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Lectures humanistes de Basile de Cesaree: Traductions Latines, 1439-1618.

We owe a debt to Dr Backus for her work on Basil the Great. Scholars who work on the philological activity of the Renaissance tend to concentrate either on texts written in the Renaissance itself or on classical texts. In much work on humanism the view is still current that somehow theology and humanist learning were separate, that the philological reassessment of important theological texts implied a profound contradiction between the |humanism' and theology. In fact, ancient learning was closely connected with religious concerns and much of the work of the best editorial brains of the sixteenth century went into editions and translations on the Fathers not to mention the Bible. With notable exceptions, this topic has been underrepresented in twentieth-century literature.

After a general introduction, Irena Backus deals with each of the translations which she has selected, discusses the Greek text used for that translation, and indicates the religious or political tendency as revealed by the treatment of the texts, the main aim of her study. First she discusses the editions and translations of the Opera omnia, then individual works which were translated and published separately. This means that some translators are discussed in more than one place. This forces the reader frequently to skip from one chapter of the book to another. The disadvantage caused by this is obvious, and gives the book something of the appearance of a bibliography. It might have been more helpful if the book had been organized by translator. This criticism must be balanced against the importance of seeing each work by Basil as a unit with its own problems of transmission and its own history, a fact amply brought out by Backus.

Backus examines the translations in detail, and in the course of this reveals the philological attitudes, weaknesses, and strengths of the translators. She is sceptical whether a perfect translation can be made: the balance between the de verbo ad verbum method and the periphrastic method cannot be perfectly struck. This does not mislead Backus into thinking that all translations are equally good or bad. Each translation is carefully assessed, and both competent and incompetent translators are given their due. On occasion this reminds the reader of a school teacher giving her pupils marks, and it can appear a little comical. In particular the three line conclusions on the translations of Perotti and Hegendorff of the Homilia de inuidia seem somewhat brisk.

Justification for this approach may however be found. Bessarion's poor Latin (p. 187), the lack of Greek displayed by Iacobus Faber's translation of the De ebrietate, and similarly the excessive literality of Maille who ends up writing incomprehensible Latin (p. 177) are important observations which a less explicit assessment might have failed to detect. Poor Latin was written in the Renaissance. As good Latin was of such social importance, this fact should not be overlooked by scholars discussing Latin books and their impact. On occasion, Backus' evaluation of the quality of the Latin produced by the translators is essential for understanding the sixteenth-century use of a particular translation. Despite confessional strife, a bad translation of the desired tendency could not withstand the pressure of a good translation of an opposed tendency. The surreptitious Roman use of the translations made by the Protestant Musculus is only one example (p. 75). Much of current work on the intellectual history of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is performed by scholars with no, or inadequate, knowledge of the most important languages, Latin and Greek. The sheer competence of Backus' work makes it stand out from much scholarship dealing with the Renaissance and with humanism, and it is this competence in the basic disciplines which enables her to draw her most significant conclusions.

The work which Dr Backus presents is rich in observations which go beyond the detection of religious polemical attitudes in the translations. After the discussion of each translation, many valuable insights on the problems of translations and on the often opposed solutions proposed by a large number of translators are presented as partial conclusions. In connection with the assessment of the translation of Chalkeopulos (p. 155) we find the important observation that in the Renaissance literal translations were more likely to be made by people whose Latin was less competent whereas more competent writers of Latin translated in a freer and more paraphrastic fashion. A similar observation is made (p. 135) about Franciscus Maturantius. This is highly interesting and one would liked to have seen the topic discussed in more detail. Is poor Latin a direct effect of the literal translation or does a poor Latinist prefer the literal translation to hide his own uncertainty? Observations like these occur throughout the book.

Often the conclusions after each section have much greater implications than the conclusions in the final chapter. Unfortunately they are not put to any use in the conclusion: they seem to be of little interest to Backus. She has decided (p. 9) not to discuss the observations on the theory of translations made by her translators. That may well be the reason why she seems unable to use her findings for a more wide-ranging conclusion.

There is a fundamental problem with the relationship between the book and its conclusions. In the introduction Backus explains that she has chosen only to deal with the translations which have a religious-political tendency. Straightforward translations are ignored. It becomes clear from the beginning of Backus' book that some sixteenth-century translators used Basil for their own polemical purposes, claiming his authority for their own churches. It would have thrown further light on their activities if we had been told more about the motives of the translators who had no identified bias. In the absence of a discussion of this material, it seems methodologically worrying to end with the rather feeble conclusion that translations of Basil the Great are used tendentiously.

One feels that the material, and in particular Backus' analysis of it, warrants much more than she chooses to give us, and one cannot help wondering if she has been held back by constraints which are not made explicit in the book itself. The material which Backus presents in such a lucid way indicates how the texts of Basil the Great were debated, how the interest in them was distributed in the various religious camps, and how controversy is revealed in editorial and hermeneutic practices. It is a book full of detail resulting from the close examination of the practical work of sixteenth-century scholars who are now too little known.
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Author:Jensen, Kristian
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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