Translating Cultures

Translation as communication

The project is sponsored by the AHRC in connection with the ’Translating Cultures’ strand.

Central to any picture of a global Middle Ages is communication: how were ideas, products and people transmitted within and across cultural traditions, and what was the range and volume of such transmissions? Wherever we look we find that medieval communications simultaneously expressed both local as well as long-distance characteristics. This tension is integral to the broader study of the translation of cultures. Charting the parameters of global communication in a medieval context has important implications for how cultures were translated in other periods when the long-distance and the localised were (and often continue to be) engaged in a complex and dynamic relationship.

Chess: a case study in the global and the local

The story of chess illustrates the contention that the processes involved in ‘translation’ lie at the heart of the Global Middle Ages.

tratado de ajedrez

Chess was a game with its origins in sixth-century India; yet by 1600, this sophisticated pursuit wrapped up in a series of complex rules had been transmitted across the globe. We have the material remains: most famously from a British perspective, the Lewis chessmen, but many others too, such as glass pieces from eleventh-century Islamic Egypt. Meanwhile, manuscript evidence depicts variants of the game being played across the medieval world: by a Japanese visitor to twelfth-century China; by fourteenth-century courtiers in Mongol (Ilkhanid) Persia; by ladies in late medieval northern European romances.

Language translation was integral to the production of manuscripts connected to chess. Alfonso X of Castile’s ‘Libro de Juegos’, contains text translated from Arabic while also depicting players of different social and ethnic backgrounds communicating with each other over the chessboard. The materials used to make chess pieces point to other kinds of translation and interconnection: for example, the ivory of the Lewis chess pieces derived from the Arctic Ocean around Greenland, which was then carved in Trondheim in Norway before being exported to the Outer Hebrides.

But while chess enables us to draw plural connections involving peoples, products, practices and ideas across the medieval globe, it also reveals that these were translations which also served more localised purposes: for instance, the ‘Libro del Juegos’ is not an unmediated translation from Arabic; its content is instead bound up with statements about Castilian royal prestige which make sense in the very competitive political landscape of thirteenth-century Iberia.

Yet, the localised context was also global: Alfonso’s decision to make his claims to overarching authority manifest through the domestication of a trans-cultural model of behaviour associated with kings is comparable with the exploitation of all kinds of prestige activities by would-be hegemons in other contexts across the medieval and modern periods.

Network Publication: Past & Present Supplement

We are pleased to announce the publication of a supplementary issue of the journal Past & Present on ‘The Global Middle Ages’ – currently accessible online here and available in print soon. Co-edited by Catherine Holmes (Oxford) and Naomi Standen (Birmingham), the supplement applies the study of global history to the pre-modern world through a series of thematic chapters incorporating a wide range of periods and regions. Read more






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