as with other thieves and he would have forsaken both the goods he had on the ship and the capital lot at home. Here, the punishment was thus mainly confiscation of land and chattels. Another paragraph details how if a man kills another while in military service he should always pay forty marks to the kin and also to the king, in addition to paying the appropriate man worth. What is evident from these provisions is that matters that occurred while men were on a military expedition were expected to be resolved in a similar way as when a man was not on an expedition. For instance, if found guilty one’s fate would be decided by a board of nominated men who could either swear you to compensation or to something infinitely more horrible.

There are no similarities to these provisions among the English laws, although we occasionally get tantalising glimpses referring to the customs of the military household. Most of these glimpses, however, come not from laws but from treaties. More on this anon.