A Matter of Interpretation

Written by Elizabeth Mac Donald
Review by Lucinda Byatt

Translation is always a “matter of interpretation”, and it can (still) be a matter of life or death for the translator. Elizabeth Mac Donald offers a richly detailed portrayal of Palermo, the seat of the great imperial court, and Toledo, home to the renowned if controversial school of translation of the novo sapere from Arabic to Latin. We see both through the eyes of Canon Michel Scot, a real historical figure, who travelled from the borders of Scotland, via Oxford and Paris, to Sicily, where in 1201 he becomes tutor to the six-year-old orphan who would astonish the world as Emperor Frederick II. Scot – extremely tall and pale-skinned, with a beard that was once fiery red – is the classic outsider, coupling alienation with curiosity, but possibly at last a sense of belonging.

Twin threads weave throughout Macdonald’s excellent debut novel: primarily, the unifying “substance of the human heart”, but also translation, particularly Scot’s translations of Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy, Averroës’ commentaries, and finally the surgical works of Albucasis. Translators of these works tread a fine line, liable to papal ban or approval, and Scot is an enigmatic figure who pushes boundaries, particularly because of his terrifying reputation in the dark arts.

The story builds to a climax a decade or so later, when the battle lines for supremacy between Church and Empire clash with the power of knowledge. This page-turning novel reveals a world that seems at once alien but eerily familiar, and MacDonald has an unerring eye for detail and memorable characters. Highly recommended.