By Guest Blogger, on 16 November 2011
If you look into a particular display cabinet in UCL Art Museum’s current exhibition, ‘Word and Image’, you might think that you are looking at a collection of dictionaries. But as Dr Alexander Samson – one of the curators of ‘Word and Image’– explained on Tuesday, they are a great deal more than that. Ben Davies was at the museum to hear more.
‘Dictionaries and Dialogues’ was part of the museum’s ‘Pop-Up’ programme, in which different speakers are given free rein to talk about particular pieces in the collections within the museum surroundings.
So, we listened to Dr Samson speak in more intimate surroundings than most lectures offer. We were encouraged to wander among the exhibits in the main gallery as the talk went on, not least because Dr Samson wove discussions of some of the pieces into his lecture, bringing pictures and historical texts to life with explanations of their political and historical significance.
He began by noting that contemporary English speakers are rather unusual in not having translation as a central aspect of our lives, because English is often used as a common language in business and politics, and is fairly dominant in culture such as music and film.
Our ancestors in the Early Modern period (from around the mid-15th century) would have had a very different experience. For starters, many people would have been bilingual: not with the language of any of our neighbours but with Latin.
Dr Samson explained how Latin was assumed to be a universal language, from which all others derived. Columbus apparently brought a translator well-versed in Latin and Greek when he travelled to the Americas, assuming that anything they encountered would be derived from one of those languages; the discovery of cultures that used pictures as written language confounded these assumptions, and led to some tortuous attempts to express religious texts, such as the Lord’s Prayer, pictorially.
In fact, the discovery of the Americas was one of the inspirations for the development of one of the first monolingual Spanish dictionaries.
When a confused Queen Isabella I asked what the point was of having a dictionary of a language that she already spoke (dictionaries having been mainly concerned with translation) it was explained that conquered nations would need to be taught Spain’s laws, which would require linguistic understanding. “Language,” she was told, “is always the companion of Empire”.
Dr Samson also discussed the role of dictionaries in politics, specifically with reference to the relationship between England and Spain in the tempestuous period between the middle of the 16th and 17th centuries.
One event that prompted a surge of interest in learning Spanish was the marriage of Philip II of Spain to Mary I in 1554. Philip’s 3,000-strong entourage presented a new opportunity to the traders of London. A textbook produced around the time was called A very profitable book to learn the manner of reading, writing and speaking of English and Spanish.
The book provides a great insight into how the new political relationship between England and Spain was perceived among ordinary people. It contains translations of choice conversational phrases such as “I am ill beguiled”, and references to someone trying to avoid a payment. Obviously, there was some concern about the influx of foreigners!
Equally illuminating is a dictionary from 1591, published shortly after what is probably the most famous political encounter between England and Spain, the 1588 attack by the Spanish Armada. Published by Richard Perceval, a servant of Elizabeth I’s chief minister Lord Burley, the Bibliotecha Hispanica was in high demand at a time when ambassadors, spies and translators would have been focusing their attentions on Spain.
The example that best showed the role of language and translation as a political tool was when Dr Samson discussed the 1599 reissue of Perceval’s work. By this time, Lord Burley was highly sceptical that an attack on Spain could be successful.
The second Bibliotecha was unrepentant propaganda against invasion, describing the hostility of the Spanish countryside as full of “evil and lying peasants”, and the Spanish as taking one of three routes in life, “to war, the monastery or the gallows”. Dictionaries, it seems, can be far more than lists of definitions.
Dr Samson’s talk added colour to an already well-presented exhibition and showed how the often invisible art of translation has an important place in political and cultural history.
Ben Davies is an intern in UCL Communications & Marketing.