01 October 2011

‘It will be an adventure!’

Saturdays are normally my day off from my dissertation. However, I was far too exhausted to write a blog entry yesterday. Nor did I write one all last weekend, for that matter. So I’m going to whip up a quick entry now before I get going on errands I plan to run this afternoon.

I feel pretty darned good about yesterday’s close reading. I decided to look at a passage I had not given much thought to before (I’ve read each of my primary texts several times over, so I know them pretty well). It’s an entirely new passage from my ‘second’ source, which means that its ‘translator’ completely made it up. Though, of course, whether you think Arthur may have existed or not, the extant literature about him and his exploits is obviously entirely fictional. Anyway, despite the fact that the passage isn’t that long--it spans perhaps 30 lines of verse, give or take a few lines--the translator imagines the common folk kissing and hugging each other and weeping tears of joy upon Arthur’s return. We’re definitely meant to feel good about this scene. Arthur spent nine years on the continent winning the various territories of Gaul before setting sail for ‘home’. Historically speaking, it was not uncommon for the Norman rulers of England to spend four years or more in France while their regents, chancellors, or justiciars took care of their ‘affairs’ in the British Isles. Richard I only spent enough time in England to be crowned and set his ‘affairs’ in order before setting out for the holy land. So it’s possible that Arthur’s loyal subjects if not everyone might actually have cause to celebrate. In addition to the fact that kings were often absent from their kingdoms, we might also be tempted to consider that, unlike the Normans, Arthur is coming home to ‘his people’, though the situation is not cut and dry given how many different peoples lived in the British Isles at the time.

I’m carefully bracketing off terms here because, regardless of the translator’s intentions, there’s quite a bit of constructing the people of Britain ‘in translation’ going on behind the scenes. There’s little doubt in my mind that, as the passage is written, the people are made to participate in Arthur’s conquests. Not only are they  overly joyful (one line about sweethearts getting carried away with the kissing and hugging is rather amusing), but they specifically ask the soldiers they meet in the streets and at crossroads how their conquests went--the phrase ‘lur cunquest’ is actually used--and whether or not they conducted themselves like good little conquerors.

Another suspect word that appears in the passage is ‘aventure’. We know this in English as adventure.

I got pretty excited about how adventure circulates in the discourse that underpins this passage. The word is Latin in origin: ad + venturus (future of venio), which translates as ‘coming to’ or ‘to arrive.’ For all you Latinists out there, the word advenio is part of the lexicon. But breaking words down into their constituent components can often tell us something we may have taken for granted. Given that adventure refers to a ‘coming to’ or an ‘arrival’, an adventurer is thus someone who arrives or who is a visitor. Knowing this, I started contemplating what being a visitor means in terms of conquest. Lots of other ideas about how conquest is carried out by the conquerors as well as how the strategies of conquest lead to unintended consequences for the visitors occurred to me as a result.

In some ways, adventure is the holy grail of terms to study. It’s become synonymous with our modern notions about Arthurian literature, by which I mean the average person who knows something about Arthurian tradition probably has in mind the romantic version of the story a la Le Morte D’arthur by Thomas Malory (who incidentally, was a great translator of French Arthurian tradition in his own right). However, even at this earlier period in the formation of Arthurian tradition--my source predates what we think of as the ‘start’ of Arthurian romance--the word adventure has romantic connotations attached to it. My concern with adventure is how the romanticization of conquest operates in the practice of translation. How, in other words does the romantic idea of adventure change our perception of not just the conquered but also the conquerors?

I’m taking a rather round about way to come to my point in ‘whipping up’ this blog entry. I normally try to avoid discussing the content of my dissertation if I can help it, but it seems like I couldn’t help it today. I’m not going to feel guilty about that, because not being able to stop myself indicates how excited I am about the directions my dissertation is taking me in. One of the biggest fears that scholars who think have come up with a great idea must face is that they are not going to come up with another one. In my opinion, I’ve written exactly one good paper in my academic career, by which I mean I think it is worth publishing. I’ve definitely wondered if I would ever write anything else that I thought was as good or approaches the level of quality that I think that one good paper achieves. But I think yesterday’s writing session indicates that I am still capable of generating good ideas.

I also think, in the way I have been thinking about the term here, that adventure is a pretty good metaphor for the practice of translation as well as how I am manipulating the meaning of the word. Translators are by their very nature ‘visitors’ to other texts. And I myself am a ‘visitor’ when I read their translations and write about them.

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