The Case of the Vanishing Unicorn

If you clicked on this link because you were expecting to find something about music, research, education or all of the above, and are now slightly alarmed by the mention of unicorns, don’t panic. I promise that this is the website of the Katy Hamilton who does those things for a living. And as part of my 2018 bloggery, I thought it might be fun to include a few posts about specific research problems that we face when dealing with historical sources. Perhaps I might even do it once a month, if I don’t receive a flood of complaints and pleas to get back to other topics. That’s rather up to you and how loudly you complain – so time will tell.

Precisely what time sees fit to tell, however, can be a tricky business to determine. And that is where the unicorns come in.

Stone statue of a unicorn, photo taken in Salzburg

Did you know that within the pages of the King James Bible of 1611, unicorns are mentioned on no fewer than seven times? And by 1769 the total went up to nine appearances. I only discovered this a few days ago, and as you might imagine, I got very excited about it. (You can find them cantering through Numbers, Deuteronomy, Job, Psalms and Isaiah – here’s a list of specific verses for 1611, and here’s one for 1769.)

However, these fabulous creatures are entirely absent from the New International Version of the Bible, both in its UK and US versions. Somewhere between 1769 and 2017, the unicorns disappeared. At a time when so much Paperchase merchandise relies upon them, that seems like a rather ungrateful act of abandonment.

Where did they go? Well, the historically-informed amongst you will be aware that the Bible was not written in English. In fact, the five books mentioning unicorns (in 1611 and 1769 anyway) all survive in Hebrew-language sources. Since it’s not really the done thing to actually change the content of the a Bible book without extremely good reason – like the discovery of a new source, or a proven misreading in an earlier edition – the vanishing unicorns are most likely a question of linguistic interpretation. What is the ancient Hebrew for “unicorn”? Or – better question – what is the ancient Hebrew term that scholars decided, in the 1600s, was most effectively rendered as a one-horned horse?

The answer is that the Hebrew refers to a strong, horned creature. As a translator trying to render it in a sentence like ‘he hath as it were the strength of a xxxx’, you can see why ‘unicorn’ would seem like a pretty good fit. And this persisted for quite some time until eventually, the unicorns were replaced with a far less exciting ‘wild ox’. Presumably in part because unicorns are no longer considered sufficiently godly. (I don’t know about you but I’d far rather be working on a picture book version of the 1611 edition than having to draw a load of additional oxen, wild or not.)

The vanishing unicorns are indicative of a changing approach to translation, interpretation and cultural context. And such difficulties, of course, are not restricted to bible scholarship. As a musicologist working frequently with German-language sources, I’m frequently faced with the difficulties of trying to understand, let alone faithfully render, the meaning of certain words from a German text in English. Translation is not a science of direct parallels, which is one of the reasons why we like to pinch good words from other languages (like Schadenfreude – though personally I’d like to make the case for Kummerspeck, the German word for weight gained due to emotional eating, which can be rendered literally as ‘grief bacon’). Quite simply, there is always a measure of creativity in the way a translator must work. So if you are reading the letters of a Spanish composer in an English translation, however good the translation is, you might be missing stuff. Perhaps the translator hasn’t picked up on a cultural subtlety or implication; perhaps they have over-interpreted a possible implication; perhaps they have opted for not quite the right word to fully convey the Spanish meaning to an English reader. It’s an extremely tricky business.

From a research perspective, this means that going back to the original source is crucial. Of course, you too need to speak the language in order to do that. And understand the cultural context of certain vocabulary. But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘she’s got to be crazy, there is not the time in my limited research schedule to become a master linguist AND a Schoenberg/Scriabin/Villa-Lobos/other non-English-speaking-composer expert’, then don’t despair. Because as well as being a dedicated researcher, you are also a realist. If you find yourself short of time in such matters, remember this: there will probably be a translation that you can use to help you.

No no, don’t be angry! I’m not mocking you. But now you know that translations are tricky creatures, and are not infallible. Neither are you. Neither was the composer, who might use words or puns or clever witticisms inconsistently because they were humans. Just treat your sources with care, see if you can get access to primary sources if you can, and cross-reference with reliable translations. By the way, you should try to check handwritten documents in any case – some fascinating research has been done over the past few years into editors of Brahms letters choosing to insert sentences that Brahms had actually written at the side, or bottom, of the main text into the general body of prose where they thought it ‘should’ go. This was no doubt as much a practical solution to problems of print layout for the published volumes, but it can be misleading, and at worse could mangle a point which scholars might find of particular interest… potentially wrongly.

So research blog lesson the first: be wary of your sources and their accuracy, and particularly as regards translations (across languages and layouts). Here be unicorns. And whether that’s a helpful thing or not is still, I’m sad to say, up for debate.

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