In early modern usage, to ‘translate’ – from the Latin translatus (the past participle of transferre, literally 'to transfer') – was an act of cultural mediation, facilitating the movement of an integral meaning or spirit from one context to another. Such a process was not necessarily textual. In an age preoccupied with clothing’s ability to shape, mould and fashion subjecthood and virtue, translation often referred to or was conceptualized as a process of undressing and redressing. When an apprentice became incorporated into a guild as a full member, for example, they were invested with the company livery in a ceremony referred to as ‘translation’. In a tailor’s shop, the offcuts of a sheet of cloth used to create a new suit were then ‘translated’ into a different garment. ‘Englishing’ a text was much the same process, in which the original was stripped and redressed into English language and cultural resonances. Underscoring this process was a series of complex negotiations between the primary text, the limitations, specifications and nuances of the secondary language, and the cultural frame of reference of the intended readership. The result was not a wholly original composition, but rather an old idea dressed in new clothes.
Though the roles of the translator and the interpreter frequently overlapped earlier in the sixteenth century, translators were generally distinguished from the latter by the mode and form in which they conveyed information. While the interpreter orally communicated the exact words and sentiments of a present speaker, the translator delivered the meaning of an absent subject in writing. In the epistle to his 1606 translation of Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio's Tre dialoghi della vita civil (1565), the state official Lodowick Bryskett provided a definitive assessment: it is to be ‘set downe in writing, as a translation must be’. Aside from communication, the translator required a superior knowledge of the original cultural and linguistic contexts in order to correctly convey the meaning of a text. Familiarity with these nuances allowed them, as Wentworth Dillon, fourth Earl of Roscommon noted, to ‘rewrite’ the spirit of the work in new terms: ‘You grow Familiar, Intimated and Fond; Your Thoughts, your words, your Stiles, you Souls agree, / No Longer his Interpreter, but He’.This notion of a union of souls between original author and translator is heavily indebted to earlier French translation theory. In the 1580 edition of his Essaies, Michel de Montaigne celebrated Jacques Amyot’s 1572 Vies des hommes illustres, a translation of Plutarch’s Moralia, in similar terms:
but everywhere in his translation I see a meaning so beautiful, so coherent and so consistent with itself that either he has definitely understood the true meaning of his author or else, from a long frequentation with him, he has planted in his own soul a vigorous generic Idea of Plutarch’s, and has at least lent to him nothing which belies him or contradicts him.
It was commonly held that translating a text into another language always resulted in some degree of intellectual and cultural forfeiture. ‘It is true that wit distilled in one language’, wrote Robert Stapylton in his Dido and Aeneas (1634), ‘cannot be transfused into another without losse of spirits’. As with Amyot’s Vies des hommes illustres, however, this discordance was not inevitable. Montaigne argues in platonic terms that the ‘generic Idea’ or spirit of the ‘moralia’ has imprinted itself on the translator’s soul either through a kind of transliterary, transhistorical medullary connection or through long and frequent exposure to both the original text and the author’s wider literary corpus.
Within the translated text, this union was often conceptualized in terms of hosting or hospitality. Drawing on earlier Italian humanist tropes of love and familiaritas, the fifteenth-century printer and pedagogue Jodocus Badius Ascensius cultivated a paratextual presence in his translations through the use of commentaries, justifying their inclusion on the grounds that he did not wish to be ‘hospes asymbolus’, a guest who brings nothing to the entertainment. In a closing note to his translation, Lodowick Bryskett, the son of a settled Genoese merchant, pre-emptively chastised potential critics for their ‘breach of the law of hospitalitie’ as they try ‘overruling me in mine owne house’. This guest/host dynamic could be weighted to either celebrate or minimize the translator’s involvement. For Margaret Tyler and other women writers, framing themselves as simple ‘hosts’ gave them license to bring their works into print. In the epistle to the Mirrour of Princely Deeds and Knighthood (1578), Tyler noted how ‘my part therein none but the translation, as it were onely in giving enterteinment to a straunger, before this time unacquainted with our country guise’.
Translation, then, was a delicate balancing act of passivity and revelation, the skilful enacting of simultaneous ‘self-erasure and self-assertion’. Those who took up the task often justified their presumptuousness by stressing the transcultural nature of their international careers, heritage, education, or travels. In late sixteenth-century London, individuals from the City’s diverse communities of strangers often catered to the demand for foreign language tutors and translators brought about by increased cultural and commercial exchange with the Continent. The most well-known of these, the linguist, translator, and lexicographer John Florio, born in London to an Italian father and (possibly) French mother, spent a career creating a composite identity that carefully asserted an authoritative Anglo-Italian national and cultural identity. Unlike Bryskett (born 'Lodovico Bruschetto'), Florio did not fully anglicize his name. In fact, as Manfred Pfister notes, he would present as both 'Giovanni' in his Italian language epistles, or 'John', the naturalized Englishman, in the English equivalent. A self-described ‘Englishman in Italianate’, Florio insinuates his Italian cultural and linguistic heritage alongside explicit protestations of his native Englishness.
Of course, not all aspired to the intellectual heights of Florio, Bryskett, Amyot or Montaigne. In the final decades of the sixteenth century, translated foreign news items and propaganda flooded the English book market. Translators-for-hire, often unacknowledged or listed by their initials, were employed by commercially minded printers and booksellers to ‘copy’ a text from one language into another through what we might now refer to as ‘transliteration’. Yet even amongst those working for commercial printers and booksellers, few would be considered professional in the sense that their output contributed significantly to their income. Edward Aggas, one of the most prolific translators of French propaganda and news items of the late 1580s and 1590s, was first and foremost a bookseller with a shop at the sign of the Dragon in St Paul’s Churchyard.The same applied to those translators of more prestigious works. Many individuals professionally involved in intellectual, religious, and mercantile endeavours performed such acts of cultural mediation secondarily to (and in conjunction with) their official roles as merchants, diplomats, teachers, scholars, travellers, and churchmen.
At the heart of English translation culture was the classicism of the humanists and the central tenets of reformation. Though there were concerns that the incorporation of neologisms would result in the cultural dilution of Englishness, proponents of classical translation argued that they affirmed the status of the vernacular, creating a national literature that fed into emerging ideologies of nationhood. Classical translations were not only culturally enriching, but provided a more expansive vocabulary through which to engage with new scientific, philosophical and theological discourse. It opened up discourse to wider consideration, a desire at the heart of William Tyndale’s mission to render the Word of God into the vernacular. The ‘boy that driveth the plough’, Tyndale reportedly pronounced, ‘shall know more of the Scriptures’ than a blasphemous papist. This sentiment would come to underpin the English Protestant project, with successive monarchs authorizing new translations, including the 1611 King James Bible, celebrated as a triumph of English prose. In the epistle, Miles Smith argued that biblical translation, like humanist classical translation, ‘openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel’.
No sooner had this tradition of biblical translation been established in England than evangelical missions beyond Christendom demanded translations of the Scripture out of English into non-European vernaculars. The English were, however, comparatively late to evangelical translation. Catholic missionaries first propounded inculturation as an effective means of evangelizing local populations. In 1616, the Jesuit Thomas Stephens printed his Kristapurana, a biblical epic based on the Old and New Testament in the Indian regional languages of Konkani and Marathi, in Goa. A resident in India for 40 years, Stephens was able to mediate between western Roman Christianity and local Indian cultures by incorporating elements of Marathi and Konkani literary culture into the work. The evangelical policies of the English colonial enterprises in North America encouraged the translation of religious pamphlets and the Bible into local languages, which involved transcribing the orality of Algonquian dialects into text. John Eliot, a missionary in Massachusetts, translated and printed the English Bible into Algonquian in 1663. The introduction to this Mamusse wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God reveals the connection between translators, readers, and patrons, and how translations of the Bible in colonies bound Algonquians, missionaries and English subjects together within a godly community. Also in the 1660s, the orientalist scholar William Seaman translated the New Testament and a catechism into Turkish with the support of the Levant Company.
Evangelism was also central to the translation of non-Christian texts into English. The first English edition of the Quran, The Alcoran of Mahomet (1649), was a translation from André du Ryer’s French edition (1647). Its publication was the subject of a petition to Parliament in March 1649 by Colonel Anthony Welden, who urged the House to seize the ‘Turkish Alcoran’ and have it burnt. Parliament gave the translator, the Scottish clergyman and controversialist Alexander Ross, ‘a monition to meddle noe more wth any thing of yt nature’. This relatively light stricture was probably due to the above-board licensing of the text and the careful way in which Ross addressed contemporary anxieties. He included a ‘[n]eedful Caveat’ in the prefatory material which posited a series of propositions on the necessity of the translation as a means of highlighting the truth of the gospel. His role as a go-between was thus framed in evangelical terms, where the translator’s purpose is to present to ‘the publick view...the sight of a Monstrous mishapen creature’ to ‘induce the beholder to praise God’.
Translation was also central to early imperial projects. It was used to tempt potential investors and offer access to useful industry knowledge for further expansion and investment. In 1585, the clergyman and colonial promoter Richard Hakluyt commissioned Florio to translate Jacques Cartier’s treatise on the discovery of New France, intending to promote the English discovery of the North-West passage. In the customary translator’s epistle, Florio argues that translations of foreign works were necessary ‘to animate and encourage the Englishe Marchants’ and ‘propose unto them the infinite treasures (not hidden to themselves) whiche both the Spaniardes, the Portugales, and the Venetians have severally gained by their suche navigations and travailes’. While Hakluyt’s own monumental Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589; expanded 1598-1600) emphasized the centrality of English ‘witnesses’ and travel accounts, it nevertheless contains a substantial body of texts in translation. The development of English trade in the Levant and South Asia and colonization in North America advocated by individuals like Hakluyt stimulated the development of new bodies of texts and knowledge. Activity in these regions was dependent on the work of translators and interpreters, and some of this new information has left its mark on language. Turkish terms such as ‘aga’ or ‘vizier’ were introduced by John Shute’s translation of Andrea Gambino’s Commentari delle cose de Turchi, for instance, and words such as ‘mosquito’ or ‘tobacco’ were derived from translations of Iberian colonial writing about the Americas.
While translating such texts was often motivated by a combination of scholarly interests or religious purposes, as well as the career strategies of some translators, the interest in translating colonial knowledge gave rise to a new generation of scholar-translators whose work was often embedded deeply in the developing imperial ambitions of the English. Several former chaplains of the Levant Company became relevant scholars at Cambridge and Oxford thanks to their proficiency in Arabic, Greek, Syriac or Hebrew. Edward Pococke, who served as chaplain in Aleppo (1629) and Istanbul (1636–1639), used his multilingualism to translate several manuscripts he obtained in the Ottoman Empire, including a collection of 6,000 proverbs. William Seaman, the chaplain of the English ambassador at the Sublime Porte between 1628 and 1639, translated the Tac iit-tevarih, a history of the Ottomans commissioned by the sultan Murad III, into English. These intellectual projects, although influenced by antiquarian perspectives, paved the way to the emergence of Orientalist disciplines that supported the development of English colonial activities later in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. Their concerns in gathering knowledge on Levantine culture and peoples that could eventually be useful to English diplomacy and trade nonetheless reveal the role of the translator as a cultural mediator.
It comes as no surprise, considering the translator’s role as a key asset to the English expansionist project and to debates over the place of translation in articulating a clear cultural or religious English identity, that the language around translation swelled with issues of migration, belonging and difference. The translated work was itself a migrant, and its translator the one who helped them assimilate to English life. Florio compared his role in translating Montaigne’s Essaies to that of a ‘fondling foster-parent’ who transports a child from France to England, dresses it in English clothes and teaches it to ‘talke our tongue’. Robert Stapylton was more explicit in his translation of Dido and Aeneas (1634). The function of the translator, he wrote, is to transform a ‘Forraigner’ into a ‘Native’: ‘The Queene of Carthage hath learned English to converse with you: be pleased now to esteeme her as a Native, but in the errours of her language, still remember she was borne a Forraigner’. In this scenario, Stapylton is the tutor (‘In Englishing Virgil’, he wrote, ‘I have given him a Language’), and any ‘errours of her language’ are to be forgiven as an inevitable consequence of the translation process in the same way as one would forgive a non-native speaker. In an earlier translation of Lancelot-Voisin de La Popelinière’s Dessein de l'histoire nouvelle des François (1571), Thomas Barrett bids his patron to give safe conduct to ‘my newe English Denizen’ and ‘entertain his broken englishe’. With patience, he assures them, ‘you shall finde him very delightfull’.