Monday, March 3, 2014

Found in Translation

February was a month of discovery for me. I attended a symposium here on campus, called "Cultural Translation in Medieval and Early-Modern Studies," which brought together scholars from around the country (and even from exotic Canada!) to talk about themes and issues associated with medieval translation. The speakers included professors in religious studies departments, modern language departments (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French), history, art history, and classics departments. The talks covered a range of problems associated with medieval translation projects - from the way medieval Christian scholars translated the Qur'an to contemporary translations of Marco Polo's travel writing (originally written in the coiné, Franco-Italian).

Marco Polo
Professor Sharon Kinoshita gave the talk on Marco Polo, and I had the privilege of picking her up from the airport - an opportunity graduate students covet, as it provides an hour of one-on-one conversation with the professor. Her work is fascinating to me because she approaches medieval literature as part of broader process of cultural production, one that stretched across linguistic, geographic, and socio-economic boundaries. While she specializes in Francophone medieval literature, Professor Kinoshita (and a growing number of her colleagues) views the entire Mediterranean region as a highly communicative community of cultural production (see her most recent book). This community often shared interests and imagination and responded to one another's experiences through writing. This interaction is exemplified by translations of a diverse array of texts that circulated the Mediterranean region.

Professor Kinoshita addressed one case in particular, Marco Polo's The Travels, a work for which no two translations seemed to be the same. In some translated versions, entire passages were changed to reflect local fears or perceptions of "the Other" (who, in this case, happened to be dog-headed cannibalistic Africans). In other translators' versions, the style was altered to enhance the literary beauty of the text (a controversial choice, made even by today's translators of the work-- see: the Penguin edition). In the translation that Professor Kinoshita herself is elaborating, Marco Polo's repetitive style in the original Franco-Italian is more faithfully transmitted, allowing the reader to fully experience the barebones language of the coiné. 

St. Bernard Vanquishing the Devil
German, XV-century
Metropolitan Museum of Art collection 
Side note: This summer, I'll be taking Italian lessons so that I too can approach medieval literary production as an element of a broader Mediterranean culture. I plan to develop a corpus for my dissertation which incorporates Castilian, Portuguese, and Italian literature - the tricksy devil character pops up all over the Mediterranean region in varying guises, responding to both local and universal perceptions of evil and punishment...

Another of my favorite moments from the symposium was Professor Mark Meyerson's talk on ritual violence during Holy Week in medieval Valencia. His talk featured a particular case dating back to 1380, a case that he discovered while researching in judicial archives. Apparently, every year during Holy Week (the week preceding Easter in the Catholic tradition), the Christian community of Valencia would engage in ritualized, performative acts of destruction and violence that consisted mainly of throwing rocks at the wall surrounding the Jewish quarter. In many cases, Christians and Jews were neighbors and friends, living in such close proximity that they even shared walls. Christian and Jewish families remained friends before and after Holy Week, in spite of this destructive ritual performance.

Detail from "Feast of the Passover" by
Dieric the Elder Boutis
circa 1465
Rarely did Jewish families protest this ritual - only in extreme cases of injury, death, or property destruction did they bring complaints to the King. For the most part, this ritual was viewed simply as part of the collective judeo-christian calendar. Some scholars have understood the tradition as a performance that, rather than teach Christian children to hate Jews, taught them about the shared history of Christians and Jews and jewish custom, and served as a "release valve" for the Christian community during the most intense week of the liturgical calendar.

Professor Meyerson's talk detailed a special (and tragic) case from the year 1380 that he discovered in the archives. The story was preserved in the form of juridical documents from the proceedings of a murder trail, in which two jewish men were accused of causing the death of a young Christian boy. The accused men were thought to have perpetrated an act of retaliatory violence against the Christian community, in the wake of Holy Week activities.

The distraught father of the deceased child levied accusations against Salamo and Mosae, jewish residents from his same neighborhood. According to the legal documents, witnesses informed the boy's father that they'd seen an arm throw a rock from the window the Salamo and Mosae's house. The rock struck the boy's head as he walked his dog below, and the head wound he sustained killed him several days later.

Of the 20 witnesses for the defense, however, 17 were the Christian neighbors of the two young Jewish men. They testified that it seemed extremely unlikely to them that these stand-up citizens would be capable of harming a child. One of the Christian witnesses for the defense even displayed his knowledge of jewish custom claiming that, as the fateful event took place on the Sabbath, the young men's own religious tradition would have prohibited carrying out this work. The defense's explanation of the events posited that, as many rocks had been thrown at the house the day before the boy was struck, it was likely that one of the rocks had been up on the roof and was simply blown off in a high wind and fell accidentally on the poor boy's head.

Surprisingly, there was no lynch mob. In spite of heightened emotions during Holy Week, the two young men received due process and were defended by their neighbors, Christians and Jews alike. In the end, however, some damning evidence against one of the young men was brought forth and he was sentenced to death. Although we will never know if the sentenced man was truly guilty or not, the case provided many interesting details of quotidian life in Valencia in the late fourteenth-century - details about how Christian and Jewish children played together every night in the street, and how Christian families would have their fancy Easter clothes made and tailored by Jews who, the day before, had been targets of the Holy Week rock-throwing.

These are the kinds of cases that really make a girl want to dig in to some vellum archives! Which is why, since the symposium, I have been investigating the collections of different libraries' medieval texts. Through this research, I've found my newest fascination: the Merton University Library. Merton is the world's oldest, continuously active university library, located in Oxford, England. Take a look at its unparalleled beauty:

I can't imagine a more perfect place on earth. 
Merton University Library was constructed and began housing books in 1276 and has provided a space for scholars to read and learn since then. This week, I went to our campus library and checked out the (gigantic) index book of all the medieval texts Merton houses. I am looking through this index now, to try to find some relevant texts for my dissertation... I'm hoping there's a trip to Merton in my not-so-distant future!

Luttrell Psalter, "Milking Sheep," England - circa 1325-1340
British Library collection 
I am riding a wave of inspiration from this medieval translation symposium, organized by my advisor, Professor Núria Silleras-Fernández, and her husband, Professor Brian Catlos, and also included incredible talks by Professors Thomas Burman and John Slater (which each could've been the subject of an entire post!)...

What have you been up to recently, fair petticoat rustlers? Where is your favorite library?

Until next time - keep rustling!

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