The 450th anniversary of the date when a three-year voyage began is not one to which I would ordinarily attach significance. Nevertheless, two commemorative volumes on Magellan’s voyage appeared in 1969. They are slightly different versions of Antonio Pigafetta’s Relation, the only important primary source material concerning the first circumnavigation of the globe. Pigafetta was a young gentleman of Vicenza who sailed with Magellan as a supernumerary (sobresaliente) with no defined duties. Fortunately for posterity, he had an inquisitive nature, a good ear, and the industry to write down all that he saw or heard about on the voyage. He also had the luck to survive, no mean feat when it is remembered that only eighteen of the more than two hundred seventy men who began the voyage returned to Spain on the Victoria.
Four manuscript accounts of the voyage are extant—two French versions at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; an Italian version, considered by many scholars to be the oldest and most complete of the existing manuscripts, at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan; and a third French version, usually referred to as the Nancy Manuscript, now at Yale University. (None of the extant manuscripts is the original version written by Pigafetta, which is believed to be lost.)
The edition now published by Yale is an English translation of the Nancy Manuscript by R. A. Skelton, with “selective” collation of the two manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Ambrosiana, plus a facsimile volume. The latter reproduces the illuminated manuscript very faithfully; it can be described in one word—beautiful. The manuscript is divided into forty-eight chapters, although the last seven chapters are misnumbered. (The chapter division in the Colines French edition, the other version of Pigafetta’s Relation under review, is very different.) Each chapter is preceded by a summary, and there are marginal notations. The translation is very good, for Skelton made a special effort to reproduce in English “the characteristic flavor and vocabulary of ... an Italian soldier unpracticed in literary composition, though endowed with a curious temper and an acute visual sense which lend vitality and movement to his narrative.” Inevitably, some errors are discovered. Two are embarrassing in that they are omissions concerning the title page and in the first line of the Prologue to Chapter One, but neither these nor the others are substantive. It cannot be said that any new material on Magellan has been discovered, and the translator does not make any claims or advance any new theories.
The two-volume Yale version has been published in a limited edition of two thousand copies at a rather steep price, and this raises some very serious questions. The Nancy Manuscript has been translated and published for the first time, but it appears in a troublesome form, especially under the imprint of a university press. This is an edition which seems to have been prepared for the delectation of bibliophiles, not scholars. Would not the cause of scholarship and the dissemination of knowledge have been better served by a less pretentious—and less expensive—edition? (I cannot forbear adding that another edition will better serve the needs of scholars and others interested in the voyage of Magellan, and at a cost of less than one-tenth of the Yale publication. I refer to the English translation by James A. Robertson of the Ambrosiana Manuscript, edited by Charles E. Nowell and published by the Northwestern University Press.)
For the volume published by Prentice-Hall, Paula S. Paige has translated into English the first printed French edition of Pigafetta’s account. This was an extract made by Jacques Fabre (Jacopo Fabri) from an Italian copy of Pigafetta’s original manuscript. The translator states that the rendition of the book into French from the original Italian is poor. True. Even Lord Stanley, whose 1874 translation for the Hakluyt Society has been discarded by modern scholars, wrote that Fabre’s edition is “very imperfect.” In that ease, why publish a new version of that edition?
Furthermore, the translator’s efforts leave much to be desired. The first translation error occurs in the very first sentence! Further reading shows the book to be riddled with errors, more than thirty. (Helpfully, photographs of pages from the original French edition are reproduced by offset lithography on the versos.) Moreover, the translator has chosen to turn archaic French into archaic English, which reduces any possible usefulness of this edition. Some of the English words employed are of the era associated with Ben Jonson. Par le derrière could have been better translated as “from the buttocks,” rather than the Jonsonian “arses”; salades is translated as “sallets,” when “helmets” would have been more helpful; “corposant,” a word which necessitated a search in Webster’s, should be “St. Elmo’s fire”; few readers will recognize “alembic” (a distilling device) or “barbican” (tower).
On page 36 Miss Paige translates a passage literally to read “men whose ears are so long that they cover their arms,” where Robertson quite sensibly wrote “holes in their ears so large they can pass their arms through them.” In Chapter XXI, deux orades grades is translated as “two large dories.” The orade is a species of fish, a bit too recondite for the average land-bound translator. My final complaint is that the ten-page Introduction by Howard H. Peckham is set in eye-wearying italics.
Magellan deserves better. Perhaps by 1972, the 450th anniversary of the Victoria’s return to Spain, the great circumnavigator will receive his due.