Working with pre-critical Latin texts

Which comes first?  The text or the translation?  The question is not as simple as it seems.

There is no finer way to come to grips with a text than by preparing an exact translation of it into another language.  This forces the translator to look at every case ending, every -ae and -um; every verb tense and mood and voice.  It highlights, very rapidly, areas of the text that have some kind of awkwardness about them.

I once knew a Swedish scholar who was tasked with preparing a critical edition of one of the works of Tertullian – I no longer remember which one.  He began by translating an existing edition into English (!), very literally.  This gave him a word-by-word knowledge of the text, which is why he did it.

My own efforts to translate John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas have reminded me of this forcefully.  Some portions of the text are very much harder to translate than others.

In some cases the text itself – the Falconius edition of 1751 – seems suspect.  When this happens, I increasingly find myself consulting the Mombritius edition of 1478, and the Mai edition of 1840.  I have, indeed, come to mistrust the Falconius text.  But along the way, I find that interesting things emerge.

I have found that the Mai edition often simply omits a “difficult” sentence altogether.  The first three chapters of the text are particularly difficult, and I see that Mai simply omits most of it.  Clearly the scribe of whatever manuscript lies behind the Mai edition felt exactly as I did about the text; and didn’t propose to strain his brain with it.  Omitted sentences include all those which simply transcribe a Greek word.  These are a source of difficulty to the Mai scribe.  I do understand, indeed.  At one point John uses the word “heroes” with the meaning “bishops”!  I wonder what a Greek dictionary would show?

For John was translating an awful Greek text, the “Methodius ad Theodorum”, which is beyond my abilities.  I suspect that the two – Methodius and John – need to be edited together.  But my long years of corporate experience make me well aware of “scope creep”, as a risk to any project, and I refuse to be side-tracked.  My translation will be of John, and John only.

It would also be possible to start doing some text critical work on the text.  After all, a small number of manuscripts are already online.  The Bollandist website lists a good many.

I have already OCR’d the texts of Falconius, Mombritius and Mai, and created Word documents of them.  What I might do is to run a text comparison on these, and see what comes out.  It would be purely for fun, of course, but it might be interesting.

If only one could OCR the manuscripts.  But that said, today I found in one sentence of Falconius three OCR errors.  This did delay me rather.

As with everything I do, I believe that whatever I do will be useful to others; and whatever I leave undone, well, the world is no worse off in this than it was before.

But clearly it would be possible for me to continue this, and produce some form of critical text.  It might not be very good, depending on how much time and effort I devoted to it.  But in this case, the translation would be the father of the text.  Yet here again, to produce a proper critical edition of John the Deacon would certainly require knowledge of the Greek.  It would not be a simple task.

I shall not go down this route.  As I usually do, I will include the text that I have translated.  This will be a somewhat modified version of Falconius.  But I won’t go further than that.

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Stelten’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin arrives

Today I received a copy of Leo F. Stelten’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin (via Amazon.com).  I’ve not really had a chance to look at it yet.

But this evening it had its first test.  John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas describes the city of Patara, the saint’s home town, as once “rutilabat”.  The Oxford Latin Dictionary gives “rutilo, -are” as “to glow with a bright or golden red colour”, especially thinking of German hair!  Nor did Neimeyer or Blaise give anything different.

Stelten passed.  In church Latin, apparently, it means “shine” or “glow”.  This makes perfect sense of John’s, um, glowing description of the city.

Clearly I need to spend more time with this book.

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