The Price of Alfonso’s Wisdom. Nationalist Translation Policy in Thirteenth-Century Castile
The Medieval Translator / Traduire au Moyen Age 5, 1996, 448-467.
My prime concern is with the way translation history is used. I am interested in the way historical references can consciously invent a noble lineage for the translator’s profession (as in the FIT project on “Translators Through History”); I am worried by the way introductions to general translation studies can reduce centuries of serious thought to a misled “heated debate” about how translation should be taught at the end of the twentieth century (as in Snell-Hornby 1988, who only mentions history to get it out of the way); and I am intrigued by the way some historical concepts can work wonders for the creation of nationalist translation myths. References to the “School of Toledo” – or even to the more careful notion of “the Toledan translators” (Foz 1991) – fall into the last-mentioned category. In recent years the fame of Toledo has been used in an unsuccessful attempt to attract official subsidies to the city, in a more successful attempt to have translators work in Tarazona, and, as we shall see, in a rather comic attempt to frame the ambitions of at least one Spanish school for the training of translators. It is a strong and eminently useful myth.
Having written elsewhere on the church-sponsored translators in twelfth-century Toledo, I now want to look at the translators working after 1250 for Alfonso X of Castile, traditionally known as “el sabio”, “the Wise”. With apologies to philologists, my interest is not so much in the texts as in interpreting their encompassing translation policy, since policies are basically what the myth has been used for. From this perspective, I shall argue that the Alphonsine translators should not be lumped with their twelfth-century predecessors. I hope to show that any combining of church-sponsored and state-sponsored activities under a common label – even that of “the Toledan translators” – obscures the most problematic aspect of the history in question. And I shall propose that this particular patch of history, if conceptualized in terms of tension and negotiation rather than unity, can be used with greater contemporary relevance than is commonly the case. After all, if Alfonso developed one of the first national translation policies in Europe, the wisdom of his patronage could have something to do with the translation policies of today, particularly those of the European Union.