Shedding Light on Middle High German Hymn Translations

Speakers: Franziska Lallinger (Humboldt University)
Pavlina Kulagina (Humboldt University)

When inventories of libraries are not physically accessible, digital resources and databases offer the only insight into, or perhaps just a glance, at historical artifacts. Coming up with an efficient strategy to digitize manuscripts is critically important in researching genres that abound with manuscripts, such as books of hours and prayer books. Given the overwhelming number of extant copies and limited resources, digitalization must be approached strategically to balance the high costs of scanning with specific research benefits. This paper concerns the approach we selected at Berliner Repertorium: the online database of Middle High and Low German translations of Latin hymns, sequences, and antiphons, a genre that remains unexplored and underdigitized, due to volume, its secondary character, and the peculiar way it exhibits poetic variety. The database provides the user with scans of the source texts and presents information in a systematic, searchable way. Our contribution provides an opportunity to reflect, methodologically, on the scientific decontextualization of texts from their original environment in manuscripts and their cataloguing in the database, using the Berliner Repertorium as an example. This contribution will not only offer a descriptive terminological outline of the effects and challenges that come with the need for selective representation of historical artefacts, but also describe the potential of this approach. Based on heuristic conceptual instruments conceived by Bergemann et al. in their theory of cultural transformation, we view scientific work on the database – and digital archiving in general – as an act of transformation.1 The concept’s main premise is that transformation relies on interdependency and thus cannot be seen as a unidirectional process. Thus work on the database is analytical but also a creative production and reconfiguration of cultural goods. By selecting, adopting, or incorporating an element that belongs to the reference sphere (in our case, the hymn translation) the reception sphere (the database) is modified while the reference sphere is constructed. This means that the text genre is above all created by its presentation. As a consequence, the presentation of our data strongly determines the reception and perception of historical artifacts that are described. Yet the methodological alienation of hymn translations as autonomous texts can be productive. The removal of textual witnesses from their pragmatic liturgical context opens up the possibility of examining hymns as literary artifacts and draws attention to the study of translation strategies. The theoretical part is illustrated by a case study that focuses on one fascinating textual transformation rendered visible thanks to this approach, or the structural changes that hymns and sequences undergo when translated into the vernacular. In particular, extensive Latin poems can be split into smaller parts, which are then rearranged and assigned to certain hours, reinforcing or even creating a narrative structure and shifting pragmatic emphasis. The mode of presentation developed by the database introduces German translations of Latin hymns and sequences as a distinctive genre of medieval vernacular literature with great research potential.

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