The Translator’s Tale

I found the first fragment on a trip to England in January of 2005. I was in Oxford and this thing that could only be called a scrap stood out to me amongst all the other scraps of parchment a colleague was showing to me. It was the word “maginer” that caught my eye. It was, in actuality, not a whole word; it was a fragment too, just as the parchment it was scribed on. Immediately to its left was a large space marked in light pen marks where the initial — an imposing, capital I — would go if the intended illuminator had had ever gotten his chance to draw it.

“Imaginer.” A big French verb mixed in amongst archaic English prepositions, adjectives and nouns. To imagine. And that is just what I did. I spent the following four years imagining what this text was trying to tell me.

I soon found more fragments. One here, one there…always in some dusty corner of a university or college where they keep things they’re unsure how to classify. I made my photocopies, transcribed the archaic words into my laptop, and was on my way. I was putting together a puzzle, but of course I never knew if all the pieces originally came from the same box. I didn’t know what I had, I didn’t know where it was all going, but the fragments were starting to tell a story.

But they weren’t. More to the point, they were telling me the rules for how to tell a story. And not the type of story that an author crafts, but rather the kind that a chronicler experiences. A story not written by one person, but created in the moment by several people in unison. A collaborative, creative exercise. An opportunity to imagine.

The text’s actual scribe, it turns out, was not a scribe at all. He was a cellarer, managing the food stores for a priory in England (of which the exact location I was never able to determine) and living sometime in the late 12th century. The cellarer did the writing, but the authorship belongs also to three monks he associated with: Brothers William, James and Adam. Like the creative exercise they describe, what they devised is also a work of collaboration: each member contributing something to the whole (though I must admit that I am somewhat disappointed that Brother James never was able to illuminate its pages as the cellarer had promised).

All-in-all, the result of the endeavor is a game. It is not unlike modern role-playing games in which several players describe the actions of their characters in an imagined world. In fact, where the archaic descriptions or the spaces between fragments have failed to communicate the intentions of the 12th century cellarer and his fellow monks, I must admit that I have borrowed ideas from some of my favorite RPGs to fill the gaps.

I’m not sure that my work can necessarily be called a faithful translation of the original text. Wherever possible I have tried to maintain the spirit of the cellarer’s words, but I have perhaps taken the game’s first instruction, to imagine, a bit too literally. My efforts were targeted primarily at the game itself, decoding its idiosyncratic terms and mechanisms into something understandable and intuitive. Translation of the text notwithstanding, I think the resulting game is playable and entertaining while still something very close to what four modest monks played in the dim light of a damp cellar so many years ago. And I believe they might even be proud to think this game of their invention would be played these vast centuries later. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, and, as much as I suppose they did.

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