18 May, 2006

Non traduttore, traditore

It seems that everybody hates St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of history's great curmudgeons. Mediaevalists deride his commentary to the Song of Songs, with its queasy-erotic raptures on the Shulamite-qua-Mary; they tsk-tsk his regressive views on Romanesque art, expressed in the over-quoted Apologia to William of St. Thierry; and they lament his disastrous condemnation of Abelard in 1141 (R. W. Southern offers a superb account of the latter event in his unfinished masterpiece, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe). Bernard did turn up as a hero in the Divine Comedy, and after his death he came to be portrayed in this enviable position, receiving a milky shower from the Holy Virgin's bared pap—no, really!—

—and see also here, here and here—but back in the 12th century, Bernard, and the puritanical Cistercian Order he founded, were the subjects of plentiful satire. Take the following passage, for instance, from Walter Map's delightful collection of folktales, rants and potted biographies, De Nugis Curialium, written at the English court between 1181 and 1193:
Two white [Cistercian] abbots were conversing about Bernard in the presence of Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, and commending him on the strength of his miracles. After relating a number of them, one of the abbots said: "Though these stories of Bernard are true, I did myself see that once the grace of miracles failed him. There was a Marquis of Burgundy who asked him to come and heal his son. We went, and found the son dead. Dom Bernard ordered the body to be carried into a private room, turned every one out, threw himself upon the boy, prayed, and got up again: but the boy did not get up; he lay there dead." Tum ego: "Monachorum infelicissimus hic fuit; nunquam enim audivi quod monachus super puerum incubuisset quin statim post ipsum surrexisset puer." Erubuit abbas, et egressi sunt ut riderent plurimi.
The reader will notice that Map's translator, one M. R. James, has left the end of this passage in its original Latin. The prudish James confesses in his introduction to protecting delicate ears. It seems he hasn't learnt from the mistakes of the previous century, when schoolboys would rummage through the classics for untranslated passages, or else simply turn to the back of their Juvenal or Horace, where the obscene material had been deposited so as to spare the magistri unnecessary embarrassment. The Latin here reads:

Then I said, "He was the most unfortunate of monks; for I've never heard of a monk lying over a boy without the lad immediately springing up after him." The abbot blushed, and they left to the greatest laughter.

Hilarious! I find this practice of not translating rather appealing; it can be found also in John Payne's 1886 Decameron, reprinted in the Modern Library edition. Payne's omission arrives in the middle of my favourite story, Day 3, Tale 10—the one where the lecherous monk Rustico shows his naive protégée Alibech how to 'put the devil to hell'. The happy couple have just tossed their clothes off, when Payne stops his rendering short with an ironic footnote:
The translators [sic] regret that the disuse into which magic has fallen, makes it impossible to render the technicalities of that mysterious art into tolerable English; they have therefore found it necessary to insert several passages in the original Italian.
Sure enough, we get a page and a half of Boccaccian innuendo: "Rustico, quella che cosa e, che io ti veggio, che cose si pigne in fuori, e non l' ho io?" "O figliuola mia, disse Rustico, questo e il diavolo, di che io t'ho parlato, e vedi tu ora: egli mi da grandissima molestia, tanta, che io appena la posso sofferire." And so forth. The Modern Library edition ironically includes a foreword by Morris Ernst lambasting the book's obscenity trials ("Treasury Department Officials acting as guardians of our literary diet at our national frontiers have from time to time refused to admit copies of The Decameron"). No doubt St. Bernard, despite his scribblings on the Virgin's comeliness, would have been there at the frontiers with them.

1 comment:

Sir G said...

Wow, Conrad, what a wonderful, breezy read.