Mar 23, 2007

Book Review: The Journal of Christopher Columbus

16th-century portrait of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón) by unknown painter Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón), translated by Cecil Jane.

London: Anthony Blond, 1968 (English translation), Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, Ltd., 1990 (Spanish version)

Doubtless convinced that he was on the verge of a momentous voyage, Christopher Columbus kept a record of the trip through ship logs and charts. This was somewhat unusual for its time, since this was not a requirement of captains of Spanish-flagged vessels until 1575.

Queen Isabella of Spain had the original journal transcribed, giving the copy to Columbus and keeping the original for herself; the original manuscript has not been seen since 1504. The copied journal had a storied life, passing through the hands of numerous descendants of the Great Invader, allegedly being sold by Columbus’s ne’er-do-well grandson Luis to pay off debts. This copy, too, has disappeared.

The text that has survived the ravages of both time and debauched progeny is that produced by the Dominican historian and former conquistador Bartolomé de Las Casas. This account is most likely a summary of the second copy, with extensive word-for-word quotes at places “he thought were particularly interesting or worthy of quotation in full.”

Thus, historians face considerable difficulty in ferreting out which parts were pure Columbus, and which show the hand of Las Casas. Unfortunately, barring the sudden rediscovery of the original text or the Isabella-financed copy, this is as good as it gets. I have chosen two texts – both of which are translations of the Journal – to compare word choice and to educate myself on translation techniques; the second book has the original Spanish plus an English translation by B.W. Ife. I added the second book out of curiosity, and I wanted to compare some pages of the new translation with the Jane version to note any significant changes in the text.

There are some linguistic issues with this text about which readers need to be aware. Columbus was Genoese, and likely spoke a northern Italian dialect as his first language. He lived in Portugal for nine years, gaining fluency in Portuguese, although any extant Columbian writings in Portuguese have not survived. Columbus moved to Córdoba in Spain, and spent the rest of his non-voyage years there until his death in 1506.

Christopher Columbus, aka Cristobal Colón; 16th-century portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón); 16th-century portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo

The only language in which Columbus could demonstrably exhibit written competency was Castilian, although some letters exist from Columbus to Italian relatives that were composed in a badly written Tuscan. The Journal is written in a serviceable Castilian, with elements of Portuguese and Genoese terms interspersed. The navigational and sailing terms, according to Ife, are the words most likely to exhibit Lusitanian influence; this makes sense, as Portugal was the hub of 15th-century European seafaring activity. Finally, readers should consider the university-trained hand of Las Casas, whose efforts at transcribing, translating, and summarizing add an additional level of participation into the mix.

The motivations for the voyages of Columbus are similar to those expressed by the Portuguese in their explorations. He indicated that, like the Portuguese fascination with the mythical Prester John, the Spanish sovereigns hoped to link up with a powerful eastern ruler who might aid them in their conflicts with the Saracens:
…and then in the same month [that the Spaniards reconquered Granada] from information which I had given Your Highnesses about the lands of India and a prince called the Great Khan, which means in our language King of Kings, and how he and his ancestors had many times sent to Rome for learned men to instruct him in our holy faith…
This eastern potentate, who Ife argues is most likely the Mongol emeperor Togon-temür, would provide a valuable ally against the spread of Islam. Indeed, there is a realm of research into the evolution of the Prester John myth that links powerful Mongol rulers with the European belief in great eastern monarchs who reigned over lands with incredible wealth. Whether called Gran Can, Prester John, or Genghis Khan, the European conviction that potential partners existed in the Indies was a primary motivation for explorers such as Columbus.

Economic motivations were certainly a component of the voyages of Columbus, and few entries after landfall fail to show evidence of the admiral’s desire for the riches of the Indies. He wrote on 13 October 1492 that he “was attentive and labored to know if they had any gold;” two days later the ships reached Santa Maria de la Concepción (Rum Cay in the Bahamas), where he noted in his journal that he “anchored off the said point to learn if there were gold there.” On the same day his obsession with gold reaches a fever pitch in the following entry:
These islands are very green and fertile and the breezes are soft, and it is possible that there are in them many things, of which I do not know, because I did not wish to delay in finding gold, by discovering and going about many islands.

Columbus mentions the proselytizing motivation in the text a few times, particularly in his salutation to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella. He was certainly charged by the sovereigns with carrying out this Gospel mission. However, his focus throughout the Journal remained firmly on profit-generating commodities, such as gold, spices, and wood.

The differences between the translations tended to revolve around syntax and word choice, rather than any substantial thematic changes. The following passage is typical of the differences between the Jane and the Ife translations:
(Jane) Monday, Decmber 17th. That night the wind blew strongly from the east-north-east; the sea was not very rough, because the island of Tortuga, which is opposite and forms a shelter, protected and guarded it.
(Ife) Monday 17 December. The wind blew strongly that night from the ENE; the sea did not get up very much, as it is protected and shielded by the island of Tortuga which is opposite and forms a shelter.
The Ife text has a reputation for doing a better job of translating seafaring terms, flora and fauna names, and providing better translations for Portuguese words that Columbus tried to Castillianize.

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