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Oresme's Translation Strategies

Oresme's translations of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics are the first extant, complete translations of Aristotelian texts in a modern language. According to Albert D. Menut, who made the critical editions of these works, the translation of the Ethics was done first and must have been begun at least a year earlier than 1370, the date given in the translator's prologue.[18] In turn, Oresme probably based his French version of the Ethics , here referred to as the Ethiques , on a manuscript of a revised edition of the Grosseteste translation made in Paris about 1270. For his own commentary, Oresme drew extensively on Albert the Great and on Thomas Aquinas's Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics , as well as on later commentaries by Walter Burley and Jean Buridan.[19] Oresme made only one redaction of the text, of which the oldest known copy is MS A , dated after 1372.[20]

Oresme's French version of the Politics , referred to here as the Politiques , is based on the translation from Greek into Latin by William of Moerbeke dating from about 1270.[21] Léopold Delisle identified Oresme's own copy of his French version that serves as the basis of the critical edition by Albert D. Menut.[22] Delisle discovered that Oresme made three separate redactions of his translation of the Politics . Usually included with the Politics is a short treatise, the Economics . No longer considered an Aristotelian work, the Economics has a complex history. In his critical edition and translation of Oresme's French version, referred to here as the Yconomique , Menut traces its varied sources, including William of Moerbeke's Latin translation from Greek originals.[23]

Oresme was thus working with authoritative translations that bore equally authoritative and worthy commentaries. The medieval Latin of these translations had evolved as the international language of communication of a clerically dominant elite. The thirteenth-century translations of the Aristotelian corpus greatly enriched medieval Latin as an instrument of both abstract thought and social control.[24] These works relied on principles of interpretation and commentary inherited from ancient Rome, modified by the Christian exegetical tradition, and composed in an academic format appropriate for its clerical audiences.

Oresme continued the academic format of the Latin Aristotle translations and in doing so appropriated for the vernacular their authoritative status.[25] He was aware of the tension between the richness of the Latin sources and the limitations of the vernacular. In re-presenting Aristotle to a new and well-defined lay audience, he had a definite didactic goal.[26] Among his problems was making the works intelligible in a language that lacked conceptual, syntactic, and lexical subtlety. In the "Excusacion et commendacion de ceste oeuvre" (Apologia for and justification of this work) Oresme states: "Et comme il soit ainsi que latin est a present plus parfait et plus habondant langage que françois, par plus forte raison l'en ne pourroit translater proprement tout latin en françois" (And if it is the case that Latin is at present a more perfect and richer language than French, it is all the


more obvious that one could not translate all of Latin into French).[27] Furthermore, the Aristotelian works require understanding of a technical philosophical and political terminology. The translator acknowledges the difficulty in another passage of the "Excusacion":

D'autre partie, une science qui est forte quant est de soy ne puet pas estre bailliee en termes legiers a entendre. Mais y convient souvent user de termes ou de moz propres en la science qui ne sont pas communelment entendus ou cogneüs de chascun. Mesmement quant elle n'a autre fois esté traictiee et excercee en tel langage. Et telle est ceste science ou regart de françois.

(On the other hand, a science that is difficult in itself cannot be rendered in terms easy to understand. But it is often appropriate to use terms or words proper to the discipline which are not commonly understood or known to everyone, especially when it has not already been treated and handled in such a language. And such is this discipline in regard to French.)[28]

Oresme was faced with a not unusual conflict between adhering to the literal meaning of the Latin translations, which were often obscure in themselves, and presenting a clear, if more general, sense of the texts. He puts the problem this way:

Par quoy je doy estre excusé en partie se je ne parle en ceste matiere si proprement, si clerement et si ordeneement comme il fust mestier; car, avec ce, je ne ose pas esloingnier mon parler du texte de Aristote, qui est en pluseurs lieux obscur, afin queje ne passe hors son intencion et que je ne faille.

(For which reason I am to be excused in part if I do not express myself as appropriately, as clearly, and as methodically as is required; for in matters like these I do not dare to depart from Aristotle's text, which is often obscure, lest I go beyond his meaning or fall short of it.)[29]

Oresme took up this challenge in several ways. To enrich the vernacular vocabulary, he introduced over 450 neologisms.[30] Many were calques , Latin adaptations of Greek words provided with French endings.[31] Oresme also used double translations, a method of explanation that provided synonyms connected by a conjunction. He occasionally added an exposition of short phrases or clauses, as well as a gloss that further defines a word, its etymology, or both.[32] In some instances he omits passages from the text and makes changes to simplify and clarify the Latin translation. Oresme followed the pattern of the medieval translator who, in offering a replacement text, was "master of the author."[33] His glosses and commentaries were primary vehicles of his authorial identity.


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