Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.20

Linda Yuretich, The Chronicle of Constantine Manasses. Translated Texts for Byzantinists 6.   Liverpool:  Liverpool University Press, 2018.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 9781786941510.  £95.00.  


Reviewed by Demetra Samara, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (dmsamara@lit.auth.gr)

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Constantine Manasses, an author of the twelfth-century Komnenian Renaissance of Byzantine literature, wrote his verse chronicle, the Synopsis Chronike, in Greek. It covered the period from the Creation of the world, a typical starting point in Christian chronography, to the abdication of the emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates in 1081. This sixth volume of the series Translated Texts for Byzantinists presents itself as a translation of that text, yet a closer look complicates what exactly is being translated here.

The impression that one gets from the cover and the description on the back is that it is a translation into English of the original Greek text of Manasses. The description on the back begins by claiming that, “This book translates the mid-12th-century Synopsis Chronike by Constantine Manasses.” This straightforward claim is complicated by what is said at the end of the description: “The chronicle attracted the attention of [the Bulgarian] Emperor John Alexander for whom the Middle Bulgarian Synodal or Moscow manuscript was translated. This is the mid-14th-century copy taken into account here with deviations from the Greek contained in the footnotes.” This is a reference to the prose Bulgarian translation that proved popular thereafter to Slavic-reading audiences. It turns out that the English translation in the volume is a translation of both versions of the text. In the preface, Yuretich says that “Both originals were followed as closely as possible to enable the reader to generate a translation of the Bulgarian text. This can be effected by deleting the pertinent parts of the Greek in the italics found in the footnotes after the word ‘for’ and inserting what comes after ‘read’. Sections contained only in the Greek original or additions made by the Bulgarian translator are noted as ‘Greek only’ or ‘Slavic only’ ” (p. xvi).

In other words, while the main text of the translation presented here is based on the Greek original, the footnotes to the translation track the deviations from it, presenting translations of the Bulgarian variants in italics, thus enabling the reader to reconstruct the Bulgarian version, albeit only through this indirect method. The reader has to “generate” the Bulgarian version by following both the Greek version and the footnotes, and making the relevant substitutions. This approach assumes that the differences between the two versions are limited to hard lexical matters, and cannot capture aspects such as nuance, style, possible allusions, and the switch from verse to prose, which are not issues dealt with normally in the notes and definitely difficult to follow without the simultaneous quotation of both original texts.

Therefore, the question arises, whether this work is supposed to serve as a companion to both editions—the Greek original by O. Lampsidis (CFHB 36.1, Athens 1996) and the Bulgarian translation by I. Dujcev (et al., Sofia 1998)—or as just a way to make familiar to a broadly interested public a popular medieval chronicle in a composite textual form. Moreover, the appearance of variations from the so-called (Middle Bulgarian) Short Chronicle-version of the Synopsis into the “appropriate places” (as stated at the description on the back) makes things even more confusing.

The volume is divided into two parts, the first including a brief introduction (pp. 1-17) to the writer and the text, while the second part provides the English translation of this influential chronographical opus. In addition to giving biographical information, Yuretich describes the cultural environment of Byzantine Constantinople during the twelfth century. The figure of the sebastokratorissa Eirene, widow of Andronikos Komnenos (the brother of the emperor Manuel I) appears prominently here, as it was at her request that Manasses composed a chronicle in verse, extending from the creation of the world to the year 1081 (Background, pp. 1-3). In the next chapter on the Synopsis Chronike (pp. 3-6), Yuretich first discusses his choice to write an historical work in fifteen-syllable verse rather than in prose, focusing on the effect that this work had on later writers, mostly of the Palaiologan era. She then refers to the various editions of the Synopsis Chronike from the seventeenth century to today, emphasizing the Slavic translation, which was first made around 1331. A short presentation of a number of the manuscripts preserving the Slavic translation comes next, indicating the impact of the text on the Balkan world in the following centuries. An outline of the Synopsis Chronike is given on p. 7, revealing that the work is composed of two parts, the first containing the history from the creation of the world – this was the norm in chronographical texts – to the end of the Theodosian dynasty in the fifth century AD; and the second part including the reigns of the emperors until the deposition of Nikephoros Botaneiates.

In the next chapter, Yuretich examines Manasses’ sources (pp. 8-9), both older and more recent, while noting a plethora of quotations from the Old and New Testament, as well as from Homeric and classical secular works. She even mentions the literary debts shared between Synopsis Chronike and Manasses’ own romance novel, Aristandros and Kallithea, although the question remains open which one was composed first. As for the highly sophisticated style (pp. 9-10) of this chronographical opus in verse, one should keep in mind that Manasses was one of the most formidable connoisseurs of rhetorical techniques, which allows Yuretich to describe his work as “baroque,” “fiorito,” “pompeuse,” and “ausgeschmuckt,” borrowing terms from the bibliography (p. 9). The passages that she cites are quite eloquent in justifying the above characterizations.

The following chapter of the introduction (The Middle Bulgarian Translation, pp.10-13) focuses on the Bulgarian version of the text, giving information about the particularities of its language, the methods used by the anonymous translator, its omissions and additions in comparison to the original text, and in general the variety of deviations from Manasses’s text. It is also noteworthy how the translator deals with the compilation of proper names and with the ways in which misunderstandings turn to false interpretations. Yuretich cites some representative examples that may lead to interesting observations that help us to define the profile of the Bulgarian translator.

The insertions to the original text form a special chapter (Historical Additions to the Middle Bulgarian Translation, pp. 13-17). The main point is that these additions have mostly to do with Bulgarian history. Yuretich provides a bibliographical discussion of the issue, which has attracted the interest of researchers since the nineteenth century, and which resulted in the theory of the existence of a separate work, the Bulgarian Short Chronicle, based on translations of other chronographical texts by Zonaras, Symeon Logothetes, and George Hamartolos. It is also notable that the praise of the Bulgarian ruler, John Alexander, replaces the laudation to Manuel I Komnenos in the original text, which Yuretich interprets as serving Bulgarian political ideology. In concluding the introduction (p. 17), she evaluates the chronicle of Manasses, placing it in the literary context of the twelfth century. At the same time she points out that the anonymous Bulgarian translation, though less expertly composed, played a key role in Bulgarian state philosophy.

The English translation of the text, offered by Yuretich, forms the second part of the book (pp. 21-262), divided into short chapters that help the reader to follow the text step-by-step, supported by a great number of enlightening comments in the form of footnotes. The commentary includes detailed information about the text’s sources, the deviations between the Bulgarian translation and the original Greek work, and also explanatory notes concerning the meaning and contributing to the understanding of various difficult passages. Yuretich seems to have worked meticulously, indicating with accuracy the different readings when placing the Greek and Bulgarian versions side-by-side. Generally speaking, she succeeds in making this work accessible to the modern reader. Yet since the reader does not here have access to the original texts, but only their translation(s), it is difficult to form a clear image of each one of them; even more of their comparison, given that the results of the latter are not stated clearly in the volume. This way of working would apply more to a linguistic study rather than an interpretative one appearing in a series that claims “to broaden access to Byzantine texts for students, non-specialists and scholars,” according to its guidelines.

The book includes (pp. 263-320) a bibliography, index of dignities, ranks and offices, a complete table of “glosses” (i.e., Slavic additions) and their references in the text, and finally a thorough and useful general index. Despite the confusing aspects discussed above, with this volume, Yuretich has enriched our understanding of an important work and a significant writer of the Komnenian era, as well as elucidating the recognition and later impact that the Synopsis Chronike had in a different language from that in which it was written.

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