24 September 2021
To coincide with the British Library's exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, we've put together a series of blog posts about a few other bears (fictional and real) from the collections.
Eleanor O’Kane in her collection of medieval Spanish proverbs musters 21 dogs, 19 wolves, nine lions and one lonely bear.
Felipe Maldonado in his compilation of printed Spanish proverb books of the early modern period has captured 23 dogs, 14 wolves, two lions and no bears
The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs has tamed 176 dogs, 40 wolves, nine lions and a magnificent 23 bears.
Now, I’ve not been very careful with my sums, and the actual data can be misleading, but it’s very interesting to me that the order of the beasts is the same in all three sources.
Bear with bees and bee hives, Harley 3448, f.10v
You might recognize some English bears:
Like a bear to an honey-pot
As cross as a bear with a sore head
To sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear
Call the bear ‘uncle’ till you are safe across the bridge (‘an excellent Turkish proverb’, according to the Times Weekly of 1912)
But what of their solitary Spanish cousin?
The proverb occurs in the Poema de Alfonso Onceno (Epic of Alfonso XI). He reigned 1312-50, and the Poema was probably written by some tame court poet for propaganda purposes. It was never finished, which suggests that the poet wrote until the patronage was cut off at the king’s death.
First page of ‘Poema de Alfonso Onceno’. Source: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes
Picture the scene: the year is 1350. Alfonso (Castile) is fighting Yusuf I (Granada) allied with Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman (Morocco) for Gibraltar. The siege was dragging on, and the Granadan and Moroccan leaders were considering a settlement involving the surrender of castles and tribute. We are at their council of war:
Este rey luego provemos
Que dexe aquesta guerra
Mensageros le enbiemos,
Que salga de nuestra tierra.
E diga que le daremos
Buenos castillos fronteros.
La costa la pagaremos
En doblas e en dineros …
E de fanbre muy cuytados
Ayna se bençeran
E nos seremos honrrados.
Fablo el rey de Granada
E dixo: ‘Mal rasca el oso’ (Janer stanzas 2372-77)
Let us test this king immediately
To abandon this war;
Let us send him messengers
That he leave our land;
And tell him we will give him
Good frontier castles.
We will pay him tribute
In doubloons and dinars.
They are impoverished
And stricken with hunger;
They will be soon defeated
And we will be honoured.
The king of Granada spoke
And said: ‘Ill scratches the bear’.
Translated by Barry Taylor
He continues at length, and Yusuf I and Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman change tack.
I’m sure ‘Ill scratches the bear’ refers to a bear scratching his back on a tree. I suppose it means something like ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree’.
As I say, it’s unique in Old Spanish. It could conceivably reflect an Arabic proverb. And it needn’t be an existing proverb but a newly minted coinage.
But all bears are precious, especially to the paremiologist.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Eleanor S. O’Kane, Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la Edad Media (Madrid, 1959) X.900/4431.
Felipe C. R. Maldonado, Refranero clásico español (Madrid, 1970) X19/7679
F. P. Wilson, Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (Oxford 1970) X.981/1907.
‘Poema de Alfonso Onceno’, ed. F. Janer in Poetas castellanos anteriores al s. XV (Madrid, 1864) 12232.f.1/57. Available online
More bear-themed posts from the European Studies blog:
31 August 2021
As we come to the end of Women in Translation Month 2021, this blog post brings together three books by women authors in translation from across Europe.
Mercè Rodoreda, In Diamond Square, translated by Peter Bush (London, ). ELD.DS.1778
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies
Written when its author was still living in exile, Mercè Rodoreda’s novel tells the story of a young woman in working-class Barcelona from the early 1930s to the aftermath of Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. At a dance in the Square, the impressionable Natàlia meets a confident young man, Quimet, and soon falls under his spell. He insists that she will be his wife within a year and on giving her the nickname ‘Pidgey’. Inevitably they do marry, and they have two children. However, Quimet now earns little as a carpenter and decides to rear pigeons in their flat. Natàlia takes on work as a cleaner in a middle-class household, adding to the burden of her own housework.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Quimet goes off to fight on the Republican side and is killed. The full impact of the conflict is now conveyed as food and fuel run short. Natàlia loses her job and sends her son away to a camp for refugee boys to ensure he will be fed. After being forced to sell all her possessions to survive, she finally contemplates suicide for herself and her children. However, a providential conversation with a local grocer, who offers her work, saves her. The pair get married and Natàlia achieves an accommodation with the possibilities offered by her new existence.
Rodoreda’s first-person narrative effectively conveys the experiences and reactions of a woman initially unprepared for marriage in a male-dominated society. It also graphically documents the resilience required of ordinary people during war. The final chapters articulate the trauma of coming to terms with the past.
First published in 1962, La plaça del Diamant has now been translated into English three times and into more than twenty other languages. It remains one of the most successful works of Catalan fiction.
Mercè Rodoreda, La plaça del Diamant (Barcelona, 1962) 11303.n.12
Mercè Rodoreda, The Pigeon Girl, trans. Eda O’Shiel (London, 1967) X.909/10529
Mercè Rodoreda, The Time of the Doves, trans. David H. Rosenthal (New York, 1980)
Christine Brückner, Desdemona – if you had only spoken! Eleven uncensored speeches of eleven incensed women, translated by Eleanor Bron (London, 1992) YK.1993.a.5906
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Romance Collections
The prolific and successful German writer Christine Brückner published this collection of dramatic monologues in 1983, giving voices to well-known fictional and historical women, from Clytemnestra to Gudrun Ensslin. Some, like Katharina Luther, address their husbands. Others speak to other women, including Brückner herself criticising the overly-idealistic utopianism of 19th-century reformer Malwida von Meysenbug. In the title monologue, Desdemona’s willingness to confront Othello’s suspicions changes her fate: he listens and they reconcile. In other stories, the women reflect on their lives and situations, speaking as much to themselves as to any imagined interlocutor.
In the introduction to her English translation, the actor Eleanor Bron explains how “during the interval of a dreary play” in Hamburg she saw photographs from a production of the pieces and was immediately intrigued. She bought Brückner’s book and resolved to resurrect the German she had studied at university to prepare a translation, an experience she describes both entertainingly and insightfully.
Daniela Hodrová, Prague. I See a City. Translated by David Short; Foreword by Rajendra Chitnis. 2nd rev. ed. (Folkestone, 2015). Awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
Have you ever been to Prague? If you have visited this wonderful city, you have probably noticed that Prague radiates some magical gleam that is not always easy to catch. Prague has its own unique charm and opens up to those who care to enquire about its history and character. While wandering through the streets of Prague, which guidebook did you have in your hands: Lonely Planet, Eyewitness Travel, or Rough Guides? Maybe, next time you can take Prague. I See a City by Daniela Hodrová.
Born in 1946 in Prague, Hodrová is one of the most distinct and original authors in contemporary Czech literature. Being a literary scholar by training and working as a researcher, she is very aware of rich literary traditions and techniques, as well as theoretical issues of aesthetics, theology and philosophy. Prague. I See a City is a very stylish and moving description of the city through a woman’s eyes. The author takes her readers through the city of her life. It is full of love and dreams, sounds of music and every-day scenes. Written straight after the November 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (translated into English in 2011), the book is a poetic meditation on the history of the country and how this is reflected in a woman's life and in the city itself: “City of torment! City of puppets! City of Monsters! In all likelihood I am partly to blame for your awakening, I have brought you to life with words.”
16 July 2021
In the past authors were commonly men of means, churchmen or the servants of great houses. In times nearer our own they’ve had to turn to working in offices.
Poet Laureate Simon Armitage worked in the probation service, and describes how when looking over his papers, now in the Brotherton Library in the University of Leeds, he found drafts he’d written on the back of probation service stationery.
Spain’s greatest Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-70) lived and wrote the life romantic. He took a copyist’s job in the Dirección de Bienes Nacionales. When the boss went on a parish visit he found Bécquer drawing.
‘What’s this?’ he asked.
Without looking up, and assuming he was talking to one of his comrades, Bécquer said, ‘It’s Ophelia, scattering her garland. And the man is her grave-digger.’
He was sacked on the spot. (López Núñez, pp. 28-29)
J.-K. Huysmans was a junior clerk in the French Ministry of the Interior for 32 years, writing reports for the Sureté Générale:
On the stroke of eleven, he arrived at the offices of the Sureté Générale in the Rue des Saussaies. Here he spent the next six hours, copying out official letters, adding up columns of figures, and – like so many other young writers employed in various French ministries – working on his own books and articles. (Baldick, p. 66)
Statue of Fernando Pessoa, by sculptor Lagoa Henriques, outside Café A Brasileira in Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Fernando Pessoa too lived the life of the pen-pusher, living in digs and eating in cafés. His command of English, nurtured during his boyhood in South Africa, qualified him well for commercial correspondence. (He presented his English poems, with his compliments, to five libraries in Britain, including the then British Museum Library (C.127.c.30).)
A case even nearer home was Sir Henry Thomas. He took a PhD. in French at Birmingham and was recruited to the BML in 1903 and put to cataloguing its early Spanish books. He served the BML in peace and war, giving a radio talk on Cervantes contra Hitler in 1943 (012301.m.49).
Portrait of Sir Henry Thomas by Walter Stoneman, 1938. © National Portrait Gallery, London
He was also a literary scholar of accomplishment, author of Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry (1920), still used today. Margaret Drabble in her life of Angus Wilson rather dismissively says:
Henry Thomas, Hispanologist, bachelor and bibliographer, was Deputy Keeper: he was a devoted pilgrim on the road to Santiago de Compostela, and wrote about miracles, translated his own work into Spanish, and was suspected of being very pro-Franco. (p. 80)
He studied early English translations of Góngora, and was himself a published translator. His Star of Seville (La estrella de Sevilla), from the Spanish of Lope de Vega (or at least attributed to him) came out in 1935.
Title page of The Star of Seville (Newtown: Gregynog Press, 1935) C.102.e.16.
And here I can put on record that I’ve seen the rough draft which he wrote on the back of the eggshell-blue title slips which were used for cataloguing in the BML.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Simon Armitage, ‘Writing was just for fun then’, Guardian, 19 Sept 2020
Juan López Núñez, Bécquer: biografía anécdótica (Madrid, 1916) 10632.p.28
Robert Baldick, The Life of J.-K. Huysmans (Oxford, 1955) 010665.f.94
R. W. Howes, ‘Fernando Pessoa, Poet, Publisher, and Translator’, British Library Journal, 9: 2, 1983, pp. 161-70 http://www.bl.uk/eblj/1983articles/pdf/article12.pdf
Victor Scholderer, ‘Henry Thomas, 1878-1952’, Proceedings of The British Academy, 40 (1954), 241-46.
Margaret Drabble, Angus Wilson: A Biography (London, 1996) YC.1997.a.399
14 December 2020
‘If we should not judge books by their cover, can we judge people by their clothes?’ In anticipation of the fashion competition due to be launched by the British Library and British Fashion Council in the New Year, here are some thoughts on the importance of fashion. For those looking for the inspiration, it can be found anywhere: mythology, paintings, even literature.
In mythology, Strife threw an apple marked ‘To the fairest’ among three goddesses: Juno (queen of the divinities), Pallas Minerva (goddess of war and learning) and Venus (goddess of love). To settle the matter they went to the shepherd Paris, who reasonably said he couldn’t judge their beauty with their clothes on.
For the artists of the Renaissance such as Rubens, this was an excellent excuse for studies in the nude.
The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens
But not everyone thought like Rubens. One contemporary critic said that Rubens had made the goddesses ‘too naked’.
Among the poets, Ovid has no description of the goddesses. Fifteen hundred or so years later the Valencian poet Joan Roís de Corella wrote his version of the Judgment of Paris. Corella (or doubtless his sources) tells it as follows.
Paris says, ‘It will not be possible for me to judge this case unless I can contemplate your persons without any veil …’
First up is Pallas Minerva, who says,
‘As the ambition of vanity of human praise has captured us and made us subject to the judgment of this young man, we are obliged to obey the laws which he as judge determines.’
And, while talking, she began to untie the belt of a skirt of dark red damask, whose decoration was picked out with great skill in emeralds, which, mixed with sapphires, dazzling human sight, transported her from this world. And the skirt was sprinkled with foliage of green and fertile olive; the olives, covered with black and green enamels, which invited the viewers to stretch out their hands to take the fruit of the painted tree. And on her shoes, of purple satin, were embroidered sharp-flowered thistles, which made show of true spikes, so that you would not dare to pick the raised olives from the broad skirt. And a motto in golden letters among the thorns clearly read, ‘Open your eyes to the harm which can ensue.’ And the excellent queen bore on her bosom a gleaming carbuncle which hung from her neck on a cord of golden thread, so fine that human sight could grasp only its colour and not its quantity.
The other goddesses follow suit. Juno feels that as queen of Olympus she shouldn’t have to demean herself before younger women: but she still wants to be the fairest. Venus locks eyes with Paris as she drops her cloak. You’ll remember that Venus cheated by promising Paris Helen of Troy. And that led to the Trojan War.
Detail of a miniature of the Judgement of Paris, between Athena, Juno and Venus, in Christine de Pizan ‘L’Épître Othéa’. Harley 4431, f. 128v
So it’s clear that although Paris thought the goddesses’ beauty was in their bodies, for Corella their clothes were much more worthy of attention. I think this isn’t unusual in medieval texts, probably because the medievals thought clothes could bear social or symbolic meaning which bodies couldn’t. Corella says nothing about the body, he says little about the cut of the clothes (which by the way are medieval rather than classical), he says little about the cloth that makes the clothes, but says a lot about the metals and jewels which adorn them, and even endows each garment with a verbal message picked out in gold.
So that’s the importance of fashion.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Joan Roís de Corella, Proses mitològiques, ed. J. L. Martos (Alacant, 2001) YA.2002.a.20285
Marisa Astor Landete, Valencia en los siglos XIV y XV: indumentaria e imagen (Valencia, 1999) YA.2002.a.17891
Isidra Maranges i Prat, La indumentària civil catalana, segles XIII-XV (Barcelona, 1991) Ac.138.dc.
Fashion competition details will be available in January, via this link, which also has information about previous years’ competitions and related activities.
05 November 2020
Frederick William Cosens (1819-89) began his working life aged 17 when he joined the sherry firm of Pinto Pérez in London as an invoice clerk. It was the start of a highly successful business career. In 1848, he set up his own sherry export-import company, based in London and with bodegas in Jerez and Puerto de Santa María. Then, in 1862, he entered the port wine business in partnership with the London-based firm Da Silva. In 1877, Silva & Cosens merged with the prestigious Dow & Co. Cosens’ income allowed him to build up substantial collections of fine art, printed books and manuscripts. At his death, these were auctioned at five sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s catalogue of Cosens’ printed books highlighted ‘Spanish and Portuguese literature, and numerous publications relating to Cervantes, Calderón, Lope de Vega… standard works by English and foreign writers…’. He also owned books on Spanish painting, Peninsular history, travel accounts and an extensive collection of Spanish chapbooks. Arguably, drama held the greatest attraction for him, notably Shakespeare and the Spanish theatre of the Golden Age. Dickens, Cervantes and Galdós were among his favourite novelists. He also contributed articles and reviews to the Athenaeum and Notes and Queries on a range of Spanish topics, plus not a few on Shakespeare.
Frederick Cosens’ bookplate. The plate appears in many of Cosens' books acquired by the BL.
Cosens was also active as a translator. He produced English versions of two 17th-century Spanish plays on the legend of Romeo and Juliet: Lope de Vega’s Castelvines y Monteses and Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona. These were privately published in 1869 and 1874 respectively. His treatment of the two plays was very different. Cosens translated the whole of Lope’s play into English verse, while of Los bandos he put into verse only ‘such portions … as bear some reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy’. He regarded Lope’s play as superior to Rojas Zorrilla’s and provided only necessary linking passages in prose in the latter.
English translations of the two Spanish plays were among Cosens’ manuscripts auctioned at Sotheby’s in July 1890. The manuscript of Castelvines is held by the library of the University of Pennsylvania, while that of Los bandos is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. The latter is written in an even copperplate hand and is evidently the fair copy of a close literal translation in prose. The published version, however, is very different, both in the summary passages in prose, and also in the selected passages of verse. The style of the latter is highly poetic.
Title page of the Sotheby sale catalogue of Cosens’ manuscripts (1890) SC.Sotheby
Cosens’ library also contained copies of translations into English prose of other Spanish literary works. These included poems by Lope de Vega, Spanish ballads, Gonzalo de Berceo’s life of Santo Domingo de Silos and the medieval Spanish epic, the Poema de Mio Cid. The evidence of the literal prose translation of Los bandos suggests that it was the first step in a process that ended with the published text. Except for a version of a tale from Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor, Cosens published no other translations, although he evidently did intend to publish a version of the Poema de Mio Cid, but stopped when John Ormsby’s was published in 1879. His interest in the medieval narrative works has rarely been commented upon and the location of the translation of Berceo’s Vida de Santo Domingo is – as far as I know – unknown. There also remains the question whether Cosens himself was responsible for the prose translations or whether he employed someone to produce them as the basis of potential literary versions.
Cosens’ interest in Spanish literature and art began most probably in Spain in the course of his business career. His collection of Spanish books had begun by 1854 when he sent a list of some 500 books to the Orientalist and scholar, Pascual de Gayangos, who later would catalogue the Spanish-language manuscripts of the British Museum Library. Gayangos commented that Cosens subsequently acquired many more excellent books. Some of these could be those that he purchased at important auction sales, e.g. those of Lord Stuart de Rothesay (1855) and Richard Ford (1861). Gayangos’s role in Cosens’ development should not be underestimated. He continued to advise and assist him in the acquisition of Spanish books, as he did with notable Hispanic scholars including Stirling-Maxwell, Ticknor and William H. Prescott. It was Gayangos who, together with his son-in-law, J.F. Riaño, selected and had transcribed for Cosens documents from the archive of the Conde de Gondomar, Spanish Ambassador to London (1613-18, 1619-22), held at the Archivo General de Simancas.
When Cosens’ library was sold at Sotheby’s in 1890, Gayangos purchased a number of the Spanish manuscripts and considerably more of the printed books. These were acquired for the Spanish national library following Gayangos’ own death in 1897. The British Museum purchased 37 printed books in Spanish, the majority published in the 19th century. Henry Spencer Ashbee purchased 15 items related to Cervantes, all of which came to the British Museum Library with his bequest of 1900. Just one Spanish manuscript – an account of the reign of Felipe V - was purchased, although the transcriptions of Gondomar’s papers were acquired for the Public Record Office.
Geoff West, formerly Lead Curator Hispanic Collections
Santiago Santiño, Pascual de Gayangos. Erudición y cosmopolitismo en la España del siglo XIX (Pamplona, 2018) YF.2018.a.9696
Barry Taylor & Geoffrey West, ‘The Cervantes Collection of Henry Spencer Ashbee in the British Library’, in Studies in Spanish Literature in Honor of Daniel Eisenberg, ed. Tom Lathrop (Newark, DE, 2009), pp. 337-61. YD.2009.a.4481
Geoff West, ‘The Acquisition of Spanish Chapbooks by the British Museum Library in the Nineteenth Century: Owners, Dealers and Donors’, in El libro español en Londres..., ed. Nicolás Bas Martín y Barry Taylor (Valencia, 2016), pp. 61-80. YF.2017.a.19281
30 October 2020
When we think of early modern Spain as a mediator between East and West it’s normally with reference to Muslim-Christian relations.
But Juan González de Mendoza (1545-1618) was responsible for supplying Europe with information about the Far East. Like many an early modern travel writer, he was a member of a religious order (in his case the Augustinians) engaged in missionary work. And like some travel writers (Marco Polo, anyone?) he never went to the country involved.
He was selected by Philip II for an ambassadorial mission to China. He set off from Spain in 1580, and got as far as Mexico with the intention of proceeding via the Philippines to China. The journey was aborted by unrest in the Philippines and González de Mendoza returned to Spain in 1583 and thence to Rome, where Pope Gregory XIII commissioned his account of China, published in Rome in Spanish in 1585.
He therefore based his book on other travellers’s accounts, including that of the Francisan friar Martín Ignacio.
Title-page of La historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de China (Valencia, 1585), 1434.a.19
La historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de China describes the geography, produce, religion, politics and maritime activities of the Chinese. Christian missions are to the fore, a typical emphasis from a cleric of his time.
After the appearance of the Spanish edition of 1585, it was quickly translated into Italian in 1586 (146.a.16), French in 1588 (1313.c.3), English in 1588 (583.c.21), German from the Italian in 1589 (583.c.24(2)), and Latin from the German in 1589 (804.a.43(1)).
The speed of translation demonstrates the hunger in Europe for news of China.
Curiously, Hakluyt didn’t include it his Voyages as he avoided reprinting already known works and Robert Parkes’s English version had been issued in 1588 (Quinn, I, 215).
Charles Boxer praises González de Mendoza to the skies:
One of the outstanding ‘best-sellers’ of the sixteenth century … It is probably no exaggeration to say that Mendoza’s book had been read by the majority of well-educated Europeans at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Its influence was naturally enormous, and it is not surprising to find that men like Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh derived their notions of China and the Chinese primarily, if not exclusively, from this work’ (Boxer, p. xvii).
So here is a field of knowledge to which Spain’s contribution was hugely influential in its time, shaping western views of China for decades to come.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
C. R. Boxer, South China in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1953) Ac.6172/148.
Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo Go to China? (London, 1995) YC.1996.a.647
David B. Quinn, The Hakluyt Handbook (London, 1974) HLR 910.92
Diccionario biográfico español (Madrid, 2009- ) HLR 920.046
07 October 2020
We’re all too young to remember this joke from ITMA.
Posh lady: ‘There’s nothing my little Jimmy likes better than snuggling up in front of the fire with Enid Blyton.’
Louche voice: ‘Beats reading any day.’
Authors are often conflated with their books, sometimes through ignorance. In the Middle Ages Policraticus/Policratus was often cited as an author rather than the work by John of Salisbury.
Other authors made a point of naming their books after themselves: Orme (the 12th-century Augustinian) called his exegetical work Ormulum.
Thiss boc iss nemmnedd. orrmulum; / Forr tha orrm itt wrohhte.
[This book is named Ormulum; for that Orme it wrote.]
Similarly, Emmanuele Tesauro named his biblical compendium the Handy Treasury, so that on the title page it came out as Emmanuelis Thesauri Thesaurus Manualis. Manuel and Manual of course aren’t related. But note that crazy chiasmus.
Title-page of Thesauro Manual en el Conde Manuel Thesauro … (Madrid, 1674) 4226.dd.33
When Dutch mapmaker Jacob Aertsz Colom wanted a title for an atlas to guide the seafarer, he thought back to his Bible reading and recalled Exodus 13:21-22. When Pharoah let the Israelites go they went out:
through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea … And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. (King James Bible)
And so Colom called his book De Vyerighe Colom (Amsterdam, 1654; Maps C.8.c.3.), translated into English in 1648 as Upright fyrie colomne … wherein are described and lively portrayed all the coasts of the west, north and east seas.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
11 September 2020
The English are often portrayed as reluctant learners of foreign languages. However, there have been exceptions. One such was Edward Spencer Dodgson, who successfully mastered the Basque language. Spoken today by some 850,000 people on both sides of the western Pyrenees in Spain and France, euskera, as it is known to native speakers, presents great difficulties for the would-be learner. It is an isolate, unrelated to any living language, while its origins are lost in prehistory. Thus, apart from borrowings, its vocabulary consists of words totally without cognates, while its grammar is unlike those of the Romance and Germanic languages. Moreover, in Dodgson’s time the challenge was all the greater, for no standard form of the language existed until the creation of euskera batua by the Basque language academy in the 1970s.
The third of nine children, Edward Spencer Dodgson was born in Woodford, Essex, on 18 November 1857 to well-to-do parents. He went up to New College, Oxford, where he gained a third class BA in Classical Moderations in 1877, although there is no evidence that he completed his degree. It appears nonetheless that he continued his studies, probably supported by money received from his family. In 1886, the course of his life changed irrevocably during a visit to the Basque Country after which, in his own words, he became ‘a devout disciple’ of Basque. He started to learn the language, later attending the classes of the eminent Basque philologist, Resurrección María Azkue, just at a time when scholarly study of the language was increasing.
Portrait of Edward Spencer Dodgson (1857-1922). Source: Wikimedia Commons
Dodgson later returned to Oxford where he was registered at Jesus College from 1901 to 1918. His choice was surely determined by the fact that Sir John Rhŷs, the first Professor of Celtic at the University, was a Fellow at Jesus. Dodgson also had an interest in Celtic languages and recommended the sound recording of Manx. Basque and Celtic languages had often been linked at Oxford, although there is no evidence that Dodgson sought to relate them. He concentrated on the Basque language itself rather than speculating on distant relationships with other languages.
Dodgson contributed to the renewal of Basque studies as a linguist and as the editor-publisher of key early texts in the language. He regarded as his major contribution to Basque philology his concordance of the forms of the verb in the Basque New Testament in the version of Joannes Leizarraga (1571). He published the concordance between 1890 and 1915 in a labyrinthine series of articles and more substantial volumes. The latter he largely financed himself with the assistance of friends and of his brothers. Favourable comments about one of the volumes surely contributed to his being awarded an Honorary MA by Oxford in 1907. However, his editions of early Basque texts were arguably the more significant, as they made these works accessible once again.
Dodgson’s enthusiasm for the Basque language went beyond his own work and publications. In 1892 and 1899, he published two supplements of additions and corrections to Julien Vinson’s fundamental bibliography of the language (1891, 1898). Indeed, his interest in bibliography took active form in the tireless acquisition of publications in and about the language. As he travelled around the Basque Country, he bought, or was given, many books. The majority were inexpensive, recent, small-format publications, but invaluable in documenting the bibliographic history of the language. After Dodgson’s death in 1922, his brother, Campbell, gave a collection of 218 Basque ‘items’ to the Library of the British Museum. However, for Dodgson, book collecting was a two-way process. From 1891 until 1911, he sent a stream of publications to the British Museum Library consisting mostly of books of poetry, catechisms and lives of saints. Almost all bear his handwritten dedication to the Museum and several also record his own comments and, on occasion, rude criticisms. Another habit was to attach additional material: newspaper articles, other texts and even his reader’s ticket.
Similar donations were received by other libraries: the National Library of Wales, the Bibliothèque de Bayonne and, most notably, a number of Oxford libraries. His motive for these donations was undoubtedly to make them available in libraries that might not otherwise have acquired them, or even have known of their existence.
Euskara o el baskuenze en 120 lecciones, Bilbao,  (British Library shelfmark 12978.c.38.(1.). Dodgson refers to the author’s ‘bad Basque and silly Castilian’. He has also attached his British Museum reader’s ticket.
Economic necessity limited Dodgson’s ability to donate copies of his own works to as many libraries as he would have wished. The British Museum acquired all his publications via Legal Deposit or by purchase, but rarely by donation, while continental libraries either purchased them or received them as donations. Here, however, his motive was self-promotion and Dodgson undoubtedly held his own abilities in high regard. He was especially determined that the volumes of concordances to Leizarraga’s New Testament reached the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. When in early 1916, he had not received an acknowledgment of the receipt of the last these, published in 1915, he wrote to the Librarian enquiring about this omission. He adds that he has already received the grateful thanks of the Conde de las Navas for the copy sent to the library of the Royal Palace. Dodgson’s enthusiasm for the Basque language was considerable. However, his obsessive concern for his own self-image unfortunately permeates much of his correspondence.
Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies
Goio Bañales, Mikel Gorrotxategi. ‘Edward Spencer Dodgson (1857-1922). Recopilación de sus publicaciones en prensa diaria’, in Euskera. Euskaltzaindiaren lan eta agiriak = Trabajos y actas de la Real Academia de la Lengua Vasca, 49, no. 1 (2004), 265-349. P.981/93., and available online. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=1088003
Julio de Urquijo, ‘Vascófilos ingleses. A propósito de “Un libro de los vascos” de Rodney Gallop’, Revista Internacional de Estudios Vascos, 25 (1934), 201-24, 605-21 (pp. 211-24, 605-15). PP.4331.aeb
Geoffrey West, ‘Edward Spencer Dodgson, The Basque Language, and the British Museum Library’, eBLJ (forthcoming)
31 July 2020
Fray Manuel de Vega translated the biography of Ludovico Sforza from the Italian of Diego (i.e. Giacomo) Monti in 1699. It recounts Sforza’s life as a warning against overwhelming ambition. (The Library of Catalonia holds a digitised copy)
Fr.Manuel opens his Prologue to the reader with meditations on idleness, identified by authorities with the sin of sloth alias acedia and by the early moderns with melancholy. It is, he says, particularly pernicious for those who live in solitude. (He was a member of the Order of St Benedict.) ‘Virtue has no greater enemy than idleness’. It lets in the Devil through the gates of the Imaginativa.
Opening of the prologue to Manuel de Vega, El ambicioso politico infeliz: descrito y representado en la vida de Ludovico Esforcia (Barcelona, 1699) [Awaiting shelfmark]
This is familiar territory with an early Christian and medieval history, studied by Siegfried Wenzel and others.
While most translators devoted their prologues to flattering their patrons or potential patrons, Fr. Manuel gives his a twist by recommending translation as a cure for such melancholy. He made good use of his ‘descanso’ [leisure], which was caused by ‘un desengaño que me bolviò a mi retiro’, a ‘disappointment which returned me to my retreat’.
He is by nature opposed to translations (he lards his prologue with untranslated Latin quotes), as traduttore traditore. He uses a striking image of the Spanish language: ‘nunca un cuerpo estrangero, por galan que fuesse en su trage, pudo acomodarse al nuestro, sin que quite algo del espiritu a la gala y gentileza que a nuestra Nacion son tan propias’ (‘a foreign body, however splendidly arrayed, could never match the grace of ours’).
But the book is useful, he says, more useful than some because it is both history and morality, and deserves to be widely known. (I wonder if he is thinking of the large number of works of fiction such as Boccacesque novelle, which were translated into Spanish from Italian.) He attacks those critics who ‘lounging in the midden of idleness’ (‘repantigado en el estrecolar [read estercolar] del ocio’) satirized others’ efforts, accusing them of vanity.
He praises two translators whose work is so brilliant that one cannot tell which is the original: Cristóbal de Figueroa and Juan de Jáuregui, verse translators of Guarini’s Il pastor fido and Lucan’s Pharsalia respectively. He admits he is not in the same class. He comments that each language has its excellences which are hard to render, particularly puns (equívocos). (Remember this is the age of Góngora, Quevedo and the Metaphysicals.) He, like many a translator such as Alfred the Great, has followed a middle course between the spirit and the letter, where usage allows.
Engraving of Don Quixote in the printing shop. From Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (Madrid, 1853-1854) Source: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes
Finally, he admits that Spaniards find it easy to understand and speak Italian, especially with the aid of Latin. But this does not mean that they can translate it so easily. Cervantes touches on this question in Don Quixote, II, lxii. Quixote visits a printing house in Barcelona where he has a discussion with a man who is translating from the Italian. There’s obviously some irony, as Quixote (who is a sophisticated man of letters if you keep him off the romances of chivalry) is delighted to hear that più has been translated as más and su as arriba.
In a final phrase, Fr Manuel says the translator is like an acrobat (bolteador): if he does it well he earns a pittance (medio real) and praise, and if he does it badly he falls from the tightrope and breaks his neck.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Siegfried Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth: Acadia in Medieval Thought and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967) X.950/9274.
23 April 2020
Cover of Swallows and Floating Horses (details below)
Frisian is the language closest related to English. As the old saying goes: ‘Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Friese’. In Frisian this reads as ‘Bûter, brea en griene tsiis, etc.’
Otherwise Frisian and English are each other’s opposites. For a long time, Frisian was scarcely written down. Over the centuries it has stubbornly refused to die out, but it has changed with the times and is as strong now as ever. It is now the second official language of the Netherlands.
The above image is from Swallows and Floating Horses: An Anthology of Frisian Literature (London, 2019, awaiting shelfmark), published last year by Francis Boutle as part of their series ‘Lesser Used Languages of Europe’. It covers 1,000 years of Frisian poetry and prose, in English and Frisian. In February 2019 at UCL it was presented to the British public, with Frisian poet Tsead Bruinja, currently Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, performing some of his poems. You can read and listen to his poem, ‘Gers dat Alfêst Laket’ (Grass that’s Started Laughing) from Swallows and Floating Horses here.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
Cover of Sovremennaia literatura narodov Rossii. Poeziia. Antologiia (Moscow, 2017). YF.2019.b.1108
In 2017, the well-known Moscow publishing house OGI (The United Humanitarian Publishing House) published a really unique book – an anthology of poetry in 57 minority languages spoken in the Russian Federation in original languages and Russian translations (BL YF.2019.b.1108). The editor of the volume was Maksim Amelin, himself a poet, translator, publisher and literary critic. In the foreword to the book, it is compared to an encyclopaedia of living national languages, cultures and worldviews. Here you can see several pages of this book and read poems (alongside their translations into Russian) by:
- Anisa Kettunen, who writes in Finnish. Although 5.4 million people in the world are native speakers of Finnish, it is a minority language in the Russian Federation, where we see permanent decrease in the use of the Finnish as a native language.
- Pimagomed Aslanov and Giulbika Omarova, whose poetry represents 129,000 speakers of the Tabasaran language from the Lezghin group of the Nakh-Dagestan language family. Apparently, this is one of the most difficult languages to learn.
- Georgii Tsvetkov and Radmira Bogdanova – two poets who use for their creative expression the North Russian dialect of the Romani language. 128,000 people speak the Romani language in Russia.
- Brontoi Bediurov, who in his native Altai language created a ritual verse on the spring worship to the Holy mountain Babyrgan.Altai,
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
Cover of People like us. Seļļizt nemē mēg (details below)
Livonian (līvõ kēļ or rāndakēļ), currently spoken by around 20 people (three of them poets!), is on the UNESCO list of endangered languages. For centuries it was spoken in fishing villages along the Livonian Coast of Latvia. Unlike Latvian, which is a Baltic language, Livonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family and is related to Estonian, Finnish and Karelian. Even though the last native speaker of Livonian is thought to have died in 2013, there is a sustained interest in Livonian language and culture. In 2018 the University of Latvia Livonian Institute, the first research institution solely focused on the history, culture and language of Livonia, was established. In May 2019 the Institute’s director Valts Ernštreits, who is also a poet writing in Latvian and Livonian, took part in the European Literature Night: Poetry and Performance event held at the British Library. The poem below comes from Ernštreits’ first bilingual (Livonian and English) collection of Livonian poetry People like us. Seļļizt nemē mēg, translated by Ryan Van Winkle and Ernštreits (London, 2019, awaiting shelfmark).
Siz ku kievād virgõbõd
tallõ vied allõ maggõnd līndõd,
nänt tūrgõd āt vel kažžizt,
nänt ēļ um vel kardõ,
nänt kēļ um vel ȭnõz ja vȭrõz.
Ku kivīd virgõbõd, paļļõd ja ōgizt,
ne nūzõbõd ilzõ jõugõst ja viedstõ, ja mūldast,
lougõ ja sitkõ,
addõŗi murdõs ja
kējid jālgad sil akkõs.
Nänt kēļ neku nänt eņtš sidām
vel um vizā, lǟlam ja tijā;
amād sõnād āt ūd,
set set sindõn,
set pimdõmst ulzõ tunnõd;
abbõrz sieldõm kūoŗ nēḑi katāb.
Kievād, ku lūomõd ja liestād,
pūošõd ja neitsõd
āt īdlimist jagdõd
līndõd ja kivīd rõkāndõbõd
missõn jūŗi äb ūo
äb ka tutkāmt.
In spring, birds wake
from their underwater slumber,
their feathers damp,
voices cracked and croaking
in an empty, foreign language.
Stones, naked and grey, rise up
from the sand, soil, sea – stubborn
and heavy – breaking ploughs,
getting under your feet.
Their rocky tongues,
just like their hearts, are cold
heavy and hollow. Their words;
of darkness, swaddled
in a thin, eggshell light.
In spring, when beasts and fish
and all the young men
and all the young women
get dispersed fairly and evenly
throughout the coast,
the birds and stones
speak their rootless language,
with no beginning, no end.
Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections
José María Iparraguirre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Basque, or Euskara, is a pre-Indo-European language spoken today in four provinces of Spain and three in France on both sides of the Western Pyrenees. It is an ‘isolate’, i.e. it is unrelated to any language group. Attempts have been made to find connections between Basque and an extraordinary variety of languages, living and dead. However, only the surviving fragments of Aquitanian, a language of S.W. Gaul, have revealed any meaningful coincidences.
Greater centralization after the Revolution weakened regional identity in France and minority languages suffered in consequence. In northern Spain, the fueros (local laws) were abolished in 1876. Paradoxically, Basque culture and language underwent a renaissance that lasted until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Use of the Basque language was forbidden under Franco, but it continued to be studied, initially clandestinely. Today, speakers of Basque number about 850,000. Its future is brightest in the Autonomous Community of Euskadi in Spain where it has co-official status. It is much less so in Navarra, where its status is more complex. The language is at greatest risk in the French Basque Country.
Poetry has always been a vital strand of literature in Basque. Indeed, the first book printed in the language was a collection of poems, Linguae vasconum primitiae (Bordeaux, 1545), by a parish priest, Bernart Etxepare. A feature of Basque verse, today and in the past, has been oral poetry. One of the most famous poems in the language, Jose Maria Iparragirre’s Gernikako arbola (c. 1853), is composed to a popular dance rhythm. Dedicated to the tree of Gernika, the ancient oak that symbolized the rights of the people of Bizkaia, it has become a de facto anthem of the Basque people and their aspirations. Iparragirre (1820-81) had himself been a defender of the fueros and he forms an indirect link to the cultural movement that grew up after their suppression.
The poem has 12 stanzas. We quote here the first in its original dialect spelling, as the whole poem can readily be found online:
Eman ta zabaltzazu
The Tree of Guernica
among the Basques;
Give and deliver
the fruit unto the world.
We adore you,
Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Collections
Luis de Castresana, Vida y obra de Iparraguirre. Seguida de la obra completa, original euskera y versión castellana, del autor del Gernikako Arbola (Bilbao, 1971). X.981/3103.
Nick Gardner, Basque in education, In the Basque Autonomous Community (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2000) YA.2002.a.39245.
Luis Villasante, Historia de la literatura vasca, 2nd ed. rev. ([Oñate], 1979). BL HLR 899.92
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