Twelve volumes of Roman law in Dutch translation

Ad fontes, “to the sources”, is one of the characteristics of the historical sciences and philology in the Western world. Historians and other scholars prefer for many reasons no longer to rely on second-hand information, on editions which do not show clearly the intervention of its editors, and one should use preferably the original sources and not a translation. Sometimes this view gained power as a core of historical doctrine, almost literally a dogma. Dealing with sources from the closest possible distance became part and parcel of the historian’s trade.

Sometimes scholars devote themselves not only to the use of sources at first hand or in critical editions, but to the translation of sources. In particular texts in Latin and Greek from Classical Antiquity have been translated into Dutch during the last decades. In my view it is quite a feat to have so much translations in a language which is spoken by only 23 million people, mainly in my country and Belgium. Patrick De Rynck and Andries Welkenhuysen published a bibliography of Dutch translation of classical texts, De Oudheid in het Nederlands (…) (Baarn 1992), online at the Digital Library for Dutch Literature. They published a supplement in 1997. For some authors a team of scholars works on the Dutch translation of all major works, for example a number of works by Augustine of Hippo has been translated recently under the aegis of the Augustijns Instituut in Eindhoven.

The Corpus Iuris Civilis in Dutch

On November 15, 2011, the twelfth and last volume of the Dutch translation of the Corpus Iuris Civilis will be presented in Utrecht to Mr. Ivo Opstelten, the Dutch minister of Security and Justice. A translation of the Institutiones Iustiniani, the first volume of the series, was published in 1993. The twelfth volume of the series Corpus Iuris Civilis. Tekst en vertaling contains the Novellae 115-168. During the eighteen years it took the team of scholars led by Jop Spruit, Robert Feenstra and the late Karel Bongenaar (1935-1999) the membership of the team changed remarkably little. Instead of Feenstra ‘s name which figures on the covers of the Institutes and the Digest Jeroen Chorus and Luuk de Ligt strenghtened the editorial team for the Justinian Code and the Novels. However, the project had to change from publisher. Initially Sdu Uitgeverij in The Hague and the Walburg Pers in Zutphen published jointly the series. In 2005 the publishing house of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) took the series over, and the last volumes are published jointly by the KNAW and Amsterdam University Press. Bibliographers and cataloguers can show their skills in describing the set and the volumes correctly according to the varying national standards.

Publishing twelve bilingual volumes with nearly 8,000 pages is quite a feat, but the qualities and stamina of the translators are just as remarkable. For the translation of the Digestae, the Codex Iustinianus and the Novellae two scholars took care of each of the fifty libri. Their results were discussed with one of the editors-in-chief, and then a second version was prepared. The final result was presented to the editorial steering committee. At some points other scholars helped the teams to clarify difficulties in the text which defy even the most courageous and skilled legal historian. The chief editors looked at it again when all libri of a projected volume were ready, with special care to the quality of the rendering in Dutch and the consistency of the translation, not just for the correct interpretation of juridical terms, and sent the ultimate version off to the publishers.

The auctor intellectualis and indefatigable leader of the project, Jop Spruit, has a record of keen interest in many aspects of the study of Roman law, and in particular translations have received his attention. He published a concise bibliography of Roman law, Bibliografie Romeins recht. Wegwijzer tot de bronnen, hulpmiddelen en literatuur [Bibliography of Roman law. Guide to the sources, research tools and literature] (Zutphen 1988). Translations are present in a chapter of Spruit’s guide. With Karel Bongenaar he presented four volumes of translations of pre-Iustinian law sources, Het erfdeel van de klassieke Romeinse juristen. Verzameling van prae-iustiniaanse juridische geschriften met vertaling in het Nederlands (4 vol., Zutphen 1982-1987), thus making accessible in Dutch a large number of the sources in collections such as the Fontes Iuris Romani anteiustiniani (3 vol., Florence 1940-1943; reprint 1964-1968) and adding fragments and texts found since the midst of the twentieth century. When starting the project for the Corpus Iuris Civilis Spruit and Bongenaar had already a lot of experience with translating the Latin of Roman lawyers.

Other modern translations of the Corpus Iuris Civilis

Not only in Dutch modern translations of the constituent parts of the Corpus Iuris Civilis exist, but asking for a complete translation yields only a few results. The German project Corpus Iuris Civilis. Text und Übersetzung led by Okko Behrends, Rolf Knütel and others started in 1990 with a translation of the Institutiones Iustiniani of which a third edition appeared in 2007. Between 1995 and 2005 appeared three volumes of a translation of the Digestae. The libri 1-10, 11-20, and 21-27 are available. All volumes are bilingual with the Latin text and facing translation. In comparison with the Dutch enterprise progress might seem slow. It is only fair to notice that Okko Behrends has been involved also in the edition and French translation of other sources from Roman antiquity in the series Corpus agrimensorum Romanorum, but it is equally true that anyone involved in translating for both projects has done or is doing this in the midst of other activities.

In the second volume of the Dutch project (Digesten 1-10 (1993)) Jop Spruit and Robert Feenstra discuss briefly a number of translation of Justinian’s Digest (pp. xxxi-xxxiii). Some of the translations of the Digest mentioned are a part of translations of the whole Corpus Iuris Civilis, and these editions date mainly already from the nineteenth century. A French translation was produced by Henri Hulot and others, Corpus Iuris Cvilis. Corps de droit civil romain en latin et en français (…) (17 vol., Metz-Paris 1803-1811; reprint, 7 vol., Aalen 1979). The set can be consulted partially online at the Portail Numérique de l’Histoire du Droit, only the translation of the Digest, books 40 to 50, and the Novels have to be added. The German translation Das Corpus Iuris in’s Deutsche übersetzt vom einem Vereine Rechtsgelehrter was edited by Carl Eduard Otto, Bruno Schilling and Carl Friedrich Ferdinand Sintenis (7 vol., Leizpig 1830-1833; 2nd ed. Leipzig 1831-1839; reprint Aalen 1984-1985), available online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. In Italian you can even find two nineteenth-century translations, first the Corpo del diritto civile (…), Francesco Foramiti (ed.) (4 vol., Venice 1836-1844), and later by Giovanni Vignali (ed.), Corpo del diritto corredato delle note (…) (10 vol., Naples 1856-1862).

In English Samuel P. Scott published Corpus Iuris Civilis. The Civil Law (…) (17 vol., Cincinnati 1932; reprints New York 1973 and Union, N.J., 2001). This translation is available online, even though the reliability for scholarly use of this translation has been subject to doubt. Scott also included translations of the Twelve Tables and other texts. For the Digest exists a more recent English translation published by Alan Watson, The Digest of Justinian (4 vol., Phildelphia 1985; reprint 2008). The translation has been reprinted in 1997 in two volumes, without the Latin text. Spruit duly notes the translation in Spanish of the Digest by a team with among other A. d’Ors and F. Fernandez-Tejero (El Digesto de Justiniano (3 vol., Pamplona 1968-1975). Marc van der Poel, a reknown scholar of Neolatin, notes on his online bibliography for the history of Latin a Russian translation of the Digest by Leonid L. Kofanov, Digesty Justiniana (11 parts in 8 vol., Moscow 2005-2008).

In the first volume of the new Dutch translation of the Codex Iustinianus – volume VII of the series appeared in 2005 – Spruit and Feenstra mention in the introduction other translations of the Codex (p. xli-xliv). Pascal Alexandre Tissot had already translated the Codex as Les douze livres du Code de l’empereur Justinien (4 vol., Metz 1807-1810; reprint Aalen 1979) – available online (Hathi Trust) – before his translation was also included in the series edited by Henri Hulot and others. The Codex, the Digest and the Novellae have been translated into Spanish by Ildefonso L. García del Corral, Cuerpo del derecho romano a doble texto (…) (6 vol., Barcelona 1889-1898; reprint Valladolid 1988). This translation is available online at the Biblioteca Juridica Virtual (UNAM, Mexico City) and most easily accessible through the Edictum website of Norberto Darío Rinaldi (Universidad de Buenos Aires).

Spruit and Feenstra note that translating Justinian’s Code is made more difficult by the way many constitutions have been taken over in shortened form from the Codex Theodosianus. They point explicitly to the translation by Clyde Pharr and others, The Theodosian code and novels, and the Sirmondian constitutions (Princeton 1952; reprint Union, N.J., 2007) as a fine tool for translating the Codex Iustinianus. In the Dutch project the Authenticae have also been translated and put together at the end of the Code.

I checked the Index Translationum of UNESCO, which one can try to use as a shortcut to get a more or less reliable view of extant translations worldwide from the last two or three decades, but the Dutch translation is sadly missing among the search results. It is not the first time that the Index Translationum appeared to be rather defective, but nevertheless it can be helpful to widen the horizon of a search. The search results for individual parts did however contain the selection of texts from the Codex Justinianus translated by Gottfried Härtel and Frank-Michael Kaufmann (Leipzig 1991) on the basis of the nineteenth-century German translation. It is worth reading the introduction and the epilogue to this Nachübersetzung (re-translation) dated “Leipzig Dezember 1988”. Härtel translated with Liselot Huchthausen also the Institutions of Gaius and the Laws of the Twelve Tables in a volume with selected legal texts (Römisches Recht in einem Band (first edition Berlin-Weimar 1983; 4th ed., 1991)). Although I have admittedly not done a complete and exhaustive search it seems plausible to conclude for now there is no sign of any other current project for a complete translation of the Corpus Iuris Civilis apart from the projects led by Spruit and Behrends, both cum suis.

The English translation prepared over the years by Justice Fred H. Blume of both the Justinian Code and his Novels has been painstakingly edited and made ready for online publication by Timothy Kearley (University of Wyoming). On the website in Wyoming the appearance of a new English translation of the Code by a team led by Bruce Frier, and a translation of the Novels by David Miller and Peter Saaris is announced for 2011. It is said to be published by Cambridge University Press, but I could not yet find an announcement on its website. For both translations Blume’s work is consulted. If you bring together a translation of Institutes, for example the one by Birks and McLeod (1987), the translation of the Digest by Alan Watson and his collaborators, and these two translations using Blume’s project you will have access to the Corpus Iuris Civilis in a recent English translation.

Finis coronat opus

The names of the translators participating in the project for the Dutch translation read like an overview of almost every contemporary Dutch and Belgian scholar in the field of Roman law. Spruit and Feenstra got assistance not only from Romanists, but also from specialists in the field of Roman history and church history. They acknowledge the fruitful contacts with the German translators. It is perhaps envious to single out some scholars, but in my opinion the Novellae would very likely not have been translated into Dutch from the original Greek if Jan Lokin, Nicolaas van der Wal and Bernard Stolte had not cooperated, and certainly not as quickly and thorough.

In this month’s Rechtshistorische Courant, the monthly bulletin on legal history in Belgium and the Netherlands published by the legal historians at Ghent University, the Dutch team gets praise for its perseverance. The project is compared to a kind of Tour de France, with all kinds of routes. I will not try to outdo their eulogy, but I am sure the end crowns the work!

A postcript

A new French translation of the Digest has arrived, Les cinquante livres du Digeste, Dominique Gaurier (ed.) (3 vol., Paris 2017), with also Lenels palingesia of the Edictum perpetuum.

The updated edition of Blume’s translation was published later than expected: Bruce Frier, The Codex of Justinian. A New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text (3 vol., Cambridge. etc., 2016).

2 thoughts on “Twelve volumes of Roman law in Dutch translation

  1. Timothy Kearley

    I accidentally came upon your blog today and as you mention my work in it I thought I should thank you and provide an additional piece of information. I’m the one who edited Justice Blume’s Justinian Code translation for the web. I happen to have exchanged emails with Bruce Frier yesterday, and he said his group has begun to feed their Code translations to the Cambridge University Press. The preface I’m writing for it is due this summer, so I hope the work will be published later this year.
    Tim Kearley

    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Thank you for your information about the progress of Bruce Frier and his team! I look forward to their translation. This update edition of Blume’s translation was published later than expected: Bruce Frier, The Codex of Justinian. A New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text (3 vol., Cambridge. etc., 2016).


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