Sunday, 28 April 2013

What's wrong with the Barlow Carmen?

The short answer to the title question is I don't know what's wrong with the Barlow Carmen.  I haven't seen the Barlow Carmen.  It costs over £100 on Amazon and isn't available from any public lending library in southeast England.  I might have been able to obtain it on inter-library loan from the British Library, but I am not a scholar and didn't want it for research.  I wanted a Carmen to read for personal enjoyment.  I wanted a Carmen to understand the contemporaneous Norman story of the events of the conquest as they unfolded in 1066.

Now that I have produced my own English translation of the Carmen, those familiar with the Barlow Carmen ask why I bothered. The question has been raised five times in three months, so here is the answer: temporary insanity.

I never intended to translate the Carmen before actually doing so.  I took possession of the only English translation Carmen I could obtain (the 1972 Morton & Muntz Carmen) from my local library on 25th January, having waited three weeks for the single copy available in southeast England.  Within days the Carmen took possession of me.

It is an indictment of the academic press that the Carmen is so hard to get and so expensive.  Every schoolchild in Britain should know about the Carmen as a thrilling story of blood, plunder and conquest that shaped world history.  Every English historian should have a copy as a fundamental reference work for the Norman Conquest.  Although if they were exposed to the M&M version, they might not find the story either gripping or credible.  Right away I began to see problems with the translation.

I started translating a few lines myself, one or two at a time, and the more I did, the more obsessive I became.  There is so much more in the Carmen than appeared in the English.  I stopped reading the English.

I found the original transcription of the Carmen published in Rouen in 1840 and another transcription from 1869.  I transcribed the Carmen in Latin from beginning to end on my computer, and then began translating it from line 1 to line 835.  When I finished I went back and re-translated for sense and context.  The Latin is so elegant that if the English jarred or seemed disruptive then I knew that I had missed something.  Where the Latin didn't make sense, I checked all the transcriptions for possible errors and made sensible corrections of my own.  I kept doing this obsessively for three months, sometimes 20 hours a day.  My son became frightened when he started coming home from school to find me still hunched over the keyboard in my jammies, not having bothered to eat, brush my teeth or feed the cats.  If anyone doubts the originality of my efforts, I have plenty of translations of incrementally improving quality to prove that I did the work.

Why is my Carmen worth reading?  First, it's a cracking good story of blood, plunder and conquest - as its author intended it to be.  Second, it costs £100 less than the Barlow Carmen.  If you want a Carmen that reads well and doesn't put you in debt, mine is a sensible choice.  Third, my Carmen is available worldwide instantly as an ebook, where the Barlow Carmen is almost entirely unavailable to the public except to scholars with access to specialist libraries or people who can drop £100 on a book.  Finally, and perhaps most important, my Carmen is free of received translation and therefore probably truer to the original Latin.  I'll let others compare the texts, but I know for certain that I reveal significant new facts about the Norman Conquest while still translating the Carmen word for word from the original.

It is important that the history the Carmen reveals about the Norman Conquest be better understood and more widely available.  

What's wrong with the Barlow Carmen?  It isn't publicly available.

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