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Of Cabbages and Kings: five ways to talk about translation

King Alfred

Translation has been a crucial part of Anglophone culture from its very beginnings. The earliest English writers knew that the state of learning in England, with knowledge of Latin far from universal, meant a need for translations. Everything necessary for a rounded education was written in Latin, and so King Alfred the Great introduced a programme of translating “certain books, which are most needful for all men to know, into that language that we all can understand”. Alfred’s list of necessary books was very specific, and encompassed classics of theology and philosophy, rather than the Greek and Roman classics which were to torture school boys nearly a millennium later. These poor beleaguered boys, struggling with their Homer and Virgil, would often use a crib, a translation that provided them with illegitimate help in their studies. This might also be called a cabbage in the school slang of the nineteenth century; nobody’s sure where the term comes from, though it might be that the strips of paper looked like strips of cloth which tailors rolled up into shapes resembling cabbages (etymologies can be a bit labyrinthine at times!).

Like most linguistic concepts, translation has been described using a wide range of words. Here are some notes on five of my favourites.

Translate

Let’s start with the basics! The verb translate goes back to at least the early thirteen hundreds, when the author of the religious poem Cursor Mundi tells his readers that:

Þis ilk bok es translate into Inglis tong

to rede for the love of Inglis lede,

(This book is translated into the English language as advice, for the love of the English people.)

Translation was an important art in the medieval period, perhaps even more so than in King Alfred’s day, since the people of England now had to deal with both Latin and Norman French as commonly-used languages as well as the English vernacular. The verb comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of transferre, meaning “to transfer”, hence the use of translate to refer to physical transferral. It‘s often used to describe the moving of a saint’s remains to a new resting place.

Paraphrase

The mythic first poem in English, Caedmon’s Hymn, was a paraphrase. Legend has it that Caedmon, a simple cowherd in the monastery at Whitby, was visited by an angel who inspired him to compose poems on scriptural themes. The Latin scripture would be read to him, and he would produce beautiful paraphrases in the intricate Old English verse form. The verb paraphrase, however, comes a long time after Caedmon: the Oxford English Dictionary’s first evidence is from 1593 (the noun is attested a little earlier). It comes, via French and Latin, from a Greek root: para (“alongside”) and phrasis (“diction, speech”). So, whereas to translate is to transfer from one language to the other, to paraphrase is to speak in the new language alongside the original.

Englify

The delightful verb Englify was first used, according to the OED’s evidence, in 1688, when the writer Randle Holme referred to “a Welsh name Englified”. It is one of a set of words describing translation into English. Englishize appears around a hundred years later, not long after anglicize was first used in this sense (in 1711 according to current research), whereas the simple verb English is the earliest of the trio, first appearing in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible in the 1400s: “I Englishe it thus”, the translator tells us. Other language names have been used in the same way: in 1868, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “We clothe the nude word by Frenching it”, and Frenchize has also been used for translation into French.

Traduce

Coming from the Latin traducere, meaning “to bring across” or “to transfer”, traduce was used to mean “translate” from at least the fifteen hundreds, and was still in use when Charles Kingsley wrote his novel Alton Locke in 1850: the title character will be allowed no more books to read “If ye canna traduce to me a page o’ Virgil”, so the Scotsman Sandy Mackaye threatens him. The verb is related to words for “translation” in a number of Romance languages: French traduction and Italian traduzzione, for example. The more common sense of traduce now is to slander or disgrace a person. It seems a bit of a leap from “transfer” to “slander”, but the classical Latin traducere could also mean “to lead along (as a spectacle)”, as one might do to a criminal, and in later Latin it carried the sense “to lead astray”, “to corrupt”, and “to blame”. It’s a verb of many talents, and it seems quite fitting that a word for translation should itself have such a variety of possible translations.

Wend

This is my favourite translation verb, and the oldest of our five. Indeed, this meaning of the word seems to have died out in the twelve hundreds, remembered now only by students of Old English who read King Alfred’s accounts of his efforts at translation: “Ða ongan ic..ða boc wendan on Englisc”; “Then I began to translate that book into English”. The range of meanings that wend had even in those days tells us something about how the Anglo-Saxons thought about translation. It could mean altering your course, changing your mind, travelling, or taking the final journey of death. Translation was a slippery thing, and it could fatally change the meaning of the original text unless great care was taken by a skilful translator.

These are just a few of the many verbs that are or have been used for translation; there was no space to talk about convert, render, interpret, or throw, to name just a few. Dub also lost out in my list of five, though it has the neatest etymology, being a simple shortening of the word double. So there is still plenty to explore in the world of translation; but, for now, I shall wend my way.