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Europe et traduction

Michel Ballard

Some reflections on the history of medieval translation

Joaquin Rubio Tovar

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« Literary history can no longer be conceived in terms of a linear arrangement of literary works that keep influencing one another and seem to be on the way to an as yet undisclosed telos. » (Wolfgang ISER)

  • 1 I have carried out at length these matters in another paper entitled: « Algunas caracteristicas de (...)

1Interest in medieval translations is not new but fortunately, it has experienced significant growth in recent years. Below this interest lies a wide comprehension of literature (to which translation is not to be considered inferior), the need to explain texts from an extensive theory about intellectual production, and the need to consider the reasons of the spread, reception and transformation of many texts. From my point of view, all these interests will affect the theories and the construction of literary history. The objective of this paper is then to offer some reflections on the difficulties that a history of translation involves. I have opted for a rather extensive approach without getting into specific problems1.

2Writing about the history of such a complex phenomenon, which is connected to many other disciplines, is a difficult task, but an unavoidable goal. Texts are translated in several periods of the Middle Ages, from different originals (it was not infrequent that the same text was translated from copies belonging to different manuscript traditions) and from texts that include commentaries or are full of glosses. Moreover, translations do not always come from the language in which the original works were written.

3The problems the historian of translation will have to cope with involve different degrees of complexity, and are extraordinarily varied in their forms. When a work is translated, numerous factors enter the picture. As Margherita Morreale said, what differs between translations is:

  • 2 « [...] the distance between the original and the recipient language, the genre and style of the wo (...)

« la distancia entre la lengua original y la receptora, el género y estilo de las obras que han de verterse, la habilidad de los traductores, su propósito, el público al cual se dirigen. Hasta una misma obra, en sucesivos trasiegos, adquiere sabores distintos y aun cambia de marca »2. (Morreale 1959: 1, 16)

4It is possible that a relation exists between the kind of translation and the subject that is translated, and also between the literary genre and the type of translation that is carried out. It was attempted to translate accurately scientific discussions from Latin or Arabic, but fiction was translated with extreme freedom among the different Romance languages.

5In some cases it can be said that translation becomes an agent who depending on the audience to which the work is addressed, depending on the capabilities and intentions of the translator, and on the resources available, can even transform the genre of the translated work. A scholarly discourse may reappear as a dialogue and a dramatic text will become a collection of moral sentences.

61) Translation usually does not play a prominent role in literary history manuals, and this is due to deeply rooted opinions that are not always apparent. The interest is centered on the original work, a work written in a language that expresses the literature of a country, and the translation remains a minor production that does not contribute substantial elements to the knowledge of a work of a given author in a given period. The phenomenon in question does not only affect the Middle Ages but also other periods.

7I consider that under a theory and practice that has not always attributed much importance to Medieval translations, lies a theory of the study of literature that puts a premium on national aspects. But a study of Medieval translations cannot be dealt with unless it is from a Romanesque approach, that is to say, based on various languages and various literatures, and on the communication among them which means a communication among works, authors, literary genres, etc. National studies of literature have attempted to report on such a complex phenomenon only by means of concepts such as influence, loan word, etc., notions that, to my judgement, do not clear up the wealth and variety of problems that translated texts raise. A history of translation in the Middle Ages is only understood when based on a context of romance culture and cannot be conceived as a collection of monographs, a simple juxtaposition, a collection of histories of the translation in France, Italy or Spain,

  • 3 In many passages of this article I follow the ideas of this author.

[...] mais devrait considérer le phénomène de la traduction, ses constantes, ses variantes et ses évolutions dans l’ensemble de l’Europe médiévale, à une époque où les phénomènes culturels sont plus que jamais dépendants du vaste réseau intellectuel qu’entretiennent les lettrés de la respublica clericorum et clericarum europea [...] » (Buridant 1983: 84)3.

8The delay of the studies concerning the history of translation now demands important attention. The work of compiling an inventory of Medieval translations still has not ended. There is a lack of studies about the theory and techniques of translations nor are there many works about the type of method that will permit us to deal with the study of such a complex phenomenon, in which so many elements appear.

9A few words of Cervantes serve to present some of the difficulties that we encounter on the study of translation. In a visit to the printing-house in Barcelona, Don Quixote shows his genius when speaking once again of literature. After remarking the printer’s knowledge of the Tuscan language he said:

« [...] me parece que el traducir de una lengua en otra, como no sea de las reinas de las lenguas, griega y latina, es como quien mira los tapices flamencos por el revés, que aunque se veen las figuras, son llenas de hilos que las escurecen, y no se veen con la lisura y tez de la haz; y el traducir de lenguas faciles, ni arguye ingenio ni elocución, como no le arguye el que traslada ni el que copia un papel de otro papel ». (II, 62)

10 Let us retain this notion « lenguas faciles » (easy languages) that do not need to be translated and return to the Middle Ages. As professor Terracini remembers, under the significant power of Latin the Romance languages came and went and it was hard to convert them into a national form. Terracini thinks about the literary bilinguism of Alfonso X or of Brunetto Lattini, of the troubadour lyric and French prose which were in Dante’s literary conscience with as equal rights as the Dolce stil novo and he halts in the romance atmosphere that still circulates in a few paragraphs of the Prohemio e carta by Marqués de Santillana to wonder:

  • 4 « If it was possible to translate in this world without firm frontiers, neither temporal nor spatia (...)

si era posible traducir en este mundo sin fronteras firmes, ni temporales ni espaciales. Hablando con rigor, la Edad Media no tradujo. En lo que se refiere al latín, vulgarizó, lo que es muy distinto4. (Terracini 1952: 62)

11Terracini signals the quickness with which these works were translated from and to sister languages, the multiple versions, above all between France and Italy. An obvious example is Il Milione by Marco Polo. This work is written in a mixture of French and Venetian, whose blend is already a characteristic product of cultural conditions that are unfavourable to the art of translation. In little less than a century it was translated to French, and three times to Latin, three times to Venetian and to the Tuscan language. Howewer, he insists that these cases should not be referred to as translation; they are the same as a traditional song that is transmitted with variations or different idiomatic colours as it advances in its journey. Among the attributes he gives to these translations he stresses that they are « lazy », for example, the translation from French to Tuscan, full of copies or mere phonic transpositions. The interest of a history of translation cannot be confined to only one language and only one literature. A history of translation is set in languages and literatures in contact with each other and the problems that arise in its study require a methodology and concepts that will not be found in the national histories.

122) The notion of translation, writes Meschonnic, is a historic notion. Each period retranslates because translations become old, they do not serve the cultural values of every age. It appears that each period needs a new translation of the texts that are considered fundamental. Translation is defined by a series of conditions and circumstances of the period. The dominant ideas, the public and the immediate destiny, the linguistic uses, the literary schemes and models, etc., are factors that condition the practice of translation in a decisive manner, and that enclose translation in a tight framework of possibilities and limits. Translations reflect the cultural and literary currents of a period as much as the works of pure creation.

  • 5 The reader should note in this paper a profound debt to the ideas of Claudio Guillen.

13Among the choices offered to articulate a historic discourse that takes into account the pecularities of the Medieval translation, I think that the notion of a literary system, such as the one Claudio Guillén5 has formulated, is of great importance to approach a study of translation. The theoretical effort carried out to unite the contributions of formalism (and the various structuralisms) with the diachrony, is of enormous interest in the study of the various problems that a history of translation presents. Whoever proposes to articulate it should take into account many factors. Claudio Guillén has explained that « he must be a historian, and a very knowledgeable one, because there is no other type of writing that discovers the theoretic, social and ideological foundations of the literary phenomenon to such an event ». (Guillen 1983: 355)

14The reflections of the Russian formalists concerning literary history, the Rezeptionsästhetik and some studies about comparative literature have proved that the object of literary history must be everything that leads to explain the artistic organization of texts and to question how the changes, the modifications of structures and literary systems have occurred, which certainly means much more than a simple diachrony of simple forms and it is something much more complex than the mere chronological ordering of events. Translation is a phenomenon that implies a continual return to the past. Texts from the past are translated over and over again, and the past continually is converted into the present. There are numerous reasons that make us think that literature constitutes a system or that states itself as a system; no simple element can be understood or evaluated correctly in an isolated fashion, that is to say, isolated from the group or collection of which it forms a part. The Russian formalist Tynianov showed the absurdity of an attempt to isolate a literay work. What turns a work into a literary fact is the relation established with a definite historical system. In the same manner in which all the elements in a text are interrelated, all the texts in turn establish connections among themselves and with other extra-literary facts and form a very complex collection.

15This conception of literay history considers that the works are related not only to all the factors that are connected to the sphere of their productions, but also with the group of factors that intervene on the phenomenon of the reception: the interaction of both of these will also constitute the object of literary studies which aspire to outline and to understand the system of which these two factors form a part. Literary texts are related to superior groups and colaterals as much as to the works that they pertain to, the complete works of the author and his explicit and implicit poetic.

  • 6 « La notion de système synchronique littéraire ne coincide pas avec la notion naïve d’époque, puisq (...)

16The notion of a synchronic literary system does not coincide with the naive notion of a given literary period, because the system is not only made up of works of art within the period, but also of works included in the system which come from foreign literatures or from earlier periods. It is not sufficient to catalogue the coexisting phenomenons and grant their equal rights: what is important is the hierarchical significance for a given period. (Jakobson – Tinjanov: [1928] 1965: p. 139)6.

17A conception of these characteristics shows even more that the authors, the genres and the periods do not always evolve towards only one objective but can go back towards something that could have been conceived earlier. The literary change should focus on the understanding that a period is not a mere uniform sequence of happenings and that the newest innovation cannot be the only idea worth studying. Literary works are translated over and over again and it is not strange to return to a treatise of Seneca whose translation is considered faulty or that works of Boecio and Ovid are commented on and translated (in prose and verse) continually.

18In his works, Claudio Guillén has insisted that the notion of a system and that of a diachrony are not distinct but rather complementary. Historicity of literature is proved precisely in the exact point of intersection between a diachrony and synchrony. As Jakobson said:

« La description synchronique envisage non seulement la production littéraire d’une époque donnée, mais aussi cette partie de la tradition littéraire qui est restée vivante ou a été resuscitée à l’époque en question [...] La poétique historique, tout comme l’histoire du langage, si elle se veut vraiment comprehénsive, doit être conçue comme une superestructure, bâtie sur une série de descriptions synchroniques succesives ». (Jakobson, 1965: 212)

19 These concepts are essential in presenting a history of translation. Therefore we will depart from the notion of the system, whose articulation should not only consider original works but also translated works including translations of earlier periods, and the study of the way in which the works were understood which includes the study of literature of national and foreign works.

20To study the literary system of a given moment it is indispensable to take into account past authors who are reprinted and read again, those who are forgotten and others try to recover, as well as authors, genres, and translated works. The integration of all those components, says Claudio Guillén, is what constitutes a historical system, and a covered system it is what makes a translated work be received as literature. According to professor Lefévère the specifics of literary translation should not only look at the process of translation, but also the manner in which the translation is integrated, that is to say the product, in the literature and culture which accept it. The process in which a translated text begins to belong to a historic period should also be studied, and the reason why a certain author or a certain work passes the frontiers of its nation and its language.

  • 7 I am preparing a paper on translations at the time of Alfonso X, in which the idea of a system is a (...)

21To sum up, although the methodological issues that allow us to study the history of translation need a further development, I believe that the notion of the system, as explained by Claudio Guillén, offers a path worth following7.



Buridant Claude, « Translatio medievalis. Théorie et pratique de la traduction medievale », Travaux de linguistique et de littérature, XXI, 1983, 1, p. 81- 136.

Catalan Diego: « Los modos de production y ‘reproduction’ del texto literario y la notion de apertura », in Homenaje a Julio Caro Baroja, CIS, Madrid, 1978, p. 245-286.

Guillen Claudio, Literature as system, Princeton, Princeton U. P, 1971.

Guillen Claudio, De lo uno a lo diverso, Barcelona, Critica, 1983

Guillen Claudio, Teorías de la historia literaria, Madrid, Espasa Calpe, 1989.

ISER Wolfgang, « Twenty-Five Years NEW LITERARY HISTORY. A tribute to Ralph Cohen », New Literay History, 25.4., 1994.

Jakobson Roman, Essais de linguistique generale, Paris, 1965.

Jakobson R. et Tynianov J., « Les problèmes des études litteraires ». Todorov Tzvetan (ed.), Théorie de la littérature, Paris, Seuil, 1965.

Lefevere Andre, « Theorie litteraire et littérature traduite », Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, IX, 1982, p. 137-156.

Morreale Margherita, Castiglione y Boscán: el ideal cortesano en el Renacimiento espanol, Madrid, Real Academia Española, 1959, 2 vols.

Rubio Joaquin, « Algunas características de las traducciones medievales », Revista de Literatura Medieval, 9, 1997, p. 197-243.

Terracini B., « El problema de la traducción », Conflictos de lenguas y de cultura, Buenos Aires, Ediciones Iman, 1951.


1 I have carried out at length these matters in another paper entitled: « Algunas caracteristicas de las traducciones medievales », Revista de Literatura Medieval (1997) 9, p. 197-243.

2 « [...] the distance between the original and the recipient language, the genre and style of the works to be rendered, the skill of the translator, his purpose, the public to whom the work is directed. Even so one particular work, in successive transfers, acquires distinct flavours. »

3 In many passages of this article I follow the ideas of this author.

4 « If it was possible to translate in this world without firm frontiers, neither temporal nor spatial ones. Strictly speaking, the Middle Ages do not translate. What Latin did was vulgarize, which is something very different. »

5 The reader should note in this paper a profound debt to the ideas of Claudio Guillen.

6 « La notion de système synchronique littéraire ne coincide pas avec la notion naïve d’époque, puisqu’il est constitué non seulement par des œuvres d’art proches dans le temps, mais aussi par des œuvres attirées dans le système et venant de littératures étrangères ou d’époques anterieures. Il ne suffit pas de cataloguer les phenomènes coexistants en leur donnant des droits égaux; ce qui importe c’est leur signification hiérarchique pour une époque donnée. »

7 I am preparing a paper on translations at the time of Alfonso X, in which the idea of a system is applied and discussed.


Est professeur de Philologie espagnole à l’Université d’Alcalá. Spécialiste de littérature médiévale, il a écrit sur les voyages et les voyageurs pendant cette période (Libros españoles de viajes medievales, Madrid, 1986) ainsi que sur la traduction médiévale (‘Algunas caractericticas de las traducciones medievales’, Revista de Literatura Medieval, 1997, IX). Il a traduit deux ouvrages de littérature médiévale en espagnol : Chrétien de Troyes : Cligés (Madrid, Alianza, 1994) ; Chanson de Guillaume (Cantar de Guillermo, Madrid, Gredos, 1997).

© Artois Presses Université, 1998

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