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Sense and Sensibility: the Old English Boethius

By ucyow3c, on 16 October 2014

pencil-iconWritten by Charlotte Hyde (third-year student, UCL English)

Can two translations of the same text have a relationship? How can we define this relationship? Experienced practitioners and novices of Old English alike were treated to a fascinating exploration of the link between the Prose and Prosimetrical translations of Boethius as part of the Translation in History lecture series, given by Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, Susan Irvine.

Ivory diptych of Boethius (late 5th century)

Ivory diptych of Boethius (late 5th century)

Having devoted much of her career to advancing our understanding of both versions of the Old English Boethius, Professor Irvine was able to give the audience a detailed history of the text, explaining the Latin origins of ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ and outlining the programme of translation established by Alfred in the 9th Century. Concerned by declining literacy in Latin, Alfred placed great importance on raising the cultural status of the vernacular and as such introduced a radical programme of intellectual reform, translating seminal works into English.

One of the most important insights revealed here was the nature of translation. Quoting from Alfred’s ‘Preface to Gregory’s ‘Pastoral Care’, Professor Irvine brought to light the nature of translation at the time as being ‘sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense’. Translation according to Alfred comprised first of gaining an understanding of the text before being able to convey that ‘sense’ into the vernacular. It is interesting to keep this in mind when considering any translation into Old English from the Alfredian programme as the meaning of the text can be altered during the process.

Moving on to considering the original Boethian ‘Consolation of Philosophy’, we were treated to a biography of the renowned Roman scholar and politician. It is interesting to note the accusations of treason Boethius was subjected to in 524AD as this clearly had an influence on his final text. Although the original Latin was written in alternating prose and verse, there are two extant version of the Old English translation.

The first was a prose only copy which, despite acknowledging the verse passages, is written exclusively in prose. The author of the prose-only version appears to pay very little attention to the difference between prose and verse, acknowledging verse only through alliterative techniques within the prose. By contrast, the second copy is a prosimetric version that pays homage to the original alternating prose and verse version. On the one hand it is interesting to note the authorial speculation that exists in these versions since the prosimetrical version may be of single or dual authorship – a riddle to which we may never have a solution!

Although much closer in form to the Latin original, there are linguistic overlaps between the words in the verse and the prose-only version. It is fascinating to note, therefore, that the verse is linguistically drawn from that prose-only version, creating an interesting dynamic between these texts. Professor Irvine raised a curious theory, speculating over the creation of a new mode of poetry that moves away from a traditional Old English verse, conflating the continental and vernacular forms.

This has important ramifications for the development of the English literary cannon as the learned scholars of the country feel simultaneously an affinity and unfamiliarity with the text. The audience was treated to a comical interlude as Professor Irvine played a clip from the film The Battle of the Bulge, helping us to empathise with the unfamiliarity-yet-familiarity paradox of contemporary critical receptions of translation.

The most interesting theory proposed was that of an opus geminatum relationship between the texts. Opus geminatum refers to a pair of texts, one in verse and one in prose, that treats the same subject and is usually by the same author. This is a fascinating perspective from which to view the texts as the verse version of an opus geminatum often alludes to the pleasure of verse and the usefulness of prose.

This attitude is similarly adopted in the prosimetrical version of the Boethius translation as the verse appears to offer light relief to the prose sections, intended for an audience who would not be able to intellectually process the weightiness of the prose sections. Professor Irvine explored the possibility of the two texts being considered in this opus geminatum at the time or whether this is a label imposed on the texts by critics returning to the text later in the critical canon.

Using the prefaces as compelling evidence, Professor Irvine proposed that both Boethius texts are demonstrative of a society adapting the old world to the political and religious contexts of the new, in a display of sense and sensibility.

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