Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Back Translation

Enough about fonts and all that. I have been thinking of this book on and off for a few weeks. Mission to Asia ed. by Christopher Dawson. 1966. Harper & Row. NY. Click on these images to enlarge.

This book contains the History of the Mongols by John of Plano Carpini, the letter he carried from Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan and the reply he brought back. Maybe not the reply he wanted, but a reply. It contains The Journey of William of Rubrick to the court of the Khan in China and letters of John of Monte Corvino, Brother Peregrine, Bishop of Zayton and Andrew of Perugia. Andrew of Perugia's letter (in a different translation) and tombstone can be seen here.

My copy of this book is a little dog-eared but apparently there are reprints available at I sincerely hope the reprint has the same luscious cover design by Jacqueline Shuman in a heavy and relatively durable paperback edition. I suppose that the 'Nun of Stanbrook Abbey' who translated these narratives remains unnamed.

These narratives include the first description known to the west of the Mongol Uighur script and many fascinating accounts of the struggles these ambassadors had getting their own letters from Rome translated into Mongol.

"Entering we said what we had to say on our knees; that done we delivered the letter and asked to be given interpreters capable of translating it. We were given them on Good Friday, and carefully translated the letter with them into Ruthenian, Saracenic and Tartar characters. This translation was given to Bati, who read it and noted it carefully. " p. 56

Now for the story of getting the Khan's letter translated into Latin. It happened right there in his court. He wasn't trusting the translation of his reply to a later date and interpretation. Here is the vivid account.

"On this occasion we were asked if there were any people with the Lord Pope who understood the writing of the Russians or Saracens or even of the Tartars. We gave answer that we used neither the Ruthenian nor Saracen writing; there were however Saracens in the country but they were a long way from the Lord Pope; but we said that it seemed to us that the most expedient course would be for them to write in Tartar and translate it for us, and we would write it down carefully in our script and we would take both the letter and the translation to the Lord Pope.

...the secretaries came to us and translated the letter for us word by word. When we had written it in Latin, they had it translated so that they might hear a phrase at a time, for they wanted to know if we had made a mistake in any word. When both letters were written, they made us read it once and a second time in case we had left out anything, and they said to us: "See that you clearly understand everthing, for it would be inconvenient if you did not understand everything, seeing you have to travel to such far-distant lands." When we replied "We understand everything clearly" they wrote the letter once again in Saraceic, in case anyone should be found in those parts who could read it, if the Lord Pope so wished." p.67

I would highly recommend this collection of original writings from the 13th and 14th centuries, as a counter-balance to Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. Actually one book is not a replacement for the other, they complement each other.

Addendum: I have made a little error and the pictures will not enlarge. I shall be working on correcting that. Update: Fixed.

Now I have a question. I am not sure if the Tartar script which John of Plano Carpini saw was this . He visited the court of Guyuk Khan in 1246.

Addendum: Language Hat has supplied a link to Richard Hakluyt's translation here. The characters are identified there as "Russian, Tartarian and Saracen." Thanks, LH. The text is available in Latin and English, here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Now I have a question. I am not sure if the Tartar script which John of Plano Carpini saw was this . He visited the court of Guyuk Khan in 1246."

In 1246 the Tartar script seen by John of Plano Carpini would certainly have been the Uighur-derived Mongolian script. When 60 years later John of Monte Corvino writes of having translated the New Testament and Psalms into the language and script of the Tartars he is also probably referring to the Uighur-Mongolian script (although I would love to find evidence that he actually wrote in the Phags-pa script, which surely would be a far easier script with which to represent biblical names); he also mentions that he had explanations to six illustrations to stories from the Bible engraved in Latin, Persian and Tarsic characters -- "Tarsic" apparently refers specifically to the Uighurs, which would strengthen the view that he used the Uighur-Mongolian script for translating into Mongolian.

Thanks for pointing out this book, which I would love to get my hands on -- really great cover! I'm actually just in the process of preparing to make available on my web site non-copyrighted versions of many of the letters and accounts of 13th/14th century travellers to China and Tartary.

5:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew,

Sometimes John of Plano Carpini talks about the 'Uighur' characters so I wasn't sure if what he saw in 1246 was written vertically or not. I thought it might still be a horizontal Uighur.

I look forward to reading more on your website. I hope you can get this book but it sounds as if you have many of the contents already from other sources.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Uighur characters" may still refer to the Mongolian script, in which case it will always be vertical. If he is talking about Uighur script and language, then it may have had either vertical or horizontal orientation, but unless he saw the text being written, it may have been hard to tell exactly which way round to hold the paper (vertical Uighur is just horizontal Uighur rotated 90 degrees anticlockwise).

5:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Link removed. Thanks for the Haklut translation.

11:04 AM  

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