Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ronsard on Nostradamus: and a Note on Translation

Throughout his life Nostradamus had experienced visions of the future, and kept them private, but according to his son Cesar it was the approaching wars of religion of France which prompted him to start publishing his prophecies for the public. He foresaw that Christianity, and the nation of France, would be divided down the middle between the Catholic Church and Protestantism. And what he foresaw came true: after he published his prophecies the Wars of Religion in France started in 1562 and would not be concluded until about 1594 when Henry of Navarre became King of France, long after his death in 1566. Before he was crowned king, he converted from the Protestant religion to Catholicism. This helped end the war, for afterwards he issues the Edict of Nantes which gave toleration for French Protestants (known as Huguenots.) Further down the road, Nostradamus wrote that the Protestant movement would become further divided into multiple sects, which indeed did come true. Long before him the Protestant reformation was predicted by Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in the 12th century A.D.

As early as 1560 the French poet Ronsard recognized the validity of the prophecies of Nostradamus. Pierre de Ronsard is regarded as one of the greatest of poets from France, and became known as the "prince of poets." Ronsard lamented how French families and French society had become divided due to religion. Although he recognized that the Catholic Church had abused its power, he regarded the Protestant religion as a heresy and did not regard it as a solution to the problem. A few of his poems actually concern Nostradamus. Here is one entitled, "To France after the Disaster of Saint-Quentin" as translated by Edgar Leoni. It was written in after it became known that Nostradamus successfully predicted the Battle of Saint Quentin in the year 1557:

Thou mockest also the prophets that God chooses amongst thy children, and places in the midst of they bosom, in order to predict to thee thy future misfortune.
But thou dost laugh at them.
Perhaps its the immense eternity of the great God that has aroused the fervor of Nostradamus.
Or perhaps a good or bad demon kindles it.
Or perhaps his spirit is moved by nature, and climbs to the heavens, beyond mortals, and from there repeats to us prodigious facts.
Or perhaps his somber and melancholy spirit is filled with crass humors, making him fanciful.
In brief, he is what he is; so it is that always with the doubtful words of his prophetic voice, like that of an ancient oracle, he has for many a year predicted the greater part of our destiny. I would not have believed him, had not Heaven, which assigns good and evil to mankind, been his inspiration.


Here we see very early on there was question as to the source of the prophecies: was it from astrology? Did he inherit this ability? Was it from consulting a daemon spirit? Or were the prophecies from a divine origin? Ronsard believes that latter: knowledge of the future belongs to God only. This question is asked by many to this very day.

Peter Lemesurier gives a more free poetic translation of this poem by Ronsard:

Be it Great God beyond all space and time
Roused Nostradamus' rapture into rhyme;
Be he by daemon good or evil stirred,
Or gifted with a soul that like some bird
Sours up to heavens no mortal man may know
To bring back auguries for us below;
Be his mind so gloomy, dark and dim,
Crammed with gross humours, as to cozen him -
Whate'er he is, he is: yet none the less
Through the vague portents that his words express
Like some old oracle he has foretold
For many a year what fate for us shall hold.
I'd doubt him, did not heaven, that disburses
Both good and ill to men, inform his verses.


While this is much more poetic in English, unfortunately Lemesurier uses the same method when translating some of the prophecies of Nostradamus, and some meaning is lost in translation. For example, omitted in the second translation is the point that Nostradamus was mocked by many critics before his prophecies began to be fulfilled. The word "melancholy" was considered an attribute of those who could prophesy, and that word is also lost in translation. When it comes to the prophecies, it is much more important to form a literal translation in order to come closer to the meaning of the prophecy. Otherwise a mistranslation can lead to a misinterpreted prophecy. And sometimes the prophecies of Nostradamus are intentionally mistranslated in order to make the prophecy "fit" the event after it had occurred - such occurred when a prophecy on the internet floated around after the attack of September 11, 2001. Which was an unfortunate distraction, because he did foresee that event as well.

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