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Consuming the Word: Figures of Vernacular Translation in Late Medieval Christian Poetry

Saretto, Gianmarco Ennio

More than any other period in the history of Western Europe, the Middle Ages were informed by translation. Practices of translation pervaded and underlay every aspect of medieval culture and politics. Yet, our understanding of how medieval writers thought about translation remains profoundly lacking. Most contemporary histories of translation theory choose to neglect the Middle Ages entirely, or to turn them into a footnote to Jerome’s distinction between “sense-for-sense” and “word-for-word” translation. Consuming the Word offers a new approach to medieval translation theory by considering texts, genres, and forms that have been largely neglected by scholars. While most research in this field has concentrated on texts that are regarded as explicitly “theoretical,” such as prefaces, commentaries, and treatises, Consuming the Word extends this investigation to the figurative language of “literary” works: poetical texts written primarily for moral and intellectual edification, aesthetic pleasure, and entertainment. By analyzing an archive of four 14th-century devotional poems composed in Spanish, Italian, and Middle English, this dissertation demonstrates that the writers of the Middle Ages articulated arguments on language, interpretation, and translation whose complexity and originality greatly surpassed the arid and derivative thinking about translation that is generally attributed to this period.

Consuming the Word further demonstrates that, by the late 14th century, Christian devotional writers tended to deploy a particular figure to construct arguments on translation, interpretation, and vernacularity: the figure of gluttony. In the first chapter of this dissertation I examine the theories of language and translation conceived by Dante Alighieri in the first decades of the 14th century. I argue that the figures of consumption and gluttony that appear in the last section of Purgatorio are meant to convey a theoretical justification for his use of the vernacular, bringing to fruition several contradictory arguments that are only outlined in his two previous works on the subject: Convivio and De Vulgari Eloquentia. In the second chapter I concentrate on Cleanness, an anonymous and generally overlooked Middle English poem in which the poet ostensibly eulogizes the virtue of purity. By examining its figurative depictions of cooking and feasting, I contend that, rather than as a casual assortment of disparate scriptural episodes, Cleanness should be interpreted as a coherent argument in favor of vernacular translation. On the contrary, in the third chapter I show how a contemporary Middle English poem, the more famous Piers Plowman, relies on the personification of gluttony to disclose an almost antithetical argument. In Piers Plowman, vernacular translation is described as a losing bargain, morally and intellectually detrimental. In my fourth and final chapter, I turn to the celebrated Libro de Buen Amor, to analyze how its figures of eating and overeating convey an argument on the endlessness of all interpretation and on the importance of choice in the act of translating.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Johnson, Eleanor B.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 28, 2020