1536-1546: Ten Years that Changed The Perception of the Translator
ATA Chronicle, December, 1995
Those who suppose translators lead hard lives today might want to consider the fate of their Sixteenth Century colleagues. During the ten years between 1536 and 1546, three famous translators met their death. One was tortured first and then burned at the stake in that great center of civilization, Paris. The second was strangled and then burnt in the city of Antwerp. And even though our third colleague died more naturally, it wasn't because half of Europe didn't long to see him hanged, drawn, quartered, and impaled in pieces.
In the most dramatic of these cases, the ostensible reason for the translator's execution was that he had inserted three extra words in his translation, words not clearly present in the original. And in this one particular case, the "accreditation experts" were at least literally correct. The original Greek from Axiochus, a philosophical dialogue attributed to Plato, ran as follows, as transliterated into English:
The translation by Étienne Dolet, our profession's most famous martyr, did in fact add three extra words and a great many others besides, though one of his biographers defends their use as adding to the clarity:
The Greek is difficult, to say the least, though not because the words are at all obscure or exotic: in fact any second-year Greek student is likely to have encountered them. It is the particle-ridden and elliptical nature of these outwardly simple words that presents the problem, and few translators could make any sense of the passage without adding words to the text. I will take the easy way out and first translate Dolet's own translation from the French:
In both the French and the English, it is the last three italicized words that furnished the grounds for execution. I am grateful to our colleague Dr. John Siolas for providing a more literal rendering of the Greek text (which he studied in school), as it highlights some of the problems this text has presented for various translators:
Experienced translators are likely to recognize the nature of the problem. One requires truly deep knowledge of such texts to be absolutely certain of their meaning. So much is elliptical or left unsaid or couched in extremely simple terms that the worst offense Dolet can be charged with is perhaps excessive zeal. Unfortunately his accusers of 1546 were equally zealous, and it was their judgment which finally brought him him, at the age of 37, to the stake.
A humanist to the core, Dolet spent his early youth in the Montparnasse of his day, the University of Padua, where pantheism and materialism both flourished, making it almost de rigueur to deny the immortality of the soul. Always a bit headstrong, at the age of only 25 Dolet killed a man, and a part of his life was spent in prison or on the run. He numbered Rabelais among his friends.
But Dolet's greatest interest for ATA members is his work as a translator and printer. He translated scores of works himself and published many others by his colleagues. He is also acclaimed in France as the first true theoretician in our field, though Luther or even Cicero might have equal claim.
Such a title springs from a thin pamphlet of 1540 with the title La manière de bien traduire d'une langue en aultre. It reduces translation to five fairly familiar points, one of which bears repeating in the light of Dolet's subsequent fate. Following Cicero, he wrote:
This rule is routinely followed today by most translators of literary works, stage plays, advertising texts, and almost all titles, headlines or slogans, while even those who work with diplomatic or legal texts have often found that what may be the mot juste in one language may not be the mot juste in another. Granted, this advice may be less useful for technical translators, though they too are likely to encounter passages where it makes sense. It might perhaps prove useful to obtain a ruling from the ATA Accreditation Committee on Dolet's principle and to discover whether they would have voted for or against his execution. The worst that can happen to those following such a rule today is that they will flunk our exam. For Dolet the consequences were somewhat more severe.
The second translator to die for his transgressions was William Tyndale, who came close to reaching the ripe old age of 44. More motivated by religious devotion than humanist passion, when he was only 20 he was so impressed by Luther's teachings that his friends in England expressed alarm. When he proposed imitating Luther's feat and translating the Bible into English, he was forced to flee to the then liberal shores of Germany. He still had to dodge arrest and run from printer to printer, but he finally succeeded in creating an English version of both the Christian texts and the Torah, which were then smuggled into England. For this feat his fellow church revisionist and fellow religious scholar Henry VIII put a price on Tyndale's head and eventually had him arrested in Belgium, where he was put to death in 1536 after spending a year in prison. His translation of the Bible is credited with influencing the later King James version.
The last of our three "translator-warriors," the one man so many would have rejoiced to see crucified, was the most successful both as a translator and as a charismatic figure. Let's listen to him talking about our craft:
In their homespun, self-promoting, nationalistic tone, these can only be the words of Martin Luther himself in his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen of 1530. It is easy enough to see from these passages how he would have provoked strong reactions from supporters and enemies alike.
Until the passage of these ten pivotal years, translators in the West had been viewed far more readily as heroes than as villains. They had opened all the ancient arts and sciences to the world around them, not only philosophy, astronomy, and geometry but the more advanced range of Arab mathematics, not to mention medicine, optics, and other sciences. They had even opened the door to the enormously popular studies of alchemy, geomancy, and astrology. As Giordano Bruno himself would say: "From translation all science had its off-spring."
After 1546 this view of our field began to change, as both Ballard and Steiner observe, and increasing emphasis would be placed on the inadequacy of translators and even the translation process itself. Despite the remarkable work of poet-translators like Chapman, Dryden, and Pope, it is this view which has largely prevailed until the present day. Thus, whenever we claim that we are going to change the public perception of the translatorwhich this writer firmly believes is possiblewe are not speaking of a simple overnight cure but of diagnosing and treating a complex and durable set of social attitudes, which may indeed have roots reaching back as long as 450 years ago.
The author wishes to thank Marie-Madeleine Saphire and Alex Schwartz for their assistance in researching this piece.