My fourth Julian

Complete Julian

It has been a long time since I updated this blog, but I have been reading Julian every day and so am several translations behind. The subject of this blog post is my fourth Julian, but third complete translation, since my very first was the book of excerpts, Enfolded In Love. I read it before the summer and finished it just before I was received as a Companion of Julian.

This is a big book; as its title suggests, it is a vast work, and clearly the result of a great amount of research. Fr John Julian is the Founder of the Order of Julian of Norwich, and according to the information on the back of the book ‘has read and studied Julian of Norwich every day for over quarter of a century’. This ‘Complete Julian’ contains the full text of the long version of the Revelations (but not the short version), as well as a lot of other information. Since I am reading only translations at the moment, I have only read the translation part of the book and can only comment on that for now.

The book is arranged as follows: (1) Introduction and major themes, (2) All about Julian, (3) The Revelations with annotations, (4) Appendices and (5) Notes, sources and recommended reading. Out of four hundred and fifty pages (3) takes up pages 62 to 375. This may seem like a very long, long version, but it is annotated and is arranged with the translation on the right and the notes on the left.

I really wanted to like this translation. I was excited to order it, and was looking forward to reading it. In the end it just didn’t work for me, and the way I read Julian. I read two chapters of the Revelations every night. I have found that I ‘hear’ Julian’s voice more clearly if I read aloud, and often underline parts as I go. It helps me to focus on every word. So, what is this translation like, and why didn’t it suit me?

I have never studied Julian in the original medieval text, but I imagine that this translation is close to the original. The translator’s note in the Penguin Classics version (My second Julian) makes mention of a looser translation, at least as far as paragraphs are concerned. In Fr John Julian’s translation, there are many short paragraphs, a large number of which start with conjunctions, one of my personal pet peeves. Unlike other translations I’ve read, all personal pronouns relating to Christ are capitalised, which makes for quite a riot of uppercase. The closeness to the original text, and the (I assume) resulting decisions regarding punctuation made it hard for me to read smoothly.

I also found the annotations distracting. Sometimes they were helpful, but sometimes I found them patronising in their stating of the obvious  (“Julian’s term Fiend is simply another word for ‘Devil'”) while in others I felt there was a bit of academic score-settling going on (“W & J mistakenly translate this”).

I am not a fan of the use of archaic language, and found the use of ‘thou’ irritating. I know that it’s the familiar form of the second person pronoun (and grew up in a part of the UK where it is still used), but for me it gets in the way of connecting with Julian. I also must admit a personal horror of the word ‘dearworthy’, which  I have only seen in translations of Julian. I squirm every time I see it.

So, who is this book for? That is what puzzles me most. Is it for people who already know Julian’s writing? Is it to inform someone about all things Julian? For me it feels like a very thorough textbook, Medieval Mystics 101 and beyond. I certainly don’t think the annotations lend this to being a translation to meditate on, there’s just too much distraction.

I think, in the end, my discomfort with this book is that it feels so scholarly. I don’t feel Julian’s voice, her energy, her determination to be heard, coming through. Her words have been pinned down so much that there’s no room to breathe. I read it all aloud, and I found it hard to read, it didn’t flow. I often had to go back to the beginning of a sentence and start again. I didn’t underline anything. I felt disconnected from Julian and was actually glad to finish it. Having said all that, I am looking forward to reading the other parts of the book, I hope I connect with them more easily than I did the translation. It is an impressive-looking book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they were studying Julian from an academic point of view.

My third Julian

julian3My third Julian is my favourite so far. After I finished the older Penguin Classic version (translated by Clifton Wolters) just before Easter, I decided that I wanted to continue reading Julian aloud, and this translation was my next choice. This is the current Penguin Classic version, translated by Elizabeth Spearing; it’s easy to find in the UK, but seems less readily available in the US (according to Amazon).

Like the Clfton Wolters translation, this one also has a very good introduction. I was interested to read that analysis of Julian’s dialect can suggest that she could have moved to Norwich but have been originally from further north. Since I grew up in Sheffield, I wonder if something in Julian’s cadences reminds me of the dialect I grew up hearing. This book also has a translator’s note, which I found useful. I was fascinated to read how the translator had approached the task, particularly regarding Julian’s very long sentences. She also mentions wanting to ‘keep the sound of a woman’s speaking voice’, and I feel she achieves this very well. As a text to read aloud it is accessible and flows naturally.

This translation contains both the short and long texts, which is another reason to choose this version, and retains the chapter headings, although there is no consensus on whether these were written by Julian herself or not. They have been part of the text for a very long time, and personally I find them helpful. For the most part the translation is from the manuscript known as S1, held at the British Library, although sometimes for clarification the translator has referred to the manuscript known as the Paris manuscript, held at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Unlike the Clifton Wolters translation, Spearing’s work retains the traditional wording of ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,’ which is satisfying to find. While understanding that Wolters’ translation truly updated the words while keeping the sense of what Julian meant, I felt disappointed to not find the traditional words there.

As I already mentioned, this is my favourite of the translations I have read so far. I am reading my fifth at the moment, but am a little behind on my blogging. Since I read Julian’s writings aloud, and read to hear her voice and connect with her, this works very well for me. I have already given it as a gift to several people. It’s a wonderful book. If you want to dip your toe into Julian, then the Enfolded In Love book is a lovely way to get an idea of her writing, but if you want to read the Revelations in their entirety this is the book to read.

My second Julian

Julian2I don’t remember when I bought this book, but it was my second Julian, and my first full translation. Now I have a number of different translations, but for many years it was the only one I had. Today it seems a little battered and worn, but considering it has accompanied me for what must be over twenty years it doesn’t look too bad.

I don’t know how many times I had read it, but when I was thinking about a text for my Lenten meditation this year it struck me that it would be a good idea to read Julian again, but this time to read her aloud. To lend her my voice during Lent. What a wonderful idea that turned out to be, one I do not take credit for, simply because it seemed so right and worked so well.

This Penguin Classics translation by Clifton Walters was published in 1966. Clifton Wolters was Provost of Newcastle Cathedral and translated not only Julian’s Revelations but also The Cloud of Unknowing and The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. It has since been replaced in the Penguin Classics series by a more recent translation by Elizabeth Spearing, but it is still easy to find a second-hand copy.

The first thing I liked about this translation was the introduction. Only thirty-four pages long, it is a wonderful overview of the church and society Julian knew, the little information known about Julian herself, and the main themes of the Revelations.

The translation itself is modern, it flows naturally and is easy to read aloud. This book contains only the long version of Julian’s writing, and each chapter is headed with an analysis of the contents, which it is noted at the beginning of the book was compiled by ‘a later scribe’ and was ‘not part of the original book’. I find these headings useful and miss them when they are omitted. The short text does not have them, and other translations sometimes omit them or use other forms.

Reading this text aloud I found it spoke to my heart. I could hear Julian’s voice and to my surprise sometimes found her funny and always down-to-earth. The great let-down for me was the translation of Julian’s most famous words: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’. In this translation it becomes, ‘it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right’.

It was rather shocking to realise that ‘all shall be well . . . ‘ was nowhere to be found in this translation, since this is Julian’s best-known quote, but at the same time I felt that this is truly what we would say, and therefore it does fit. You miss out on ‘all shall be well . . . ‘ and if you know Julian from anywhere you are expecting to find it, but wouldn’t we reassure someone with ‘everything is going to be all right’? I understand why the writer of a modern translation would use these words. And yet, and yet . . . I missed the quote. For me, it is the weakness of this translation.

Having said that, this is a wonderful translation, and one I know I will read again and again. I am still trying to find the one that best suits my way of reading Julian, and my third Julian is my favourite so far, but Clifton Wolters’ translation is definitely worth reading.