CHAPTER 7: Controversies and Misunderstandings

13 of 17 - Translating names - salterio, psaltérion etc

Most writers make a distinction between psaltery and dulcimer, commonly on the basis of playing technique (see also Chapter 1), and some, such as Marcuse (1975) apparently consider that it is appropriate to translate salterio, psaltérion etc., as 'psaltery', since they discuss these instruments - whose features are indistinguishable from dulcimers - with the psalteries.

In ordinary usage, the names 'psaltery' and its variants relate to the mediaeval instrument, with no bridge, strings in a single plane, and designed to be plucked; apart from James Talbot's enigmatic reference (chap. 3.5, England), it seems the latest use in English of 'psaltery' as a specific name (i.e. used in the culture where the instrument is played) is in early 16th century poetry, and it did not acquire its contempoary generic sense until the present era of organology. Instruments which were essentially the same as those called salterio in Italy, psaltérion in France, psalterium in Germany (etc) from the Livre Plaisant (1529) onwards were in England called 'dulcimer'; thus the appropriate specific translation for salterio etc. at this time is 'dulcimer'.

It may be argued that 'psaltery' is an appropriate generic translation, using the term to mean "a plucked instrument having open strings stretched over a board"; certainly these instruments were plucked on occasion, (the quills of the Spanish salterio in Brussels are often quoted), but there are equally many references to their being hammered

("percuotino le corde con le bacchette" (11) in Italy; "frappé par les petits maillets de bois" (12) in Spain, the references of Mersenne, Furetière, Diderot and LaBorde in France, and Kircher's psalterium)

The conclusion, then, is that while the link between 'psaltery' and other related words is very important etymologically, it is not appropriate to use the one as a translation for the others. In passing, it may be noted that the same is equally true of the ancient Greek psalterion, which does not seem to have been a psaltery, however one uses the term.

Connected with this issue is Dr. Marcuse's statement that "During the latter part of the Middle Ages, 'psaltery' came to denote both the finger-plucked psaltery and the struck dulcimer". There are two points here:

- firstly the question of whether it is sensible to use a different name for an instrument when it is plucked than from when it is struck (for most, if not all, the early references to struck psaltérions etc. indicate both playing techniques on the same instrument);

- and secondly, so far as I am aware, the name psaltery' was never used in English for a struck instrument. Presumably the author means 'the groups of names, of which 'psaltery' is the English form, came to denote both plucked and struck instruments'; but since this only applies outside England, the statement as it stands is misleading.

Hortense Panum used the words in yet another sense, discussed in Chapter 1: to her, a dulcimer was evidently a kind of psaltery, so that the hammer illustrated alongside the 'psaltery' from Mersenne presents no incongruity within her own terms(14).