#24: Angela of Foligno and Translation
On eliding boundaries and speaking through the other
Angela of Foligno is a Friend of the Newsletter, having been previously covered for her devotional practice of leprous scab eating. To recap: Angela is born in Umbria in the second half of the 13th century. She is pretty standard-issue-levels of devout for the time period up until she hits middle age, when all of a sudden, her faith starts changing into something more serious, starts being practiced with more intent. Within the span of a few months, her mother, husband, and children all die, and this is when her faith takes a radical leap into the unknown. She gives away her money, gets kicked out of churches for screaming and weeping before the crucifix, and in one particularly beautiful section of her memoir, talks about laying herself bare before the cross—literally undressing, ridding herself of worldly trappings and the status conveyed by her clothing. We know all this about her because she left us an autobiography, a recounting of her life and her steps towards devotion.
Or, well, sort of.
The autobiography is mostly in first person, but almost as soon as it begins, a second first person creeps in—that of Angela’s confessor/scribe/disciple, Brother A. His first person will pop up, sometimes sharing space in a paragraph with Angela’s “I,” his authority and authorship overlapping, speaking over and alongside her. Despite having his voice, we know little about Brother A.’s life, including his name. We know he was a Franciscan monk—part of, at the time, a fervent and powerful religious movement in the area—and possibly a relative of hers. They met after she was kicked out of church for sobbing too loudly, and he followed her out to chastise her further. By his own admission, his scribing for her began as an attempt to bring her words before church leadership to discredit her as a hysteric fraud, but by the time he’s sat down to compile her words on how to become closer to God, it’s clear he believes in Angela’s holiness as much as she does.
Based on some of his asides in the text, we know that Brother A. usually met with Angela. He would let her talk, asking clarifying questions, sometimes drawing the narrative in a certain direction with them. From his notes, which went from haphazard scraps of paper into more beautifully bound and expensive notebooks, he then produced the text we’re able to read today. Angela spoke in a vernacular language, likely Umbrian, a dialect of Italian, and Brother A. would transcribe as she spoke into Latin, the language of learning, and of the church. He tells us that he “did not want to write down one single word which was not exactly as she had said it.”
Before going much further, a note on Latin, and writing in general: there’s no evidence that Angela knew Latin, or even really knew how to read and write. Literacy in the 13th century was something reserved for the wealthy, for the learned, and for men. Latin was a lingua franca across the Church’s holdings, and translation into it was a colonial project from the time that Latin was the official language of a political empire and not just a holy one. Saint Jerome, the original translator of the Bible into Latin, compared the work of a translator to that of a general: “The translator considers thought content a prisoner which he transplants into his own language with the prerogative of a conqueror.”
Brother A., despite his fervent belief in Angela’s holiness, is essentially “stealing” it from her for the greater glory of the Church, corraling it into submission. Although, not quite. Because the thing that makes Brother A’s transcription so notable is how honest he is about all the ways and times in which he fucks up. The text is peppered with his admissions of mediocrity: Angela tells him that his “words were dry and without any savor,” that they “recall to me what I told you, but they are very obscure,” that they are “what is bland, inferior and amounts to nothing,” she tells him his writing is “very defective,” and implies that she is simplifying her language in order that he may “somehow put it in [his] mouth and enable [him] to swallow it.” He also compares himself to a “sieve or sifter which does not retain the precious and refined flour, but only the most coarse.”
But it’s not only Angela telling us, through Brother A., that Brother A. is a terrible scribe: God does too. “All the things which are written here are true...but what was said was much more complete or had much more meaning. What I [Angela] said is defective, and the scribe’s version of it is also weak and defective.”
This divine caveat creates space beyond the text, proves that the reader is involved in some kind of game of telephone with God, whose message we’re getting garbled not-quite-beyond comprehension. The friar’s inclusions of the admonitions against his scribing open up all this space between versions that allow the inexpressibility of God to come through: between the version before us, and the version that Angela spoke in Umbrian, and the version given to Angela by God.
Right now, I'm reading Douglas Robinson’s The Translator’s Turn, kind of for book research, and his main argument is that translation is something we do with our bodies. You work through a text on gut feelings and inclinations and ideas, finding something that feels right to you, a kind of affective certainty that (at least for me) washes away as soon as you've seen your work printed in black and white. The stakes for Brother A’s translation were tremendous: Angela's credibility, her holiness, the literal words of God passing though his pen, his own knowledge of Umbrian, taught to him by his mother, and Latin, learned under the tutelage of some holy Father, through his own affective responses to the miracles Angela could express to him, and the emotions he associated with each language.
I spent this week at work doing a lot of translation with asylum seekers, gathering comments for those that would be affected by the latest asylum rule (it's very bad). I'm not fast enough to take notes in English on a conversation in Spanish, so I did a labor I think of as similar to Brother A’s: I had a conversation with someone, and listened to them talk as I took notes, and asked some questions when I needed to, and then sorted through their words—thrumming with vitality and brilliance and a political will, but a little disorganized, digressive, as so much spoken language is—and in a different language, polished them into statements that traced a personal narrative and connected it to the structures of the new rule, made connections between the personal and the political, just as the asylum seekers had in answering my questions. This work, to me, is harder than writing, because the words are not my own—I become responsible to ensure the meaning, the life in someone else’s words comes through on the page, try to seal up the cracks as best I can, get it as close as possible to this person's life.
And yet, the spaces between our conversations and my notes and the documents submitted to the federal register are there. These spaces are full of the details I couldn't fit into the comment, full of the life they're living beyond the brief phone call we had, full of their willingness to revisit their experiences in the hope, like Angela, that the thing they have gone through, if explained in enough detail, if told carefully enough, will help someone else.
This letter is maybe less about Angela and her work, and more about dear, nameless Brother A., and his apologies that have survived hundreds of years, dozens of languages, and the work he and I share of gently, carefully taking everything someone has chosen to tell us of their story and making it ready to present it to the world.
Angela of Foligno, Selected Writings. If you’re ever in the market for a really solid version of whatever mystic or whoever, the Classics of Western Christianity are the way to go.
Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. This is the book of translation theory I use the most often, and that opened the door for me—I especially love Walter Benjamin’s “On the Task of the Translator.”
Douglas Robinson, The Translator's Turn. I suspect this one is out of print, but it's from Johns Hopkins University Press, if that helps?
If you want to know more about the proposed asylum rule (truly I am not catastrophizing when I say it will end asylum as we know it in the United States) you can read this article.
I (perhaps unsurprisingly) have written a 3,000 word essay on this for grad school that goes HARD about medieval theories of translation and has way more textual evidence, a lot of this letter was drawn from that, as I had to give my copy of Selected Writings back to the library a year ago when I graduated (rude). If you want to read it, drop me a note and I’ll send you a link.
No new writing up online this week, but I do have a few (virtual) events coming up in support of my translation of A is for Asylum Seeker/A de Asilo.
August 20: Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, with Rachel Ida Buff
September 3: A is for Asylum Seeker Book launch, Boswell Books, with Rachel Ida Buff
September 10: Translating Spanish with Sophie Hughes and Megan McDowell, Brookline Booksmith—a link is forthcoming for this one, but I’ll share as soon as I have it!
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