Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Cloud of Unknowing

I have been reading a new translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher of The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the fourteenth Century by an Author who chose to remain anonymous. Written as a series of small chapters, it is the words of an older man giving advice to a younger on the practice and theory of meditation. The author is a man with an intelligent grasp of language and a liking for a well honed phrase. He speaks directly, wittily and sharply, betraying a fine sense of humor and a certain salty realism. Like his contemporaries Chaucer and Julian of Norwich he chooses to write in English instead of Latin because, despite his preparatory warning against giving the book to those not yet ready for it, he wishes to be understood by a wide range of people. The book was very popular when first printed and has remained so; it is the most formative and important work of English Christian mysticism we have, and still retains all it's power to move and surprise and inspire, even after six centuries.

The problem with the book is of course the language. Even as an English graduate with a knowledge of Chaucer I find it a struggle. Consider for example this passage from chapter 8:

Now sekirly me thinketh that this is a wel movid questyon, and therfore I think to
answere therto so febeli as I can. First, when thou askest me what is he, this that pre-seth so fast apon thee in this werk, profryng to help thee in this werk: I sey that it is a scharpe and a clere beholding of thi kindely witte, preentid in thi reson withinne in thi soule.

Understandable perhaps, but hardly as direct and accessible as the author first intended. Translators over the years have tried to make the text understandable to their contemporaries, but recognizing the iconic and foundational nature of the text, and wishing to retain the felicity of the original, have been loathe to tinker too much. Consequently, translations have tended to be archaic in tone and only marginally less obscure than the original.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher in her new translation has done a wonderful job of making not just the ideas but the spirit and feel of The Cloud available to a contemporary audience. Her text is readable, lively and chatty in much the way that readers in the 14th Century must have found it. Her rendering of the passage above, for example, reads

You've asked excellent questions and I'll try to answer them as best I can. First, you want to know more about the thoughts that interrupt your contemplative time, incessantly offering help. This is just how your mind works. You're watching your soul reason.

Of course her work may upset the purists who treasure The Cloud of Unknowing as an example of the finest Middle English Prose and who resent any tampering with it. In this the purists may be right, but she has made this important and life changing little book accessible to a whole new generation of readers and I think the anonymous author would heartily approve and thank her for that.

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