This project has looked a great deal at language and linguistics in relation to legal source material and the practice of law. The first edited volume is on Law and Language, and a Translation Guide is on its way to add to our list of available guides for students and scholars.

Our CUROP placement in 2016 was looking at the language of trade laws and making a database to compare terminology across Frisian, Danish, English and Welsh law codes. Our next CUROP placement [summer 2017] will probably be on the topic of Family and Kinship, possibly looking at a comparison of terms and concepts surrounding marriage in England and Wales in the Middle Ages. This is still being discussed, but we will share it with you when the details have been finalised!

One of the key things to come out of the #MedDocs Workshop was the multiple options that one may have for translating particular words and phrases. Where do these words come from? What if they are borrowed words, and have limited attestations – or if they are very common words and are attested in multiple contexts to mean multiple things? This was the theme of Sara Pons-Sanz’s talk, in which she considered words landcop and lahcop, giving examples of their attestation and considering whether specific or more general understandings of these words can be used in translating these words, where they appear.

We can see this in a very good illustration by Prof Carole Hough, who started off with a quick quiz:

Where has your word or phrase been attested previously? Does it mean the same thing in context? How many meanings does it have? Are you looking at a word that might potentially have a general meaning (any kind of legal agreement regarding land etc) or a specific meaning?

What do other people think? Discuss your options with someone else – multiple people if you can!

Polysemy is challenge in translation. Let’s take a Welsh example, thinking forwards to the Family and Kinship research placement we hope to set up this summer for another Cardiff University undergraduate.

The Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, A Dictionary of the Welsh Language, has multiple definitions of gwraig:

a) female human being, adult woman (sometimes used appositionally to man, also occas. with allusion to one of the characteristics generally attributed to women, e.g. timidity, weakness).

b) woman in relation to her husband, married woman, wife; (occas. in the Welsh Laws) a violated maiden, as distinct from a virgin.

c) (yn achlysurol gynt, mewn cyfosodiad ag e., yn rhgfl. cym. pth., h.y. yn gyfwerth â ‘yr hon’, cf. gŵr 1. (b): formerly sometimes used in apposition to n. as antecedent to a rel. clause).

The second one is a particularly interesting definition – the difference between a married woman and a violated woman as opposed to a virgin (this would imply an unmarried woman who has been raped, not a concubine).

Faced with Welsh legal codes relating to a gwraig, it is important to clearly make this distinction.

Note that there are different combinations that use the word gwraig, and these all have different meanings too. For example:

gwraig feichiog: pregnant woman.

c. 1400 MM 60.

1588 2 Br viii. 12.

1588 Eseia xxvi. 17.

1588 Hos xiii. 16.

gwraig fonheddig: woman of noble birth, lady, gentlewoman.

13g. BD 204.

1615 R. Smyth: GB 155.

1701 E. Wynne: RBS 10.

1725 D. Lewis: GB 44.

1773 W d.g. gentlewoman.

gwraig ym mron ei chae: woman near to her confinement.

19-20g. SE d.g. cae.

gwraig gaeth: bond-woman, slavewoman.

13g. LlC 19.

14g. LlB 60.

gwraig weddw: widow; single or unmarried woman.

13g. LlI 74, gureyc wedu kyn gurha ohoney.

13g. A 78-9, gwraged gwydw.

14g. T 1614.

1567 TN 37b.

1588 1 Br vii. 14.

1588 Salm lxxviii. 64.

1632 D d.g. vidua.

1794 W d.g. widow.

gwraig wely: concubine.

13g. BD 22, mynnu y chymrut yn vreyc wely ydav (uoluit cubilia eius inire).

c. 1400 RB ii. 252, A honno … a tymerth katwallawn yn wreic wely idaw (in societatem thori accepti; cf. BD 204, a gymyrth … y wreic idav).

15g. BB 190.

These are of course, not limited to the spellings listed here. This may be of interest to our next CUROP project, where an Undergraduate may look at these kinds of words and their various meanings and combinations for a database. We will decide on the details later and put together a clearer project bid for the summer placement project – watch this space!

Another example, used by Carole Hough in her talk, is Old English ceorl.

While it may be more obvious in the Welsh laws what is meant by gwraig in context, it may not be as obvious where it comes to ceorl. Even translators have trouble, and various interpretations exist in regards to the seventh century Kentish laws, for example.

A few takeaways from the workshop round table were related to this, and are worth reiterating here.

  1. Get others to look at your translation. A fresh pair of eyes work wonders.
  2. Peer reading groups are very useful – see (1). Peer reading groups also have other benefits: collaboration can have surprising and unexpected outcomes! Also, don’t underestimate the effect on morale that meeting up in a peer group can have, especially when there is also cake. Cake is key.
  3. When giving your translation to others to look at, consider also asking people with expertise. Why are these people/is this person the best for the job? Are they experts in this field, do they have good knowledge of the source material you are using? Will they know of other attestations of tricky words?
  4. See Jenny Benham’s warnings on having too much and too little knowledge of languages/material in her talk, via the Storify slideshow in our write up of the workshop. Bear this in mind when (a) translating by yourself (b) showing it to others, whether they have expertise or not. A good example of this has appeared on Twitter recently, where a descriptive word [which is now only heard as an obscenity] was mistaken for an insult, when in fact it was an Early Modern English word for “kestrel”. Was this also a pun? One may think so, but be wary of insisting upon this unless you have an attestation of this word being used in that way. It really is just a word for a kestrel. Therefore: are you reading words with a modern eye? What modern meanings might you mistakenly imprint onto a medieval word? If someone suggests a meaning to you, consider if this is something they may be doing too.

Happy Translating.


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