Saturday, February 9, 2013

On translation, texts, and a conference

It's been an usually lovely summer here in my part of the world and I've been spending as little time as possible at the computer (and thus, am well behind with bloggy stuff). I've even moved my office out into the garden - one of the perks of working from home. So I've been enjoying the sun but work is also continuing apace. The draft of my PhD proposal has been reviewed by my supervisor and I've been given the go-ahead to put in the paperwork for candidacy. I have some minor revisions to do but I hope to have had my candidacy hearing/ seminar (basically, what I think you Americans call an oral proposal defense) by late March or April.

I'll be getting in a bit of practice for the seminar next week, as I'm off to Melbourne for the ANZAMEMS conference. The theme of this year's conference (always loosely interpreted) is Cultures in Translation. The paper I'm presenting will be considering language, translation, and the construction of identity in a case of treason from 1415. The trial and execution of the accused took place right before Henry V left England on a campaign that included the battle of Agincourt, and the revelation of treason makes for a pivotal scene in Shakespeare's Henry V. The case generated a series of intriguing documents, including confessional letters to the king (in English), a detailed but heavily massaged trial record and later chronicle accounts that turned the whole thing into a dirty conspiracy with the French against the English 'nation'. My paper looks at the operations of translation in the production of these texts, not only the translation of one language to another (e.g. the English of a personal letter to the Latin of the trial record and the French of the parliament roll), but also the translation of a man's story of his loyal service to the English king and realm into an account of his 'tainting' and 'corruption' by French gold.

Working on this paper and some related research over the last few months has got me thinking about translation in a wider sense. When in the past I'd perhaps only thought of it in its narrow definition - that is, taking the words of one language and converting them into another one - it has become clear to me that any act of translation is also an act of interpretation. Postcolonial scholars talk about translation as an act of power and from this perspective, there is some fascinating work being done on the politics of medieval chronicles, and on the tensions and power struggles generated by later medieval vernacularity. A lot of this research has been centred on what are broadly thought of as 'literary' texts, such as chronicles, romances, poetry etc. (although such hard distinctions as 'literature' and 'history' or 'fiction' and 'non-fiction' can be pointless, if not highly misleading, when considering medieval sources). However, I'm drawn to the much smaller body of work that is asking these kinds of questions about translation and power about 'record' sources - the official accounts of law, politics, and government. Trial records and similar texts have their origins in oral pleas before a court (or, even earlier, before a lawyer or advocate) and by the later Middle Ages court pleas were often heard in English. The act of recording such cases performed multiple translations - from one person's speech to another's written record, from English oral testimony to the French and/or Latin of the formal court documents, and then later, into the French language summaries of the year books and, sometimes (depending on the case) the rolls of Chancery (a mix of Latin, French, and English) or some other office of government.

One of the more practical problems in archival research...*
As I've been following the fortunes of individuals through these various texts, I've also been thinking about the acts of translation that I perform every day as a scholar. A number of the original documents I'm working with are irretrievably damaged, so there are inevitable gaps in the stories they tell. Sometimes, I know enough of the context or have enough other corroborating evidence to make an informed guess as to what the gap may have contained. Other times - and it is madly frustrating when this happens - the gap is just too big to fill. I have one letter of confession where the entire left side is missing, ripped or cut away at some indeterminate point in the past. Whatever mitigating circumstances the confessor may have appealed to, or whoever else he may have tried to implicate or blame for his actions, that information is probably gone forever. I know this, I do. But every once in a while, I find myself going back to that document, zooming up my photo of it (the original is in The National Archives), and trying to read something in the void. It's so tempting to translate that gap into a story, to make it fit the narrative I have in my head. But that would be fiction, not history. 

* This is not the letter I'm talking about here but is from a 1414 commission of inquiry into 'treasons and other felonies'. (The National Archives KB 9/205/3, to be exact. Photo by me.)