In Syriac: Les aventures de Télémaque   4 comments

François Fénelon‘s book Les aventures de Télémaque first appeared in 1699, anonymously, and while it exercises little influence and excites little interest on a broad scale today, it holds a firm place in the canon of eighteenth-century literature. French works from the end of the seventeenth century do not typically feature here, but there is legitimate cause for it today, thanks to a manuscript of the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Baghdad. Here is the title page of no. 63:


And English’d:

The Meetings of Telemachus, translated from French into Syriac by the priest Petrus Sābā of Barṭelle, according to the edition printed by Albert Cahen, 1920 AD. [This manuscript] was written and copied, based on the original copy of its translator, by the priest Quriaqos bar Yaʿqob Lallo of Barṭelle, the nephew of the priest Petrus, in the year 1949.

(The verbs are active, but I have translated them with verbs in the passive voice, more in keeping with English title-page style.) I have divined, rather than transl[iter]ated the editor’s name; the very edition that Petrus Sābā used for his translation is available here, where we see Albert Cahen named. Returning to the Syriac manuscript, on the verso of the title page comes a note by the translator:


Know, O reader, that, insofar as it was possible for me and [insofar as the ability] came into my hands, I have translated and carried over this book word for word from French into Syriac, with no adding or taking away, and without changing the words, so that the meaning and force that the book’s author intended might be preserved wholly and completely.

Petrus Sābā of Barṭelle

Finally, I give the first paragraph of the work, following Cahen’s edition, to allow a minimal comparison between it and the translation of Petrus Sābā.

Calypso ne pouvoit se consoler du départ d’Ulysse. Dans sa douleur, elle se trouvoit malheureuse d’être immortelle. Sa grotte ne résonnoit plus de son chant; les nymphes qui la servoient n’osoient lui parler. Elle se promenoit souvent seule sur les gazons fleuris dont un printemps éternel bordoit son île: mais ces beaux lieux, loin de modérer sa douleur, ne faisoient que lui rappeler le triste souvenir d’Ulysse, qu’elle y avoit vu tant de fois auprès d’elle. Souvent elle demeuroit immobile sur le rivage de la mer, qu’elle arrosoit de ses larmes, et elle étoit sans cesse tournée vers le côté où le vaisseau d’Ulysse, fendant les ondes, avoit disparu à ses yeux.


Those who are interested in Syriac language and literature merely as an expression of Christianity, often with a focus on earlier texts and authors, will probably find nothing of interest in a text like this, aside from its novelty, but for those who especially study Syriac language (from whatever time period), and for those who have an eye toward later history and culture in communities that use Syriac, this text will serve as an opportunity to see the language in use in and of itself and, in connection with French, as a target translation language, and it also shows what at least some people in Barṭelle were reading around the mid-twentieth century. For people with such interests, not only biblical texts or liturgy and not only earlier authors hold their attention and attract their efforts, but even recent textual products like this translation from French are worthy of study. For them, this manuscript lies ready to read.


4 responses to “In Syriac: Les aventures de Télémaque

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  1. Very interesting, thank you. Should be used as in France in Syriac high schools ! (It’s a pleasant text.)

    (Three typos in your French text : « sur le gazons » should be «  sur leS gazons » ; « vers la côté où la vaisseau » : « vers lE côté où lE vaisseau ». And in French – as in English until the ’70s… cf. e. g. 1966 “Encyclopædia Britannica” and 1972 “Teach Yourself Sanskrit” ! (I have both…) –, a non-breaking space must precede « : », « ; », etc. – see Cahen’s work – : « son chant ; », « son île : »…)

    • Thanks for your corrections, Richard, and for your comment. Indeed, it is a very pleasant text. I fixed the two “fautes de frappe” that you pointed out. I knew about the non-breaking space before certain marks of punctuation in French, but I’ve actually not noticed it in such recent English typography; I’ll be on the lookout for it now! Even though I’m quoting French here, I’ve used typical spacing conventions for English throughout.

  2. THREE “fautes de frappe” (have a careful look !)… and a French text is French non solum in words and grammar, sed etiam in its orthotypography ! I’ll scan (on my TwitPic) some pages of 1966 “Britannica” and 1972 “Sanskrit” to show People – “ten thousands maybe more”… – how English was a beautiful orthotypographic language until, say, the mid-70s… (Except for the « — »…)

    Back to Syriac : is Father Petrus Sābā of Barṭelle’s “word for word” translation copied by his nephew written in good Syriac, or does it look like… “Vetus Syriaca” ?…

    • To judge from a quick look at this paragraph, the Syriac translation is not really overly literal, and his reference to “word for word”, indeed the whole prefatory note, may just be a topos. So, yes, we can use “good Syriac” to refer to it.

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