Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Honing and polishing the Carmen . . . and saying thanks

I blundered into Latin translation in January of last year unintentionally.  I just wanted to translate a few lines of the Carmen where I had my doubts that the previous translators had grasped the right meaning.  I ended up translating all 835 lines of the Carmen and publishing the translation in the spring.  Then came the hurtful realisation that I hadn't done as good a job as I believed, and that I had got several things flat wrong.

Instead of abandoning the effort of retranslating the Carmen, I decided to do it properly from first principles.  I bought the digital images of the manuscript Carmen from the Royal Library of Brussels.  No one had ever asked for these before, so I had to pay the price of having every precious page of manuscript photographed for the quality images I wanted.

It took five weeks.  In the interim I went to the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and the Battle Conference in Cambridge.  Meeting academic historians convinced me I didn't want to be one but helpfully clarified standards and expectations.

I still wanted to translate the Carmen and offer the best translation ever realised in English.

When the photographs arrived in late July, I went to work again.  Instead of wondering what the manuscript really said while working from other historians' transcriptions, I could see for myself and make my own judgements.  It was transformational.  The transcription and translation that resulted were stronger and I stand ready to defend them.

There were still a few errors, but the helpful review of some of the friendlier academics and Latinists helped hone and polish the translation.  I am particularly grateful to John Gillingham, David Bates and Elisabeth Van Houts - all professors of medieval history - and to Stephen Jenkins, Valerie Eads and Catherine Bilow who provided useful guidance on improving my grasp of Latin.  Publish-on-demand allows updating the text as errors and infelicities come to light, so I will gratefully receive all criticism that is aimed at strengthening the text.

Engaging with historians and reading more broadly meant my analysis of the text improved markedly as I became aware of a richer context for the events of the Carmen.  I am particularly proud of three edits from last fall.  One is realising the distinction between tribute and customs duties in the Carmen, so that William grants relief from tribute to Winchester, settling for merely payment of customs levies.  For that I am grateful to Niel Middleton for his paper Early medieval port customs, tolls and controls on foreign trade.  The second was the realisation that Norman names might be distinct from English names for the same places, for which I am grateful to David Georgi for Language Made Visible: The Invention of French in England after the Norman Conquest.  And finally, I came across a medieval text on mathematics that allowed me to translate to my own satisfaction the number of troops accompanying William on the Norman Conquest.  These lines of the Carmen have been maddeningly elusive for all translators, but it turns out this was because we missed the joke.  There was a medieval pun explained in a maths treatise which unravelled the mystery:  ten times ten times ten is a thousand and therefore a cube.  And five thousand more makes six thousand troops.  Guy d'Amiens was an entertainer, educator and poet, and wove the maths pun into the Carmen.

All I ever wanted to do was to express the Carmen in English accurately.  I hope to have done that now.  Perhaps there may still be edits, but for the past three months I've been content.  That's a record since I discovered the Carmen. 

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