Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Entendudos: Translation and Representation in the Castile of Alfonso the Learned

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Entendudos: Translation and Representation in the Castile of Alfonso the Learned

Article excerpt

The intensity of Alfonsine studies in the last decade has been noted and formulated in various ways. A. R. Cardenas referred to them as 'the volcano that blew its top off'. J. R. Craddock remarked recently on the 'frenetic pace' of Alfonsine studies. (1) The reference was to the literature generated by the celebrations of the seventh centenary of Alfonso the Learned's death in 1284 in general and the proceedings of Alfonsine congresses in the 1980s in particular. The impression left on the reader of the products of this 'frenetic pace' or 'volcanic eruption' is that of a monumental figure with a vast cultural project that affected, amongst others, the language, literature, science, and jurisprudence of Castile and to some extent the rest of Spain, until the early modern period. The monarch's figure has loomed so large that inevitably it has overshadowed that of the intellectuals in his entourage, who appear as somewhat grey self-effacing figures. In some ways this picture is accurate, although at present no one would wholeheartedly endorse old theories about the Alfonsine Jewish translators as 'vehicular agents' (perhaps even 'aseptic vehicular agents'). (2) Even in studies devoted to translations the teleological approach that views the translators in terms of what they 'transmitted' outside Spain or how they 'contributed' to knowledge (mainly of other groups) cannot be said to have been superseded without leaving any traces. At the root of such approaches there is a hierarchical view of the relationship between original and translation. It is a view that is neither universally accepted nor the product of consensus. These are not the only possible positions in thinking about translations. Walter Benjamin, to take just one significant example, maintained with regard to the translation of great works of literature that 'their translation marks their stage of continued life [...] all purposeful manifestations of life [...] in the final analysis have their end not in life but [...] in the representation of its significance'. (3) Recent scholarly work has distanced itself from trivialization by emphasizing the complexity of the phenomena of translation and bilingualism. The subject is far from being marginal to present-day concerns. Maurice Pergnier has recently spoken of a 'science de la traduction' and commented on the factor of automatic translation in the remarkable rise of theoretical research on translation in the last twenty years. (4) Questions of translation or bilingualism are at the forefront in linguistics. The rise in Alfonsine studies was roughly parallel to that of translation studies. Susan Bassnett McGuire writes of a whole field of 'translation studies' that extends far beyond the confines of theoretical linguistics or computing and affects literary texts and cultural studies, amongst others. (5) I propose that in addition to all the other avenues of research, some of the Alfonsine translations should be examined on their own merit: that is to say, as part of what may be termed a translating culture. Joseph F. O'Callaghan has affirmed that 'for the most part the translators were Jews who sometimes labored with the assistance of Christians'. (6) From this point of view it may be asserted that at a certain level, what is called Hispano-Jewish culture was a culture of translations. The translations into the vernacular of the Jews at the court of Alfonso were only a part of Jewish translations in medieval Spain: an important part, certainly, but a small proportion. The task would be to see these romance translations of the Jews in the Alfonsine entourage against the background of medieval Jewish 'translation culture' in Spain. (7) It would also involve asking the type of question that views the activity of translations as part of a cultural continuum. This is evidently a shift towards translation studies and away from the usual bio-bibliographical questions or from the debate on the genesis of the idea of opting for the vernacular. …

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