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I. GENERAL AIM OF THE STUDY
The field of Middle English language and literature is at last receiving the attention that it deserves for its importance in English literary history. Long a tangled wilderness, dreaded and shunned by scholars, who realized the difficulties and labor involved in clearing so vast a tract, and how little could be accomplished by any one person, it is now invaded by scores of busy workers. The first tract to be cultivated was naturally that which promised the readiest and richest returns, the works of Chaucer. Mány eminent scholars have put their best efforts upon this great poet, so that to-day more people perhaps than ever before wander with delight through
As it were a meede,
From Chaucer, interest gradually broadened to include writers of lesser magnitude, of whose works critical editions have been published. Investigations into the language and literary history of the period are going rapidly forward.
No worker in the Middle English field could, of course, entirely neglect the two Wycliffite versions of the Bible, and some have given them rather careful study. It has usually, however, been for the purpose of ascertaining the authorship, or of determining the exact relations of the Wycliffite to later versions. There have been a few German dissertations on the Sprache und Syntax' of various portions or forms, discussed in purely technical fashion. But thus far there has been little effort to evaluate the language of the Wycliffite versions as a living medium for the expression of thought, and to establish it in its place in the development of the English language. In order to accomplish this result, a very careful study must be made, both of the semantics and the syntax, in their relation to current usage, so far as that may be discovered. There are many difficulties in the way, if one would discover the power of a language at any given period, among them the difficulty of knowing just what thought the writer intended to express, and what facilities the language offered him. These difficulties are, however, partially overcome when the passage under consideration is a translation, and still further if it is a translation of a standard text. For such an investigation of the language, the Wycliffite versions are ideal. They are the translation of a text which had been sacred and standard for centuries; a text, portions of which had been translated again and again, from early Old English times, and which is still, in new translations, the intimate possession of every modern nation.
It is my purpose, then, to make a small beginning in the study of the Wycliffite versions, with a view to discovering the resources and capacities of the English language in the last quarter of the 14th century. I have chosen the Epistle to the Romans as the basis of my investigation, on the ground that its philosophy and logic make larger demands upon the translator than does simple narrative like the greater part of the Gospels, without entangling him in the abstruse and highly imaginative writing of such a book as the Apocalypse. Of the two versions, the one which, since the edition of Forshall and Madden, is admittedly the earlier, is far more crude and slavishly literal in translation than the later, so-called Purvey revision, though some of the apparent crudities resolve themselves, upon close examination, into current usages. It is as though the first writer, be he Wyclif or another, not only held his text so sacred that not one letter of it must be lost in the translation, but also felt keenly the momentous importance of his experiment, and the criticism to which he was subjecting himself. His tense nerves never relax, and his painstaking care never allows him free idiomatic expression. In the revision, the case is different. The bold first step had been taken, and the result had not been disastrous. The nervous tension was relaxed. The reviser could see that the first translator's painful anxiety had overshot the mark. Accordingly, his great desire was to make the sentence opyn.' Freer, more idiomatic English is the result. I have therefore chosen the later version as the chief subject of my study, since it is more truly representative of the English language of its day. The necessity of constant reference to the Latin original, if one would fully understand the English, has required the printing of the corresponding Vulgate at the foot
of the page.
In his prologue ‘vnto the Cristen Reader, Bishop Coverdale says : ‘Sure I am, that there commeth more knowledge and vnderstondinge of the Scripture by theyr sondrie translacyons, then by all the gloses of oure sophisticall doctours.' One might well make a similar statement about the language, and, happily, the materials for such a comparative study are now fairly well in hand. The series of Biblical quotations, begun by Professor Cook, and brought up to 1350 by Dr. Smyth, furnishes the student with material for an illuminating comparison of early English idioms. The Wycliffite versions, and the valuable fragment of a fourteenth-century version edited by Miss Paues, carry the translations through the confused Middle English period; and the English Hexapla, with the recent revised versions, complete the series up to the present. It must not, however, be forgotten that all versions from Tyndale to the present day, with the exception of the Rheims, are made primarily from the Greek text, and therefore do not perpetuate the errors of the Vulgate. There is thus a long series of translations of a given passage, even a cursory study of which gives one an insight into the genius of the English language scarcely to be obtained in any other way. Objectlessons, in language as in the physical sciences, are much more enlightening and convincing than any amount of theorizing and generalizing, while at the same time they form a secure foundation for the building of theories.
For the most part, my work has been confined to the presentation of object-lessons. To facilitate a comparison with the nearly contemporary version edited by Miss Paues, the extant fragments of that version have been placed upon the page along with the later Wycliffite version and the Vulgate. In the word-lists, I have brought within convenient compass the lexicographical peculiarities of the later version, making possible a careful intensive study of the semantic content of the translator's words. In the textual notes I have collected all the variations in translation between the two Wycliffite versions (disregarding the manuscript variants) and the Paues version, adding the Authorized Version for the sake of ready comparison with the modern idiom, and all earlier renderings given by Professor Cook and Dr. Smyth, in order to complete the historical survey. The selected studies are by no means exhaustive, but are intended rather to discuss a few syntactical problems, and to suggest still further study of such problems, and of the principles of semantic change in the English language.
Much has been said, at one time or another, about the influence of the French language upon the English during the period from the Norman Conquest to the death of Chaucer. That the influence was enormous is evident; to determine precisely its sources and extent is more difficult. Very early in my study of the Epistle to the Romans, it seemed possible that one or both of the translators had actually before him a French version of the Bible. There is nothing inherently improbable in the suggestion. French books of devotion were common in English monasteries, and a complete French version of the Bible was made in the 13th century, ample time for it to become well known in England by Wyclif's day. In the General Prologue, the reviser of the Wycliffite text speaks of gathering together old Bibles and commentaries, mentioning Lyra, the French commentator, among them. It is very likely that the translator turned to a French Bible for assistance in difficult places, and that, consciously or unconsciously, many of its words and phrases slipped from his English pen.
In order to prove beyond question such direct influence, it would first be necessary to establish the use of an identical Latin text for both English and French versions. That cannot be done, and, in fact, it is very unlikely that there was any really standard text, in the modern critical sense, in use in either country. Yet it is perhaps equally unlikely that there were many important variations in the Latin texts. Until further investigation has enlightened us upon this point, we should therefore be free to assume for the moment a Latin original, substantially identical, for both versions.
The next question which arises presents a still greater difficulty. Which French text did the English translator use, if he used any ? The investigations of M. Berger in regard to the manuscripts of French Biblical versions