Metaphysics and Translating. An Exodus-quotation in Medieval Vernacular Literature

Metaphysics and Translating. An Exodus-quotation in Medieval Vernacular Literature

By Edit Anna Lukács

Skepsi, Vol.1:1 (2008)

Introduction: The Middle Ages offer a unique point of view on texts in terms of grafting and transplanting: blamed as an epoch of plagiarism, of mediocrity or even of infinite and indefinite repetitions, the identity of the authors remained often veiled, denied or had doubt cast upon it. In this context, to question an essential point of the metaphysics – the self-definition of God to be found in Exodus – is to hold a mirror to the identity of the medieval authors, translators or other followers, for whom all, God was the creator of the universe.

To open the discussion, the following question: is metaphysics dependent on the language that articulates it? From the medieval point of view, there was no place for this question, since the domination of the Latin – lingua franca of the culture and the sciences – was so strong that the situation could not broaden so far. It is during the Late Middle Ages that the facts change, that the emergence of vernacular languages leads not to the consciousness of a problematic, but to something that from a modern point of view we could call a ‘problem’, which has to be questioned and analyzed. In any case, the debate on the language of the metaphysics is one century old and the positions are as multiple as they are various. Instead of enumerating them, I propose to approach directly the question from a specific point of view: from that of medieval metaphysics and its transposition into vernacular languages.

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First of all, I intend to agree about the sense of metaphysics. The definition of metaphysics appears very condensed to Etienne Gilson, historian of medieval philosophy, of which he stated, it was the most original creation of the Middle Ages: ‘There is only one God, and this God is the being: this is the rough edged stone of the entire Christian philosophy, and not Plato, not even Aristotle, but Moses has set it down.’1 Moses set down this supposed rough edged stone in questioning the divinity on his name. The answer is well known, however it remains no less vague and no less debated in whichever language it appears: ‘I am the one who is’ (Exodus 3.14). Even if the position of Gilson consisting in giving greater importance to ‘being’ among medieval theological categories appears sometimes contentious, the importance of the divine self-definition is pointed out from earlier times: from the Church Fathers, the first self-definition of the Christian God is interpreted and explained. Following Augustine, the medieval thought transposed in God the principle of intelligible determination and of stability through the being, a principle that the classical Greek philosophy expressed by the means of the substance (ousia). Even Thomas Aquinas did not deny this medieval tradition.2 Nevertheless, he laid down the preeminence of the divine existence only with the beginning of his Summa Theologiae, although Exodus 3.14 had not had before the same significance for him. This ambiguity stands out in the whole medieval history of the Exodus quotation: this is what I want to prove here.

Detached from the context, the Exodus-revelation is in fact difficult to understand, since real parallels in the Ancient Testament or even in Hebrew literature are scarce. As a consequence of this, in particular in Antiquity, authors chose to transcribe the Hebrew instead of translating it. Although the Latin version appears unanimous – Ego sum qui sum – the situation will be different with the vernacular languages. It is fastidious for them to remain as compact as the Latin: there was no let-out, the sentence had to be translated, positions adopted, choices made. In order to extract the various visions of medieval metaphysics from this sentence of Exodus, I will examine a very popular encyclopedia in monastic environment, which I will follow in its translations in Old French addressed to various social classes.

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