Sunday, July 15, 2012


It has been nice to be back to translating this week, even if it is going quite slowly. Translating well is a slow process at the best of times because it requires great sensitivity in both languages and the sense of knowing when to stay literal and when to loosen up. Rendering Latin into good idiomatic English, while retaining the sense of the original, is challenging. I can crank out an accurate and very literal translation of Sulpicius Severus reasonably easily. The grammar and vocabulary he employs is not extremely complex and he doesn't write high poetry like Vergil or highly rhetorical prose like Cicero. Yet, many, many times, I find myself struggling to get the best sense out of him and into the English without it sounding awkward and forced.

For example, consider what I was working on last night in the (probably) vain hope that I can post the Sulpicius' 1st Letter. I sat down to work on it and, in the first sentence, ran into one of these 'I-know-all-the-grammar-and-vocabulary-but-how-do-I-say-it-in-English' problems. Here is the passage in Latin (for my readers who know it-the rest will just have to take my word for the problems I relate):

Hesterna die, cum ad me plerique monachi uenissent, inter fabulas iuges longumque sermonem mentio incidit libellli, quem de vita beati uiri Martini episcopi edidi, studioseque eum a multis legi libentissime audiebam.

English speakers will, of course, wonder at the length of the sentence and the multiplication of subordinate clauses, but anyone familiar with Latin or ancient Greek will recognize this as a sentence of rather average length. Latin does allow compression of thought, but it  tends to like subordinate clauses, although, here at least, the number of participles is down to a minimum. (Later Latin tends to like main verbs in subordinate clauses more than Classical Latin). So, really, the grammar is pretty straight forward as far as that goes.

Here is a pretty literal rendering of the passage:

Yesterday, when very many monks came to me, amid fresh tales and long conversation, mention of my little book, which I published on the life of Bishop Martin, the blessed men, occurred and I was listening very gladly that it was read by many enthusiastically.

As for as it goes, this isn't a terrible translation nor is it overly literal. I did take some liberties to clarify the English, but something about that second clause bothered me. It just didn't sound quite right. It took some time, but I realized that the problem was with the way that mentio and incidit were interacting. mentio is a fairly straightfoward word. Not surprisingly, it is the Latin equivalent of 'mention' in English. That makes sense because it is clearly the Latin root of the English word.

incidit was a rather more difficult word to deal with. The basic meaning of it is 'to fall in, fall, light upon', but its meaning extends to 'occurs, happens', which explains my initial translation. However, the more I thought of it, the more my translation sounded odd. Does a mention occur? Doesn't sound right, does it? Besides, my first translation of incidit really wasn't getting the tone of the word the way I wanted. incidit has the feeling of something which just, well, happens. That is, it has an almost random quality to it, so, in employing it, Sulpicius is trying to say that he didn't bring it up the subject of his book on Martin , it just happened that people started to talk about (and praise) it. This tone is in keeping with the studied modesty of Sulpicius Severus which is a feature of the Life itself (see particularly, the Preface of the Life of Saint Martin for a demonstration of this rather affected modesty). Indeed, this tone is already reflected in the choice of rather self-deprecating use of libellus- little book- to describe the book. incidit falls in with that tone.

So, what did I finally do about it? I had to adjust both the meaning of mentio and incidit beyond the standard dictionary meanings to get the English idiom I needed. Here is what I came up with (for now):

Yesterday, when very many monks came to me, amid new stories and a long conversation, the subject of my little book which I published about the life of the blessed bishop Martin, happened to come up. I heard with very great pleasure that it had been read with enthusiasm by many.

Better. The subordinate clauses are still piling on top of each other in odd ways. Particularly, the 'my little book which I published...' part sounds like odd English (if my students wrong something like this, I'd tell it was Latlish- not quite English, not quite Latin). And I'm tempted to change that last clause from the passive voice to the active because the active voice sounds better in English. Or not. That passive (to be read) fits with the sense that Sulpicius is trying to distance himself from praising himself. I still need to think that out a bit.

 I know that this blog entry has been rather a long discussion of what looks like very little. Yet, I think we can get rather blasé about the process of translating, partly because of the wide availability of translations of ao much of world literature and partly because we modern North Americans, as a consequence, don't think it necessary to pursue language study, even at the graduate student level, in its own right. So, we become language phobes who are afraid to do serious language study. That is a dangerous position to take because, while the language in, say, our Latin texts doesn't change, our language, the target language, does and there is a need to retool and refit translations with each generation. All one has to do is to read translations from even a generation ago and one will find them hard to follow. Regular updating of translations enables us to engage more fully with the literature from other culture - whether ones that have passed away or those which continue alongside us. Translating isn't an easy activity, but it is a culturally important one and one which deserves to be taken more seriously.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Return to St. Martin

For as long as this blog has been around, I've been working on a translation of Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin. To be accurate, I've been working on it, off and on, for longer than that, but I spent time in 2007-2009, posting chapter by chapter of the Life which I gathered into a final posting in Feb, 2009. And, then, I set it on the shelf, intending to get back to it in a while. It has been a while and high time to review the whole project.

The project has, in the interim, expanded. I realized that I probably should translate the Letters and Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus because they shed considerable life of St. Martin as we have it. And, while I'm at it, there is St. Gregory the Great's work on St. Martin, which would supplement Sulpicius Severus' account. I haven't got very far on these last pieces, but now that it is summer I thought I'd spend some time on it.

Last night, I found the CSEL volume free on Google Books and have duly printed off the relevant portions of that volume. I thought I would post the translations as I proceed. Comments are always welcome, of course, and, just like the portions of the Life, I'll provide commentary to give a preliminary interpretation to the passages I'm translating.

With that intent in mind, I thought I'd take a post to reflect on what I've observed and learned about this particular enterprise.

1. The biography of St. Martin as remembered by many Christians is limited to one or two incidents. Of course, most people know about the cloak and the beggar incident (Life, 3). This incident has a particular resonance among many Christians these days as an expression of social justice. Of course, giving half one's cloak to a beggar is social justice and particularly striking when done by a Roman soldier, who were not, generally, well-known for acts of social justice. If one hangs around pacifists, one might quote approvingly about Martin's defiant refusal to fight in the late 350s in Gaul (Life 4). And that is about it. The balance of the life which describes St. Martin's episcopate in Tours and his reputation as a holy man is not as well known.

2. Following on this point, there are reasons why the balance of St. Martin's life isn't well known. If one reads it as either a modern or a post-modern, there is much about which to be offended or dismissive. The many miracles of St. Martin are bound to cause modernist readers to dismiss the whole life as fantastic and useless as a historical document. Martin's relentless campaign to root out paganism in the countryside around Tours, involving the destruction of altars and such like, are bound to offend post-moderns, who are liable to see this as an expression of power, not piety. So, one feels when reading the Life that one has the alternative of being credulous or oppressive- neither which are popular shortcomings these days.

3. What is interesting to me about the body of literature on St. Martin is that there is a reflective sense, if only because Sulpicius Severus wasn't content with just writing an saint's life, but he felt it necessary to answer his critics. Not every one of St. Martin's contemporaries agreed with Sulpicius Severus' take on St. Martin. Even in the life, we see opposition to St. Martin's approach to the episcopate, even if that opposition was condemned as being wordly. In the Letters and Dialogues, we see how deep that opposition went, even into St. Martins' own community which elected as his episcopal successor one of the most vociferous critics of St. Martin while alive. That is one of the reasons why I want to translate these works because they give a fuller picture of St. Martin and raise interesting issues such as Martin's mental competence at the end of his life (when, incidentally, Sulpicius Severus knew him).

4. Yet, this complexity is also unsettling. One of the reasons why I embarked on this project back almost a decade ago was that I attend a St. Martin-in-the-Fields (West Toronto, as it happens, not the original in London, England) as well as I attended in London, Ontario. It was, and is, in my mind to give a translation of the Life to both churches as a gift, but I find it is a rather odd one. Simply stated, I would not be giving a plaster saint for the edification of all, but rather a flawed, but, I firmly believed, deeply faithful saint, whose life raises many, many questions which are uncomfortable for us to answer such as our belief in miracles, attitudes to other religions, attitude to the military and, quite possibly, our attitude to mental illness as well as the more satisfying reflections on social justice and faith. I'm not sure I'll be thanked for raising these issues, but I'm also convinced the role of a Christian scholar, even an amateur as myself, is to tell our stories, no matter how unsettling they might be.

That is, for what it is worth, is where I am right now with what I've called elsewhere, the Martiniana. Hopefully, I'll be able to post the first letter before the end of the week and then work my way through the Letters and Dialogues in the  course of the summer. That's the plan at any rate.