Boethius and the Art of Translation

Ye therefore whereunto, er, what was I talking about?

When I was having lunch with Todd yesterday, I found that he’d never heard of Boethius. I was surprised. He was surprised. What? You haven’t heard of Boethius either?

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (c. 480 – 524) Roman statesman and philosopher during the rule of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric. He was both a senator and a consul, and initially enjoyed Theodoric’s favour. He was the victim of slander and accused of treason, being imprisoned and tortured before being brutally executed. His best-known work is de consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) which was written while he was in prison. The Consolation was extremely popular in mediaeval Europe. It was translated into Old English by King Alfred; Middle English by Chaucer; and 16th century English by Queen Elizabeth I.
It’s not clear whether Boethius was a Christian or not. If Boethius was a Christian, then it seems strange that the Consolation is not an overtly and thoroughly Christian tract in which the transitory nature of the mortal world is compared unfavourably with the eternal bliss of Heaven. Perhaps Boethius was a philosopher first and a Christian second and, therefore, considered his plight from a philosophical perspective. Christianity might supply an answer, but Boethius may have found that it was too easy and therefore intellectually dissatisfying. Whatever Boethius actually was, he was canonised in 1883.
(For further information, see the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Boethius, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, especially for a critique of The Consolation of Philosophy. Berkeley has a scanned reproduction of a 15th century Catalan translation of The Consolation.)

My reason for mentioning Boethius is not really about The Consolation itself, but rather about translations. One of the good things about the Internet is that it functions as a repository of material to which I lack direct access because I’m here; my books are there. Unless some kind person altruistically posts an original translation in contemporary English of some work in another language, I have to do with translations that are no longer in copyright, which usually means translations made in the 19th or early 20th centuries.

It’s well-known that 18th century verse translations were really paraphrases which diverged to varying degrees from their source. In the 19th century, the theory of translation appears to have been that a translation should be accurate, but that it should convey the tone and tenor of the original by imitating what was regarded as the appropriate style in English. Thus epic was made to sound like the English of the King James Bible. Without studying the whole field of 19th and early 20th century translations, it seems that pseudo-archaism was the order of the day.

More recent translations continue the tradition of accuracy while acknowledging that there is much which gets lost in the process. Modern translators also share something in common with authors rather than being a mere converters of words. A translation of a great work of literature should, apparently, be a great work of literature itself as the translator attempts to convey the flavour of the original in another language without resorting to the tiresome stylistic tricks of a century or more ago.

The translation of The Consolation of Philosophy which is most widely available online is that by W.V. Cooper published in 1902 by J.M. Dent. Cooper decided that a mock archaic style was best suited to his translation, but would this have been how Boethius’ contemporaries read the work? I assume that Boethius would have been well-schooled in Classical Latin style, but by his time that would no doubt have sounded rather archaic and probably rather stilted. But Cooper’s translation is only pseudo-archaic at best, being larded with the usual ye this and therefrom that, which belong to the school of 19th century pseudo-archaism and not to some imitation of, say, 17th century English. Cooper’s translation is, to modern readers, irritating, and can only be described as “quaint” in a sarcastic tone of voice.


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