Yesterday I wrote about Peter Martyr’s description of the discovery of a “giant’s” thigh bone in Mexico. When I discussed it yesterday, I provided a Spanish language version of the story as well as the standard 1912 English translation. What I did not have was the original Latin, from which the many later translations were made. That would be because it did not occur to me that some libraries (as well as Google Books) have the Latin version listed under the Italian name of Peter (Pietro Martire), not his Latin name or English name, which they use for MacNutt’s translation! Sigh. This is not as simple as it seems since some of Peter’s Decades were first published in Italian and some in Latin, and getting to the original is a pain in the neck. I dug up on Google Books the first published edition of the complete Decades, which provides the Latin text of Decade 5, Book 9, where the relevant passage occurs.
We’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s remember how Francis MacNutt translated the text in 1912:
I wish to terminate this narrative by a story of a giant who, similar to the formidable Atlas, will serve me as an ending and confirm what I have told. Diego Ordaz, whom I have before mentioned, explored several unknown parts of that region and conquered a number of caciques, amongst whom was one in whose country the fruits used as money grow. He it was who taught the Spaniards how to cultivate that tree, as I have already told. Ordaz found in the sanctuary of a temple the hip-bone of a giant, which was half worn away by age. A short time after Your Holiness had left for Rome, the bone was brought to Victoria by the licentiate Ayllon, one of the most learned jurisconsults in the Senate of Hispaniola. For some days I had that bone in my possession; it measured five cubits in length, and its thickness is in proportion. Some of the men sent by Cortes into the southern mountains afterwards discovered a country inhabited by these giants; in proof of their discovery they have brought back several ribs taken from bodies.
Now here is the Spanish version, from a 1964 translation by Dr. Agustín Millares Carlo. I originally thought this was a much older Spanish translation, but it turns out that the first Spanish version covered only the first three Decades. My translation follows.
Quiero terminar este capítulo con un relato giganteo, que cual firme y formidable Atlas venga a respaldar mis afirmaciones. Diego de Ordaz, de quien arriba hice mención, reconoció muchos lugares apartados de aquellas tierras, y sometió a muchos de sus régulos, sobre todo al que señoreaba la región del cacao, en la cual aprendió de qué modo se siembra y cría el árbol de la moneda, según lo expliqué en su lugar. En la bóveda de un templo encontró un pedazo del hueso femoral de un gigante, raído y semidestruido por la antiguedad. El licenciado Ayllón, jurisconsulto y uno de los oidores de la Española, trajo dicho hueso a la ciudad de Victoria poco después de la partida hacia Roma de Tu Beatitud. Yo lo tuve en casa durante algunos días; su largura, desde el nudo del anca a la rodilla, era de cinco palmos, y su ancho en proporción. Los que más adelante fueron enviados por Cortés a las montañas del sur, volvieron asegurando que habían encontrado una región habitada por gigantes y en prueba de su aserto dícese que trajeron muchas costilías de muertos.
Now let’s go back to the Latin and see what the translators have changed. Here’s the Latin, followed by my own attempt at a translation:
Uno giganteo sermone, qui harum significationum, veluti formidabilis substes Atlas, terga tueatur, extremum statuo marginem hunc fulcire. Diecus Ordacius, de quo supra feci mentionem, multos earum terrarum secessus perlustravit, & pacatos reddidit regulos: illum praecipue cuius monetalium arborum est provincia, ubi quo nam pacto arbor monetalis illa seratur ac nutriatur edidicit, sicuti suo loco differui. Gigantis reperit in templi unius fornice foemerale osseum frustum abrasum & longa vetustate semicorrosum: ad urbem Vicotriam paulo post tuae Beatitudinis ab ea discessum Romam versus, licentiates Aiglionus, e senatoribus Hispaniolae unus iurisperitus, id femur attulit. Id ego habui domi dies aliquot: a nodo coxendicis ad genualem quinque spithamis est longum, in proceritate proportio est. Post hoc missi à Cortesio ad Australia montana, regionem se invenisse renunciaverunt hisce hominibus habitatam & ex vita functorum costis, in rei argumentum, tulisse dicuntur plaerasque.
So, neither translator quite got it right. The Spanish translator interpolated material that wasn’t there (cacao, for example) and here and there chopped out bits that were, and he rendered the original unit of measurement, a span (9 inches), into a palm (8 inches), though these were reasonably close and may have been used interchangeably in some locales. (A Continental palm was the length of a hand, while the span was its width, including thumb.) MacNutt confused thigh bones for hip bones and spans for cubits, doubling the size and then compounding that error by telling us that it was but half a hip bone! At 9 inches to the span, the bone would actually be a bit longer than I first thought, about 45 inches, though the measurements are of course approximate since the “span,” like the “palm,” was rather inexact and varied considerably.
The lesson here is that translations recreate the original as much as they report its content, and when it comes to extreme claims, it’s essential to get as close as possible to the original since translators, whether through bias or error, can and do screw up.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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