Friday, January 04, 2019

BOOK: Giannozzo Manetti, "A Translator's Defense"

Giannozzo Manetti: A Translator's Defense. Edited by Myron McShane. Translation by Mark Young. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 71. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674088658. xxxviii + 306 pp.

Manetti was a humanist from the first half of the 16th century; I've had a book by him in the I Tatti Renaissance Library before, Biographical Writings from 2003; but that was one of the early volumes that I had read before I started this blog. After I catch up with the current volumes, I might go back and re-read those old ones and write posts about them; but that's not a promise :) Anyway, I remembered almost nothing about Manetti from back then, so it was quite new to me when I read in the present volume that he was a keen biblical translator and one of the relatively few Renaissance humanists to learn Hebrew. His efforts to make a new translation of the Psalms led to some controversy as some people were wondering why a new translation was necessary since the old 4th-century one by St. Jerome was so well established (e.g. Leonardo Bruni advised against learning Hebrew at all; p. ix).

Frankly, the fact that there could be any controversy about a new biblical translation surprised me, since nowadays we are used to e.g. there being dozens of translations of the whole Bible into English. And as we'll see from Manetti's book, there was no shortage of different translations even in ancient times. Manetti wrote the present work, A Translator's Defense, as a kind of response to his detractors. However, many parts of this book felt to be very tangential to this purpose, although they were relatively interesting.

He starts with a longish introduction where he points out that many famous ancient authors had their fervent critics as well, so the fact that people criticize him is no big deal and no sign that he's done anything wrong (1.4–17). Then he spends Book I mostly talking about the authors of the various books of the Old Testament — prophets, king Solomon, etc. Manetti is chiefly interested in the Psalms, which were attributed to king David (1.43), though some of them seem to have been by other authors (1.51). He mentions two ancient translations of the Psalms into Greek, the Septuagint from about 340 BC (1.57) and an earlier one about which not much seems to be known (1.54–6).

Book II talks about the Septuagint, which I had heard of before but never really took the trouble to read up on what exactly it is. There turns out to be a delightful story behind it, which Manetti recounts in this book. Ptolemy Philadelphus, one of the early Greek rulers of Egypt, was a keen supporter of the great library of Alexandria and tried to stock it with not only Greek works but also translations of important foreign ones. At his invitation, seventy-two Jewish elders spent some time in Alexandria to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. For those who like an extra dose of religion in this story, there's an amusing twist: the translators worked independently, but at the end, when they started comparing their translations so they could discuss any discrepancies and come up with a compromise, they found that all their translations were exactly the same, a clear proof that the whole thing was divinely inspired (this was by no means universally believed, however; 2.26–27, 48). So in the eyes of some people, the Septuagint (even though it differed in a number of details from the Hebrew original) had a status more or less as if it was in itself a divinely-sanctioned work (an updated version of the original, as it were) rather than a mere translation (2.11–12, 39, 41–2), and some people seem to have thought there was no point in translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew after that. Nevertheless several more translations emerged from the 2nd to the 4th century AD (2.54–5), and it was the discrepancies between them that inspired Jerome to make a new translation (into Latin) of his own (2.56, 63–4).

A lot of these bible translation efforts, both Jerome's and Manetti's, seem to have been inspired by the rivalries between Jews and Christians. The former, who of course kept using the Hebrew text, would claim that the Greek and Latin translations used by the Christians were faulty, which encouraged some efforts to produce more accurate translations (2.57, 76). Manetti also argues that the Jewish critics aren't really in a good position to be making these complaints because most of them don't have a good enough knowledge of Greek and Latin (2.67–71).

As for the Psalms, Jerome apparently translated them from the Greek (the Septuagint version) first, but then, due to complaints about the inaccuracy of the latter, he made another translation, this time directly from Hebrew (2.79–80). Manetti then spends the entirety of books 3 and 4 going carefully through the whole Psalter and listing all the differences between the two versions. For someone with a suitably nerdy obsession with this particular topic (as Manetti himself probably had), this would probably be extremely interesting, but I was utterly bored reading these two books, and I couldn't help wondering how it really advances the cause of “a translator's defense”, if that's what Manetti's work is supposed to be about. Fine, so you demonstrated that there are two slightly different translations of the Psalms; and you are proposing to make another one, so there will then be three slightly different translations [obligatory xkcd link]. So what? You can't really be trying to suggest that your translation will settle these differences for good?

Book 5 gets a little more interesting again. First there's a little detour because Manetti's patron, king Alfonso of Naples, to whom the book is dedicated, had an injury when hunting, and Manetti urges him to be more careful so that his people won't be deprived of such a fine ruler (5.1–18). In the rest of the book, Manetti offers some remarks on how to translate. Some of these ideas struck me as rather obvious, but perhaps they weren't considered so obvious in Manetti's time; e.g. that you should have a good knowledge of the language you're translating from (5.23) and even more so of the one you're translating into (5.27). The translator should have “subtle and finely attuned ears” (5.29) so he can preserve the style, elegance, subtlety etc. of the original. Another blindingly obvious thing: you should not translate word-for-word, because the result will be nonsense (5.34–5). Thus you should translate by sense, but there's still the question of how closely you should stick to the original. Manetti suggests that staying quite close to the sense of the original is important when translating theology or philosophy (because the sense of the text is of critical importance there), but that the translator should act a little more freely when translating poetry, history or oratory, because in those genres the style is also important even if you have to take some liberties with the sense (5.45–6, 76–7). This strikes me as eminently reasonable and is probably still how these things are done today.

One of Manetti's ideas struck me as odd, however: for him, a “correct translation” is only possible between the “four most distinguished languages — Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin” (5.21), as the other (vernacular) languages aren't sophisticated enough (“a correct conversion seems to require and demand a certain elevation of the diction of that language into which it is done”, 5.22).

He has some interesting remarks about the symbols invented in ancient times to mark the discrepancies between several versions of a text (5.67–8): asterisks * were used to mark additions, and obeli ÷ to mark deletions.

All in all, this book was something of a mixed bag. The overview of the ancient translations of the bible in book 2 was interesting, as were Manetti's remarks on the different approaches to translation in book 5 (even though I wouldn't call any of these remarks to be exactly ground-breaking insights). I was less keen on the overview of biblical authors in book 1; and as for books 3 and 4, those will appeal to very few people indeed. I wonder how effective this book was as a response to Manetti's critics. Were those who disliked his plan of making a new translation of the Psalms into Latin any less critical of it after having read his defense? Frankly, I doubt it. Nevertheless, at least I've read something on a new subject that we haven't seen in the ITRL before.

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