My copy of The Name of the Rose, uncomfortably stretched apart.

Translating The Name of the Rose

I recently read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It’s a delightful murder mystery, revolving around books and set in a beautifully rendered medieval world. I love a good historical novel and this one certainly pushed quite a few buttons. The fourteenth century is not a period I’m overly familiar with, and Eco’s erudition on the matter brought it brightly to life for me. The protagonist, aptly named William of Baskerville, a quick-witted Franciscan monk, is a splendid homage to Sherlock Holmes. He uses his acumen and the early elements of logic and science that arose in the great minds of the time, to find order in a chaotic world and solve the macabre mysteries that confront him. The book really is admirably put together and I highly recommend it.

Reading The Name of the Rose, I found it thoroughly interlarded with non-English – primarily Latin – bits of text, which I decided to translate. Scribbled on scraps of paper and stuck between the pages, all these translations (as well as other notes) were stretching my poor paperback to its limits by the time I reached the back cover, as you can see in the photo above.

The scraps of paper I wrote my notes on add up to quite a little stack.

The scraps of paper I wrote my notes on add up to quite a little stack.

Translating all the Latin I didn’t immediately comprehend was time-consuming – my Latin is very rusty. I think I may have spent more time translating than reading the book, but it was ultimately a labour of love. It didn’t feel right just skimming over parts of the book I didn’t understand, and I enjoyed myself just fine, spending so much time with Eco’s first novel. There’s a list of translations in The Key to the Name of the Rose, published specifically to explain many of the non-trivial things Eco put in his book. I made use of the preview pages of that book that were available on Google Books, but ultimately I felt I should translate things myself, in order to really understand. With most of the Latin, I had no choice; I couldn’t find ready translations anywhere.

Now, having finished the book, I’m left with a stack of notes. (I’ve liberated the book from them, but I’m afraid it will never be quite its old self again.) Keeping dozens of scraps of paper between the pages didn’t seem like a great idea; so what do I do with them?

After all the trouble I went through to get these translations together, I figure there are bound to be readers out there looking for just such translations, and finding just as much as I did. So, I release you into the world, my little scraps of paper! Go and be useful.

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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  1. Latzi von Biron

    Marco, benedicite!
    I was just reading your Translations for The Name of the Rose, and found it very useful and well done. Thank you!
    One detail I wanted to contribute, and that is the correct meaning of the Benedictine greeting “Benedicite! Benedici!” as it is used in the book.
    When you visit a Greek Orthodox monastic communities e.g. on Mt. Athos, they not only use that word (Ευλογείτε! Ευλογείσον!) as a greeting, but before they start doing anything, from serious labour such as lighting the fire in the bakery ovens or putting yeast into the flower to make dough, to simplest acts like drinking a glass of water (like we’d say Cheers!), turn the key in the car engine, or light an oil-lamp… The pious Orthodox would say that not only to clergy but to each other as well. Russians, Bulgarians or Serbs do the same – Благословите! Благослови!
    The answer would be Dominus! O Κυριοσ! Господь!
    It means literally Bless! (Bless me! Give blessing!), and the answer – The Lord! (meaning – The Lord will bless, for I am unworthy.)
    Greetings, and benedicite!

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