In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis argued that it is nearly impossible for people of our day to truly understand the way medieval minds saw the world. As a result, this makes it particularly difficult for us to comprehend documents written during that time. Unless you are a scholar of that era, you just don’t have many of the keys necessary for unlocking the tropes of medieval and renaissance literature. The writer of that era could assume his reader had read certain works, such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Vergil’s Aeneid, or St Augustine’s City of God. And because of this assumption, he further assumed he could simply allude to these works and his reader would know exactly what he was talking about.
Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy is no exception. Sure, I realize lots of people are just using it as a definitive source for sigils, seals, words of power, and other elements they need for their rituals, talismans and other magical activities, rather than finding them piecemeal in dozens of sources that themselves have Agrippa as their ultimate source. But even these scrap hunters will never completely escape the struggle of comprehending a text written in one bygone era and translated in another.
A concrete example: I’ve noticed that there are several words the translator, James Freake (hereinafter JF), used frequently in his translation, and I’ll assume he consistently used these words to translate given Latin words. A cursory glance through the chapters I’ve already read yields: “operation” and “species.” When I come across these words, I’m baffled as to their meanings, since JF isn’t using them in any sense that I’m familiar with. Until you know what those words mean in this text, your understanding of any sentence they occur in is going to be fuzzy at best, totally mistaken at worst.
There are two choices for clearing this up. The first is to look them up in the Oxford dictionary and pinpoint what those words meant circa 1651. That’s a drag, because I don’t happen to own an Oxford, and since I live in Hungary I can’t just run down the street to the local library. But my fellow corporate editor at work has one on his desk. I’ll be paying him a visit this morning. “…and by the way: would you mind if I looked up a couple of words in your Oxford?” The other is to find the sentences in the Latin edition and see what word he was translating. I also don’t have a copy of Occult Philosophy in Latin (I’ve looked for a digital copy on the Internet, but I haven’t located one yet).
To be completely sure, you’d need to check both the Oxford and the Latin text. That’s more work than most people want to put in, but when you decide to tackle Agrippa, you have to be honest with yourself about what it means to read a 400-year-old translation of a 500-year-old book. You’re going to have to engage in a little serious scholarship.
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