Stop talking englissh

Marion Turner

London Review of Books, Vol. 46, No. 9

9 May 2024


Fixers: Agency, Translation and the Early Global History of Literature 
by Zrinka Stahuljak.
Chicago, 345 pp., £85, February, 978 0 226 83039 1


The earliest astrolabe​ in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford was made in Syria in the ninth century and is inscribed with text in Arabic and later additions in Armenian. Two made in Seville in the first quarter of the 13thcentury also have Arabic script – Seville was then still under Islamic rule. One made in England in the 14th century is inscribed with Latin script and uses a dragon’s head to point at a star, a design feature mainly employed in Europe; its plates are marked for the latitudes of Toledo, Rome, Cologne, Paris, London and Berwick, possibly revealing the travels of its owners. Another was made for the Medici court and its single projection is for the latitude of Florence.

The word ‘astrolabe’ comes from the Greek and roughly translates as ‘star-taker’. These beautiful and elaborate scientific instruments were used throughout the Middle Ages to tell the time and determine latitude, to calculate the position of the stars, and to find the direction of Mecca. They often had information inscribed on them about horoscopes and astrology. The astrolabe allowed pilgrims, merchants, mercenaries, diplomats and explorers to navigate, but the transmission of the technology through the Middle East, North Africa and Europe also maps the passage of ideas, culture and science during the Middle Ages, a period when knowledge, preserved in Islamic centres of learning, was returning to the Christian parts of Europe, often by way of Islamic Iberia, al-Andalus.

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, written in the 1390s for his ten-year-old son, Lewis, is an English translation of a Latin version of an Arabic text written by Mashallah ibn Athari, an eighth-century Persian Jew. In the prologue, Chaucer says that Lewis only knows a little Latin, but is good with numbers, and so the treatise will teach him how to use the astrolabe he has just been given as a present. After all, Chaucer says, the facts remain the same whether Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Greek or English is used; he himself is a compiler, bringing together the work of old astrologers into ‘naked words in englissh’.

Scholars of medieval literature and history have been thinking about the idea of the ‘global Middle Ages’ for twenty years or more. Books such as Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350 (1989) laid the groundwork that has been built on by scholars such as Geraldine Heng and Susan Noakes, who set up the Scholarly Community on the Global Middle Ages (its website features projects ranging from ‘Global Jerusalem’ to ‘East Africa between Asia and Mediterranean Europe’ to ‘The Story of Global Ivory in the Premodern Era’). There are problems with the concept, of course: Nora Berend has argued that the term ‘Middle Ages’ is Eurocentric, and that ‘global’ is anachronistic when applied to the period.

One of the structures that underpinned medieval European culture was multilingualism. Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio all wrote in both Latin and Tuscan. In later medieval England, educated men were trilingual, fluent in French, Latin and English, and some knew more (Chaucer, for example, was proficient in Tuscan). At the Council of Constance, in 1417, the English cleric Thomas Polton reported that the English spoke five different native languages: English, Welsh, Irish, Gascon and Cornish. In medieval Burgundy, too, trilingualism was the norm, with French, Flemish and Latin all in common use. Bureaucrats and poets alike used different languages for different purposes, translating according to audience, and borrowing and coining words across their linguistic competencies.

In ‘A Global Middle Ages’ (2013), Geraldine Heng writes about the ancient story of the Buddha, which eventually developed into the Christian hagiography of Barlaam and Iosaphat, after a complex process of translation and transmission over many centuries. The story, as far as we know, first appeared around the sixth century bce, in Sanskrit and Pali accounts of the life of Siddhartha Gautama (called Buddha after his enlightenment). Fragments of it appear in Manichaean manuscripts, then Arabic texts, followed by Georgian, Greek and, by the mid-11th century, Latin texts. In subsequent centuries, versions were written in a huge range of vernaculars, in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Romania, Provence, Italy, Spain, Norway, Portugal, Russia and England. In later incarnations, it is a story about two Christian saints, the Indian prince Iosaphat and the hermit Barlaam. As the Buddha’s name moved through languages, it changed: in Arabic, he became Budhasaf, and a scribal slip turned this into Yudhasaf, from which the name morphed into Iodasaph (Georgian), Ioasaph (Greek) and Iosaphat (Latin).

Zrinka Stahuljak’s Fixers seeks to ‘denationalise and decanonise the Middle Ages’. The ‘fixer’ is a slippery figure: Stahuljak, who used to work as an interpreter in war zones, uses the term by analogy with the local interpreters-guides-brokers who make it possible for modern journalists to function in alien terrain. She emphasises that the work they do as interpreters – just one of the many ways in which they enable networks of exchange – is more creative than we might assume. Medieval writers, readers and travellers understood translation as a dynamic process, something that has been obscured by the later emphasis on the value of the original text and its author.

Stahuljak focuses on texts produced around the Mediterranean between 1250 and 1500: crusading treatises, travel reports, histories, chronicles, romances and illuminated works. She starts her story shortly after the founding of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and around the time of the first Christian missions to Mongolia in 1245. One crucial event was the fall of Acre in 1291. Christians were now dependent on Muslims for access to the Holy Land, forced to engage with intermediaries who came from different cultures and spoke different languages.

This period is sometimes described as precolonial, though the term is misleading: the crusades certainly had a colonial intent, but one of the key arguments of Fixers is that – in contrast to the strategies of modern imperial nation-states – the drive to reconquer the Holy Land and convert its inhabitants was not accompanied by a will to impose language. In De recuperatione Terre Sancte (1305-7), Pierre Dubois argued that Christians repopulating the Holy Land would have to learn local vernaculars if they were to thrive. The Franciscans (concerned with converting Muslims), and the Dominicans (who aimed to reunify the Western Church with the Greek Church and other Eastern Christians) recognised the same imperative. Dominic, who came from Iberia, where Arabic was still central, founded his order near Toulouse, in Occitan-speaking southern France, where he was attempting to convert heretical Cathars. The first Dominican circular on language learning was written in 1236; Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Tartar and Armenian became the order’s main languages of study.

Towards the end of the century, the Majorcan mystic Ramon Llull argued that monasteries should teach Arabic, Persian, Koman, Chaldean and other ‘schismatic languages’ in order to aid conversion. In 1276 James II of Aragon agreed to found a monastery at Miramar in Majorca for the study of Eastern languages, and Llull himself travelled to Tunis, Cyprus, Armenia and Libya. At the Council of Vienna in 1311, the Catholic Church decided to set up chairs in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic at the universities of Bologna, Oxford, Paris and Salamanca.

Missionaries weren’t the only polyglots. Hired fixers often spoke a dazzling array of languages: Stahuljak mentions a ‘renegade Christian’ from Spain who spoke Latin, Lombard, Spanish, Wendish, Greek, Turkish and Arabic, and was hired by the German traveller Arnold von Harff to facilitate his journey from Venice to Cairo and on to Jerusalem. Such fixers are termed ‘dragomans’ in the medieval documents, and functioned not only as interpreters but as intermediaries: arranging travel, procuring provisions, paying tolls and bribes, and generally keeping their employers safe.

Stahuljak describes a world in which multilingualism was normal and desirable – very different from our world, in which a single vernacular overwhelms all others. Yet experiences in the period varied. Since it is outside the territory of her study, Stahuljak doesn’t discuss the case of Ireland, where we see the beginnings of the linguistic imperialism that would come to dominate Britain’s imperial march. In 1366, the Statutes of Kilkenny banned the Anglo-Irish from playing Irish sports, marrying Irish women or using the Irish language. The statutes didn’t have much effect, but they show that there was an English anxiety about ‘native’ languages and a desire to promote the English language in the colonised country. This is the monolingual impulse that came to dominate Europe’s colonial practice.

Stahuljak argues that translation had a much higher status in the 13th, 14th and 15thcenturies than it does today. (This is not a new argument: in a 2007 essay Michelle Warren argued that the period had a ‘decentred aesthetic order, one that would set aside the very notion that “originals” are worth more than their translations’.) Stahuljak discusses the phenomenon of ‘pseudo-translation’, giving the example of Histoire des seigneurs de Gavre (1456), which claims in the prologue to be a translation from the Italian, and in the epilogue to be a French version of a Flemish version of a Latin version of the Greek. In fact it was a new book, straightforwardly written in French.

In later medieval Burgundy, a hub for manuscript production in many languages, translators were literally placed front and centre. Stahuljak describes the manuscript of Faits et dits mémorables des Romains, a translation by Simon de Hesdin of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et dicta memorabilia, which is illustrated with a scene of the translator presenting his book to the king. The translator is framed by pillars, with the book itself partly obscured, as the acts of translation and transmission take centre stage. A more daring set of images is found in a copy of the Romance de Gillion de Trazegnies, completed in 1464 for a member of the ducal court. The frontispiece shows the translator entering a monastery, then being offered an Italian book and then at work on his translation; the patron is nowhere to be seen. Another frontispiece, in a copy of Croniques et conquestes de Charlemagne, includes a presentation scene, but tucked away in a corner: the foreground is dominated by the activities of a busy marketplace. Translation is presented dynamically, as a commercial transaction between city and court.

Every poet writing in English in the 14th century thought across and between languages, using words that had purchase in multiple tongues, aware of the blurred boundaries between one language and another. In The Familiar Enemy (2009), Ardis Butterfield quoted Derrida’s Le Monolinguisme de l’autre: ‘Oui, je n’ai qu’une langue, et ce n’est pas la mienne’ (‘Yes, I only have one language, yet it is not mine’). In Derrida’s terms, language is inevitably alienating; it never belongs to its user. He relates this to his postcolonial position as a francophone Algerian Jewish writer. Butterfield uses Derrida’s arguments to discuss the multilingual conflict of the 14th century, particularly the relationship between English and French during the Hundred Years War, at a time when the languages couldn’t always be clearly distinguished and when both vernaculars were spoken in England. Medieval writers, Butterfield argues, had an acute awareness of their disenfranchisement, their lack of ownership of the languages in which they wrote – a much less chauvinistic and more curious attitude than now prevails.