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NOT translating Julian of Norwich

February 16, 2013

If you had the choice between Julian of Norwich’s mystical visions directly from her – or from a long series of non-mystic intermediaries who interpreted her – which would you prefer? 

I want to read Julian’s words as directly as possible.

My co-blogger J. K. Gayle has produced one of his wonderful posts, and in part of the post he addresses a translation of Julian of Norwich by Julia Bolton Holloway.  I have not read this translation, but given Kurk’s praise, I have little doubt that it is outstanding.  In fact, I have never read a translation of Julian.  Why not?  Because for me – and for most native English readers – it is completely unnecessary – we can easily read Julian from the best surviving manuscript – the Paris Manuscript.

Norwich is a city in England, about 105 miles northeast of London.  Julian wrote in English.  To be more exact, she wrote in the Northern dialect of late Middle English – using relatively simple language.  The earliest surviving complete manuscript of Julian’s long text is the Paris Manuscript, which dates from 1580.  Here is an example:

Thus in oure Fader God almyghty we have oure beyng.  And in oure Moder of mercy we have oure reformyng and oure restoryng, in whom oure partys be onyd and all made perfyte man.  And by yeldyng and gevyng in grace of the Holy Gost we be fulfyllde.  And our substaunce is in oure Fader God almyghty, and oure substaunce is in oure Moder God all wysdom, and oure substaunce is in oure Lorde God the Holy Gost all goodness.  Four oure substaunce is hole in ech Person of the Trynyte, whych is one God.  And oure sensuallyte is only in the Seconde Person, Crist Jhesu, in whom is the Fader and the Holy Gost.  And in hym and by hym we be myghtly taken out of hell and out of the wrechydnesse in erth, and wurschypfully brought up in to hevyn, and blyssydfully onyd to oure substaunce, encresyd in rychess and nobly by all the vertu of Crist and by the grace and werkyng of the Holy Gost.

Norton famously publishes a series of critical editions of literary standards for college students – the Norton Critical Editions.  The Norton edition of Julian (edited by Denise N. Baker) is based on the Paris text (albeit with modernized punctuation) is presented here (although, where appropriate, modern alphabetic substitutions are made:  e.g.,  ȝgh, y or z; v → u; and j → i.)  The Norton edition includes glosses, but not many are needed – most pages have between five and ten glosses (many dealing with contextual material rather than vocabulary and idiom changes) per page, and the pages are densely packed.  The Norton also features “a glossary of frequently used words” but these number only about one hundred words.

Alas, this is not Julian’s original text.  The Paris manuscript already features modernized 16th century vocabulary and changes Julian’s northern dialect to a southern dialect.  It is likely based on a Tudor era manuscript from the 1530s – just before Henry VIII broke with Rome.  As a result, Julian’s text becomes almost Early Modern English and particularly easy to read.  Thus, even here, we are dealing with Julian as read by those who lived almost two centuries after her.  But the text does not require further translation.

Needless to say, this text is also much easier to read than the most famous of the Middle English authors, Geoffrey Chaucer, in part because it is prose rather than poetry and does not include the extensive wordplay that Chaucer uses (not to mention his quotation and parodying of many different genres and English dialects.)

In addition to the Paris manuscript text, the Norton includes a full introduction, “contexts” (ten pages of brief excerpts from Julian’s short text, The Book of Margery Kempe, Augustine’s Trinity, Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection, Aelred of Revaulx’s De Institutione Inclusarum, and Ancrene Wisse); modern commentary from Grace M. Jantzen, Lynn Staley Johnson, David Aers, Sandra J. McEntire, Joan M. Nuth, Caroline Walker Bynum, and B. A. Windeatt; and a bibliography.  (Kurk mentioned Holloway and Anna Maria Reynold’s SIMSEL publication of transcripts – and that is in the bibliography; but Holloway’s translation is not mentioned in the bibliography.)


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