Interesting translations – The Bestiaries

So what’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever translated? – A question that I get asked from time to time, and I assume you have been caught in that situation too.

So what’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever translated? – A question that I get asked from time to time, and I assume you have been caught in that situation too. Friends and acquaintances find it hard to believe that localization of user interfaces, error messages and Q&As is the stuff that keeps you on your toes and fuels your imagination day after day, widening your horizon and your understanding of the meaning of life.

In my experience, localization is a bit of a dead-end if you’re hoping to strike up a conversation or keep one going, unless of course you are at a TAUS conference or similar event. One or two well-meaning strangers might say “oh, that sounds interesting“, but usually you can see their disappointment when you tell them, no you are not interpreting at international summits, nor engaged in translating murder mysteries or a Booker price winning novel. No, you were not among those that were beavering away, locked in cellar, at the translation of the latest Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code…

However, from time to time we get to venture into the wider universe, even space (indeed: Alpha was doing some work about 15 years ago for the European space agency’s newsletter and also for an educational CD-ROM on astronomy).

So, as a bit of a counterbalance to the usual blogs divulging insights and speculations regarding machine translation and discussions about post-editing, edit distance, score cards, agile workflows and transcreation vs. translation, I propose something a little different: the occasional excursion into translation projects outside the run-of-the-mill. Some reminiscences about translations that Alpha or I were fortunate enough to be involved in, during the many years of our history. A bit of a reminder that translation can sometimes offer you glimpses into realms that you might not otherwise have ventured into and that would have forever remained a closed book.

Such was certainly the case with a translation project I was asked to undertake for a Spanish publisher.

It came about through a chance meeting, at the London Book Fair, in 1999. I literally stumbled upon this fascinating facsimile edition produced by Siloé, a publishing house in Burgos who specializes in producing 1:1 facsimiles of precious manuscripts. Delighted at discovering these wonderful, imaginative pages that were on display at their stand I struck up a conversation with them. They then told me they were hoping to get a German translation of a collection of academic essays to accompany their facsimile edition of El Bestiario de D. Juan de Austria, as they were expecting interest from German bibliophiles. Would I be interested?

Of course I was! So this was me entering into the world of bestiaries, a most welcome change from the daily translation grind, just the kind of challenge I enjoy, in this case compounded by the fact that these learned texts were in (very academic) Spanish, and of course included passages from the Bestiary in 16th century Spanish.

Medieval bestiaries, I found out, had their roots in the Physiologus, a compendium in Greek by an anonymous author who lived in Alexandria, most probably in the 2nd c. AD. This contained stories of animal lore, retold in the form Christian allegories. This had been translated into Armenian in the 5th c., into Latin by the early 6th, and into Ethopic and Syriac, as well as into many European and Middle-Eastern languages. It is believed to have been the most widely read book after the Bible. A true bestseller therefore all through the Dark Ages.

The Bestiaries (from around the 11th/12 c.) took a more scientific-zoological, rather than religious-moral approach. They were encyclopedias depicting man’s knowledge of the world, and trying to help man make sense of the surrounding world and his place in it. Their imagery (camels, serpents, crocodiles, lions but also unicorns, basilisks, centaurs, griffins, phoenixes and other mythical beasts) was widely used, for examples as decorations in monasteries, on furniture, frescoes on walls, and tapestries, but also as inspirations to Sunday sermons. There were blue tigers and furry crocodiles, and many legends, beliefs and prejudices stem from these works.

The elephantine memory, for example, or the slyness of the fox stand in the tradition of the bestiaries and are still alive today, in the age of the internet!

The second influence on the bestiaries was Bishop Isidor of Seville’s Etymologiae, whose 12th book is entirely about animals, 250 of them!

Anyway, the Bestiary of which we speak, is dedicated to Don Juan of Austria. It is unique, because it is the only such work written in Castilian Spanish (others exist in French, English, Italian …), and because it comes very late in the history of bestiaries. In that sense, it is almost anachronistic. When you look at some of the images you would be forgiven to think they might date back to the 12th or 13 c. At least that’s how it seems to me, but that’s purely impressionistic. The manuscript does not carry a date, but from two remarks it is very likely that it was given to Don Juan de Austria in Granada or Madrid, during the time immediately before the latter left on his way to Barcelona where he embarked to go and fight the victorious sea battle of Lepanto against the Turks. So this must have been between December 1570 and early June 1571. It is believed that the portrait on folio Iv (see illustration) is a self-portrait of the Bestiary’s creator, Martin Villaverde, a man in the prime of his life, with curly dark hair, a full beard and moustache, in the dress of a nobleman. But his financial standing was not great, as the inscription reveals: “Pobre nasci y pobre me hallo, ni pierdo ni gano“ (Born poor and stayed poor, I neither lost nor won“). At the same time there is some reference to having had a few servants, though clearly not very loyal ones if we give credence to his remark about falcons from Vizcaya that don’t stay with their master for very long and which he likens to one of his servants, who after he had acquired his language and a few clothes and a hat, abandoned him.

Don Juan de Austria, the victorious hero of the Battle of Lepanto over the Turks in 1571, was the illegitimate son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and half-brother of Philip II of Spain. He is an interesting character (born in Regensburg, died in the Netherlands where he was viceregent of the Spanish crown) and many books have been written about him. In sharp contrast, little is known about the creator, author and illustrator of the Bestiary, Martin Villaverde (shown above). From what emerges from the descriptions of the weird creatures and the locations where he encountered them, he was most likely an educated courtier or perhaps a monk who travelled with his “boss“, Don Juan, not only across Spain, but also through Italy, France and Greece, and perhaps Constantinople and North Africa – all the while observing and drawing fish, birds and terrestrial animals as well as half-human and weird human creatures. His dedication is good advice to us all: “Curemos de bien bivir/en cuanto tiempo tenemos/A la muere no esperemos“.

Except for this piece of advice, Villaverde doesn’t do much moralizing or philosophizing. Even though there is some speculation that he may have been a monk, his work is more decriptive and shows a sense of wonderment for the miracles of zoology. He stuffs everything into his Bestiary, from humble rats and insects to unicorns and a man who can use his giant foot as an umbrella. But he is also interested in etymology (of animal names, which today seem quite absurd to us, for example the “Viola“ fish which he attributes to ist sweet smell, or the “Diablo“ fish because of its monstrously big mouth …). He dedicates an entire section to falconry as well one on gardening (advising Don Juan how to arrange the gardens around his palace in Toledo, and what trees to plant at the Alcazar, since he is convinced that there is nothing better to provide distraction for the king than a pleasant garden).

The Bestiary (484 pages strong) contains 3 “books“: The Libro de los Peces, The Libro de los Aves, and the Libro de los Animales. Each of them has a dedication to Don Juan, and the section about the gardens at the Alcazar in Toledo is inserted between the Book of the Fish and the Book of the Birds. The concluding pages are about Man and the World, the perfection of mankind, and the world and its vanities. This is the section that’s full of didactic, moral and religious remarks, all meant for the moral improvement of Don Juan, and for not erring from the path of rightousness. The basic composition of the Bestiary is for each page to contain an illustration of a fish, animal, bird, insect or weird creature, with a descriptive, sometimes slighty humorous text underneath. The description about hunting dogs for instance ends like this: “We have now fulfilled our promise with regard to the dogs, so that we can now leave them behind us, not because we are frightened by their fangs, but because there is so much more to see in the realm of the animals.“ About the cat (above left) we are told: “There are three types of cat, the serval, the wildcat and the domestic cat. Man sees better in daylight than animals and animals see better in the night than man, because God did not create man for going out at night.”

By way of explaining his motivation for his gift to Don Juan he says: “Tracé estas hojas para que V.ra Excellencia con pasallas y mirallas descanse un rato de los muchos que en la guerra a trabajado, y todo mi t.po emplearé en obras semejantes si V.ra Excellencia recibe servicio que será harta merced para mí quererse servir con mis obras, con las quales loaré v.ros heróycos hechos que en los ojos de todos tanto an resplandecido, cuyas obras con más also ingenio que el mío se deven celebrar y engrandescer.“ A bit of translation challenge there, as you will agree.

I leave you with a delightful squirrel, achieving great heights – as a sort of allegory of the translator chancing upon something that gives him/her another perspective.

For those of you who are interested, here are just 3 links that provide some more information on the wondrous world of the bestiaries. Anyone really interested can make an appointment with me to actually browse through the facsimile.

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