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Funded by the European Union
MSCA-IF-2014-EF - Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (IF-EF)

Translating from Latin: Contacts, Transfer, and Rewriting of Historiographical Texts in Medieval Iceland

Project Summary

1. Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project
Translated texts play an important role in the beginning of literacy in the vernaculars in the European Middle Ages. The process towards literacy is initiated by the arrival and then propagation of Christianity. Translation, however, did not only serve as means to promote the new religion, it kept being an important tool for the import of cultural goods.
The MSCA project TRANSLATIS focuses on the Old Norse Trójumanna saga, a historiographical text translated from Latin into Old Norse. While it does not seem far fetched to assume that such translations from Latin might have had a function as literary models, one might also ask about the socio-cultural motivations and functions of those texts: Were the Icelanders only interested in importing the common matters which were in fashion everywhere in Europe? Or did they also import new concepts that came with the texts? And if so, how were they translated and transformed for the audience? Is it possible that some people even used certain texts to promote their political agenda? Who were those people? Where and who were their contacts?
While the final goal could be called a “sociology of translation” on the novel theoretical background of Translation Studies, the methods are philological under the paradigms of Material and New Philology.
The main research objectives of the project are:
1. to identify the source texts or at least describe the source texts as precisely as possible in the manuscript transmission taking into consideration “minor” sources and additional source texts in Old French (mainly Anglo-Norman, but also Middle French for the later rewritings)
2. to identify the persons and centers in Iceland that initiated and executed the historiographical translations from Latin into Old Norse and to identify the contacts in the source cultures (Britain, Continent)
3. to analyze how those translations are made in comparison with the multiple source texts in terms of alterations, augmentations, and appropriations
4. to compare the political and ethical concepts of source texts and target texts and analyze them in their historical context
5. to examine changes in content, form, context and function over the time of transmission
6. to describe the repertoire (“rules” and “materials” after Even-Zohar) of the literary transfer
7. to deduct from the results of the analysis what cultural needs were fulfilled by those translations and which functions they might have served

2. Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end
Within the corpus of translated texts, it was necessary to identify a sample of texts for narrow analysis. To be able to be more specific in the description of the audience – as the goal was a “sociology of translation” – it seemed better to choose a smaller connected corpus of manuscripts that would spread over a longer period of time rather than to perform e.g. a lexicographic study across a larger corpus.

Work package 1: To track down all manuscripts of the corpus texts (01.09-30.10.2015)
Starting out with my chosen case study Trójumanna saga, I collected a list of manuscripts containing Trójumanna saga using the manuscript database as well as traditional printed manuscript catalogues. The number of manuscripts – 39 – exceeded my expectation that was based on the edition prepared by Jonna Louis-Jensen who only listed 12 manuscripts. The higher number was mostly due to the inclusion of “younger” versions Jonna Louis-Jensen did not edit. These are translations of early modern Danish and Swedish versions. But the higher number was also due to later copies of the known Icelandic versions. I decided to include both groups in my project because the manuscripts are contemporary with the manuscripts used for the editions. More importantly, the inclusion is necessary because it is a goal of the project to ask for the function of the rewritings and the changes of these functions over time. This outcome of the manuscript survey made me decide to concentrate on the matter of Troy for an in-depth analysis rather than including other matters which would increase the risk of having a superficial analysis.

Work package 2: To inspect the manuscripts, to verify the data from step 1, to describe the texts within their manuscript contexts (01.11.2015-31.12.2015)
The texts were evaluated and described in the manuscript library using scans, photographs and original manuscripts. Manuscripts from other libraries were mainly evaluated via scans and photographs available within the archive of the Arnamagnæan Institute.
The list of manuscripts and texts were classified and described according to following criteria:
• the provenance, date, history of the manuscript
• the context of the translated texts within the manuscripts

Work package 3: To select and prepare texts for in depth analysis (01.01.-30.04.2016)
After the establishment and classification of the corpus, it was necessary to select a number of texts and prepare them for further analysis. The editions of Alpha, Ormsbók, Haukbók, S and the edited fragments were scanned and made electronically readable. The texts of Alpha, Ormsbók and Hauksbók which comprise a complete text were translated. The decision to scan and translate all medieval versions followed from the decision to confine the corpus to the Troy texts. This task took then longer than the time originally anticipated for the work package where no scan and translation was included. The following tasks were moved forward at the expense of work package 5 (Writing).

Work package 4: To analyze the selected texts (a 01.05.-31.07.2016; b 01.08.-30.10.; c 01.11.-2016-31.01.2017)
I compared the presumed source text – Dares Phrygius, De excidio Troiae historia – with the Alpha version which is – according to the editor Jonna Louis-Jensen and others – supposedly close to the Latin source. In the same way, I compared the other versions sentence for sentence (a).
I identified all the augmentations, abbreviations and changes (b). I then concentrated on the political discourse and novel concepts within the texts, e.g., discourses on kingship, social norms and their change over the time of the rewritings (c).

Work package 5: Writing (01.02.-30.08.2017)
The writing of the monograph was a continuous process from day one of the project going along with the research. Intermediate results were presented as conference papers and afterwards turned into chapters of the monograph. The final writing phase (work package 5) led to several finished chapters of the planned monograph.

3. Progress beyond the state of the art and results
All translations of the matter of Troy into Old Norse are of Icelandic origin. There is no connection of these translations to the Norwegian throne as was assumed in older research. All medieval versions have a courtly character despite being Icelandic in origin. All medieval versions show the influence of French Troy texts which was denied in older research.
The project tries to show the different character of the different medieval versions. One can assume that a full courtly version based on the Latin text but under the use of a secondary French source – a version of Roman de Troie en prose – was written in Iceland probably around 1280. This version was composed shortly after Iceland lost its independence to Norway and we can assume that the Icelandic elites tried to keep up with the courtly culture also via text production. At the beginning of the 14th century, we have a version of the politician Haukr Erlendsson within a personal miscellany known under the name Hauksbók. Haukr was lawspeaker first in Iceland, later in Norway. He was an ambitious Icelander who wanted to play a role within the Norwegian monarchy. Even later around 1500, another version was written. This version is still courtly but in a different sense than the earlier ones. Discourses on kingship and role of aristocratic leaders are emphasized. The audience were probably local Icelandic elites with cultural contacts through fish trade. These contacts provided them with “modern” Troy texts from the 15th century which influenced their Icelandic version.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 654860, acronym “TRANSLATIS”
Hosted by the Arnamagnæan Institute at the University of Copenhagen from 01.09.2015 to 31.08.2017

Research interests

• Cultural transfer from the European centers to Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, esp. translated texts (Latin – Old Norse, Anglo-Norman – Old Norse, Latin – Old High German)

• Transfer of Knowledge

• Reception of Antiquity in the Middle Ages

• Early literacy in the vernacular

• Myths and mythology in the Christian Middle Ages

Theoretical backgrounds:

• Polysystem theory

• Cultural memory studies

• New Philology

• Orality and Literacy

• Postclassical narratology