15 November 2017

Early Modern Translations into Latin and Manuscripts as Scholarly Editions: The Case of AM 922 4to

Manuscript of the Month

When Latin rather than English was the lingua franca in Europe, scholarly versions of Icelandic sagas were made with parallel Latin translations in order to reach a wider audience. One of these is AM 922 4to written by Árni Magnússon himself.

The beginning of Hrólfs saga kraka in AM 922 4to, with the text in Icelandic on the left and in Latin on the right, copied and translated by Árni Magnússon. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

AM 922 4to is one of the thirteen manuscripts at the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen that contain texts of Hrólfs saga kraka. There is a total of seventy surviving witnesses of the text identified, four of which are also at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík, Iceland. What makes AM 922 4to stand out among these many witnesses is that this manuscript contains an unpublished Latin translation of the Icelandic Hrólfs saga kraka. Not only that, the translation is done by none other than the famous philologist and historian Árni Magnússon (1663–1730), the founder of the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection.

Árni Magnússon: Scribe, Scholar, Collector

Described as a “manuscript junkie” by modern scholars, Árni Magnússon was one of the greatest book collectors of all time. Shortly before his death, he bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to the University of Copenhagen, where he was professor of Danish antiquities. Following a decision by the Danish parliament to transfer a significant portion of the Icelandic manuscripts in Danish repositories to Iceland, the collection is now housed at the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen and the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík, as part of the University of Copenhagen and the University of Iceland respectively. The collection in its entirety consists of approximately three thousand manuscripts dated to the twelfth to eighteenth centuries. As the most significant collection in the world with regard to Nordic studies, the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in recognition of its historical value and worldwide significance in 2009.

Árni Magnússon was not only a collector of manuscript books but he was a scholar and a scribe himself. He had learned to read both Icelandic and Latin when he was a child from his grandfather, Pastor Ketill Jörundsson, teacher and rector at the cathedral school in Skálholt. Pastor Ketill, with whom Árni grew up in Hvammur, was also a scribe himself, and a number of manuscripts in his hand are still preserved in the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection. It is thought that Árni copied AM 922 4to sometime between 1675 and 1725, possibly when he was living in Copenhagen and was the assistant of the Royal Antiquarian Thomas Bartholin the younger or shortly after Bartholin’s death in 1690.

Translations from Vernacular into Latin

When it comes to medieval and early modern works, what can be classified as a translation is in fact difficult to ascertain. During the Middle Ages, and well after, many works of history and literature depended on previous ones even when the sources were not explicitly disclosed, whereas others that claimed to be translations were actually “original” creations. Indeed, another contemporary Latin translation of Hrólfs saga kraka, the Historia Hrolfi Krakii, undertaken by Torfæus (Þormóður Torfason) and published in 1705, can only be called a free adaptation.

There can be no doubt that Latin was the lingua franca in Europe well into the nineteenth century. There are many studies on translation from Latin into vernacular languages but translations into Latin are not thoroughly studied, even though most academics used Latin as the working language until the early twentieth century.

Peter Burke, for example, recently stated that he “discovered no fewer than 1,140 published translations of substantial texts by known authors between the invention of printing and the year 1799” (p. 65). As high as it may sound, this number only includes translations of texts that are by “known authors”, and not only that, but also only those translations that were printed. Therefore, it does not include translations into Latin of anonymous works such as the Icelandic sagas or those that survive only in manuscript, such as AM 922 4to.

The main reason why there were translations into Latin as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is that scholars such as Árni Magnússon wanted to make the texts more accessible to foreign scholars as well as the wider public. In the case of AM 922 4to, Árni also might have been preparing the text for publication. One interesting aspect of the manuscript is indeed its layout, in which the texts in Icelandic and Latin are copied facing each other. This makes AM 922 4to look like the modern scholarly editions such as the famous Loeb Classical Library, where the original ancient text either in Greek or Latin is found on the left-hand page with a facing translation into English on the right.

The adventures of King Hrólf kraki

Hrólfs saga kraka is considered among the Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, or the “legendary sagas” as they are known in English. The legendary sagas comprise some thirty-five late medieval Icelandic narratives that deal with the early history of Scandinavia. Narrating the events of the fifth century, Hrólfs saga kraka is thought to be composed at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The earliest manuscripts in which it is preserved, however, are from the seventeenth century. Beginning with the story of the ancestors of Hrólf kraki and the court of the Skjöldung dynasty at Hleiðargarður (modern Lejre in Denmark), the saga narrates the adventures of Hrólf kraki and his twelve champions while digressing on politics in Denmark at the time.

If you are keen to learn more about King Hrólf kraki but do not trust your Icelandic (or your Latin), you can read the story in the lingua franca of our times, in its English translation by Jesse L. Byock, published by Penguin Classics.