Historical figures associated with translation

Throughout history there have been some really important figures who have had a profound influence on translation. Often with a particular agenda and motivation as regards the role of translation, they all had their own ideas about how translation should be undertaken. The perceived function and responsibilities of the translator have always been in a state of evolution as different concepts of translation gain prominence at different times. During the act of translation, decisions may have been taken for political reasons or to enrich certain languages. Looking at some of these key personalitites, and recognising the challenges and dilemmas many of them faced, helps us to have a good overview of how we think about translation today. It also helps us realise that, as translators, we are following in the steps of some incredible trailblazers. Let’s take a look at some of them now.

St Jerome (347-420)

Jerome was a biblical translator and monastic leader, traditionally regarded as one of the most learned Latin Fathers. He lived for a time as a hermit, became a priest, and established a monastery at Bethlehem. He wrote extensively, and his biblical, ascetical, monastic, and theological works profoundly influenced the early Middle Ages. He is known particularly for his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. The Vulgate was the first translation to be done by someone who formulated and discussed well developed ideas on translation, such as the conflict between literal translation and idiomatic rendering of the meaning.

Jerome was recognised as a saint and doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Anglican Communion. His feast day is 30 September, and the date was adopted by translators everywhere: International Translation Day is celebrated every year on that day. Indeed, this Bible translator is considered the patron saint of translators.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer is best known for his Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told by travelling pilgrims, with descriptions of characters painting an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and of the Church. Chaucer was also a prolific translator. Translating from French, Latin and Italian, he imported new literary forms into the English language, like the romance or the fable. For instance, he translated the key French literary text of the Middle Ages, the Roman de la Rose (a poem to entertain and teach about the art of love).

Chaucer made a big contribution to the English language, because he imported Romance poetics and vocabulary into English, and he chose to write and translate in English, the vernacular, which was rare at a time when written English was still less respected than Latin. His decision to produce literature in English was part of the new status that English was beginning to acquire, gradually pushing out Norman French as the elite political language and Latin as the language of philosophy and religion.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Luther was a German monk who influenced the Protestant Reformation in Germany. In terms of translation, he is most well-known for translating the Bible from Greek into German. His purpose was a religious one – to disseminate the word of God and to undermine the Church monopoly on religious knowledge. With his translation, he wanted to make the Bible accessible to ordinary people, and to standardise the German language. In this sense, he was regarded as the father of the German language. His translation, however, was controversial because he was thought to deviate too much from the original. His translation style was freer than it was literal, which displeased the Catholic Church, and it was banned as soon as it was published.

Nevertheless, Luther’s translation had an important impact on the development of the German language, and started a move towards freer translations of the Bible across Europe.

William Tyndale (1494-1536)

Interestingly, the English scholar and theologian William Tyndale had similar ideas to Luther: he translated the New Testament into English in a simple and clear style so that it would be accessible to ordinary English people. Translating the Bible, however, was forbidden at the time, and he was accused of heresy. Betrayed by one of his friends, Tyndale was put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake. By this time several thousand copies of his New Testament had been printed, however, and his work formed the basis of all subsequent English translations of the Bible.

Etienne Dolet (1509-1546)

French humanist, scholar and printer, Etienne Dolet was well-known for producing the first real treatise on the dos and don’ts of translation which he published in 1540. By starting to talk about the job of translation, Dolet was helping create the professional identity of ‘translator’, and in fact he was the one who first popularised the terms ‘traduction’ and ‘traducteur’ in French. As opposed to the previous way of thinking about translation, which tended to fall into two camps (total literalism or total freedom) Dolet was looking for a more balanced approach – in his treatise, he argued for close attention to the actual meaning, going back to original sources, and at the same time for close attention to the needs of the receiving language.

This was a very modern view of translation, and it viewed translation as a way to import ideas into French while at the same time stretching and perfecting the French language. Dolet strongly believed that the French language was equal to the great classical languages, and that translation would help French to become even more developed. Dolet was accused of atheism, spent years in and out of prison for publishing against the will of the Catholic Church, and in the end was garroted and burned at the stake, allegedly because of three words in his translation of Plato.

Gilles Ménage (1613-1692)

Gilles Ménage was a French scholar and man of letters. Ménage was both humorous and quarrelsome and made many enemies, such as the playwright Jean Racine, who prevented his entry to the Académie Française in 1684. The dominant model of translation in seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Europe – with its epicentre in France – was one of fitting the foreign material as closely as possible into the home system. This period is often called the ‘neo-classical’ period. The idea was to translate the old Greek and Latin classics, but in a new, French form.

In translation studies, Ménage is best known for coining the nickname of these translations as ‘belles infidèles’ (literally: beautiful unfaithfuls). Indeed, in 1640 he allegedly said that translations, like women, could be either faithful or beautiful, but not both at the same time. In other words, he believed that translations needed to conform very closely with the standards of beauty that were current in the receiving culture. The idea behind the ‘belles infidèles’ concept was that translated texts were useful additions to the growing French culture – but only if they were made to conform precisely to French taste.

Alfonso X ‘the Wise’: King of Castile (1221-1284)

Although not a translator himself, Alfonso X el Sabio (‘the Wise’), King of Castile, supported the Toledo School of Translators (Escuela de Traductores de Toledo). This was a group of scholars active during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Toledo, a multilingual, multicultural city in central Spain. Spain had long had a large Jewish population and, during much of the Islamic period of Al-Andalus (711- 1492), where Spain was under Muslim rule, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together and often intermarried. When Toledo, which had been under Islamic rule, was reconquered by the Christians in 1085, they set about translating the contents of the vast libraries which included leading scientific and philosophical texts both from the Classical Antiquity and from the Islamic world.

These scholars translated many works from classical Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew, ranging from the translation of philosophical and religious works from Arabic into Latin, in the first instance, to Greek scientific texts. These had been translated from Greek to Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, and were then translated into Latin in Toledo, thus being made available in Western Europe. The translation of texts on astronomy, medicine and algebra, amongst others, attracted many European scholars to Toledo, keen to read those books that had been out of reach to Europeans for many centuries. In addition, philosophical and scientific works from Persia, India, and China also entered Western Europe through the translations from Arabic to Latin.

The Archbishop Raimundo de Toledo had enabled the first translations of the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in the twelfth century, but in the thirteenth century, under King Alfonso X, the crown paid for most of the work carried out by the translation scholars, who often worked together on the translation of a particular text, and also taught newcomers their craft. The King wanted the translated texts to be ‘llanos de entender’ (‘easy to understand’), and thus Alfonso X is also credited with promoting the translation into Castilian, the vernacular, rather than Latin, thus establishing the foundations for modern Spanish.

Xuanzang (c.602–664)

Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk who is best known for his extensive translations of sutras from India and bringing them to China. He was a keen traveller and wished to visit India because he was concerned that Buddhist texts from India had not been translated accurately and may have been misunderstood.

His journey to India lasted for seventeen years. He collected hundreds of Mahayana and Hinayana texts. On his return to China, he was offered several high civil appointments by the reigning Emperor but he preferred to retire to a monastery and spend the rest of his life translating Buddhist texts. Nevertheless, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese and his work enabled subsequent recoveries of lost Indian Buddhist texts from the translated Chinese copies.

Paolo Antonio Rolli (1687–1765)

Paolo Antonio Rolli, translator and librettist, was born in Rome. He resided in London from 1715 to 1744, and was a leading figure in Italian circles and a cultural mediator between England and Italy. He was a member of several Italian academies and a fellow of the Royal Society (1729).

In 1715 Rolli was invited to England, most probably by the Earl of Pembroke. Rolli worked to foster English appreciation of the language and classic literature of Italy. He taught Italian and Italian literature to the royal family and other noble families. In London, Rolli published original poetry and Italian translations and editions of classics not otherwise available. Rolli’s most important contribution to Italian letters was his translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, its first complete Italian translation. Rolli’s translation is literal and smooth, although literalness often overrides the poetic. The translation quickly acquired a European reputation and was frequently reprinted.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809 – 873)

Hunayn ibn Ishaq was an influential Arab Nestorian translator, scholar, physician, and scientist. He and his students transmitted their Arabic and Syriac translations of many classical Greek texts throughout the Islamic world, during the apex of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate.

Ḥunayn ibn Isḥaq was the most productive translator of Greek medical and scientific treatises in his day. He studied Greek and became known among the Arabs as the ‘Sheikh of the translators’. He is the father of Arab translations. He mastered four languages: Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Persian. It was well-known that his translations did not require corrections; Hunayn’s method was widely followed by later translators. He was originally from al-Hira, the capital of a pre-Islamic cultured Arab kingdom, but he spent his working life in Baghdad, the centre of the great ninth-century Greek-into-Arabic/Syriac translation movement. His fame went far beyond his own community.

Looking at these pioneering figures, it can be seen that, over the course of history, translation was used as a tool for different purposes. These purposes were sometimes ideological, sometimes aesthetic, and sometimes political, and they often drove translators’ decisions as regards faithfulness. For instance, translators like Luther and Tyndale were motivated by the idea of developing the local (vernacular) languages so that ordinary people who did not read Latin would be able to read the Bible in their own mother-tongue; German and English respectively. Their translations had a huge impact on the development of these vernacular languages, but there was also a political and religious motive attached to it. Indeed, until then the Latin Bible had only been accessible by the clergy who had the monopoly on its interpretation. Translations of the Bible into the vernacular languages not only pushed out Latin, which was the language of the elite, but also helped to reduce the influence of the Church. Therefore, to an extent, translators like Luther and Tyndale made specific translation decisions to enable their ideological and political purposes to come to fruition. It could be said that Xuanzang, in wishing to import new ideas and teachings in China via his translation work, was also ideologically motivated.

Chaucer, Dolet and Rolli also used translation as a tool, but their motivations were, at least initially, aesthetic in nature. These authors believed that translation was a good way to import new ways of thinking and expressing oneself in the target language. By translating great works into their own mother-tongue, they were enriching it (adding new vocabulary, new grammatical and syntactical structures, new ideas) and contributing to raising its status as a great language. The purpose of their translations was dual; aesthetic and political. Fidelity was perhaps less of a concern to them than achieving their aim of enriching their mother tongue.

It is important to understand that, throughout the history of translation, issues of power, identity and nationhood were very much tied to the act of translating. Translation could be a dangerous business and one that, for the likes of Tyndale, would mean losing their life in exchange for standing up for what they believed in and getting their message out to a greater number of people.

3 thoughts on “Historical figures associated with translation

    1. I know TA! There’s more to it than meets the eye. I’m also quite thankful it isn’t as dangerous as it used to be! 😊 I hope you are keeping well. I never did get to the bottom of why I couldn’t subscribe to your blog. I’ll give it another bash I think!

      Liked by 1 person

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