During the early modern period, the ‘translator’ played a vital role as a cultural mediator between the English reader and the increasingly accessible European marketplace of ideas. From the Latin translatus, the past participle of transferre (literally ‘to transfer’), the act of translation was tied to the stripping of a foreign text to its basic meaning and transferring this to a new linguistic and cultural framework.[1] The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an explosion in the volume of printed translations in direct response to Tudor expansionism. The resulting ‘Englishing’ of numerous and varied texts from Latin, Greek, and European vernaculars enabled English access to the transcultural intellectual and religious developments and debates occurring on the continent.

In the early sixteenth century, ‘intepretor’ and ‘translator’ often overlapped in meaning. Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible (1535) used the term ‘interpreter’ in Gen. xlii B to mention an oral translation during a dialogue: ‘They knew not that Joseph understode it, for he spake unto them by an interpreter’.[2] The same year, in his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, Thomas More used ‘enterpretors’ to identify the doctors of the Church and other scholars who commented and analysed the Bible, writing that ‘Al olde ye holy enterpretors haue construed the scripture agaynst them’.[3] By the beginning of the seventeenth century, there were ‘strict lawes’ that differentiated translation and interpretation respectively, although these remain obscure.[4] Two clear distinctions were the means through which the information was transferred - orally or in writing - and the translator’s superior knowledge of cultural and linguistic contexts. In his 1606 translation of Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio's Tre dialoghi della vita civil (1565) entitled The Discourse of civill life, the Italian denizen and state official Lodowick Bryskett firmly stated that a translation was ‘set downe in writing, as a translation must be.’[5] The text also exemplifies how the act of translation was differentiated from interpretation by the former’s sound understanding of not only the language, but the culture and literature of a specific country. In a closing note, the Italian Bryskett defends his work from possible accusations that he trespasses against the ‘lawes of an interpretor’ by chastising his English critics for their ‘breach of the law of hospitalitie, in overruling me in mine owne house’.[6] The translator was thus one whose familiarity with the nuances of a language allowed him, as the Earl of Roscommon noted, to ‘rewrite’ the genus 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.’[7]

As Brenda M. Hosington has noted, translation made up not an insignificant percentage of English incunabula in the period 1473-1500.[8] Yet it was Elizabethan expansionism and England’s subsequent exposure to the European marketplace of ideas almost a century later that ushered in what Burke refers to as ‘the great age of translation’.[9] The search for a post-reformation sense of national identity meant the process of translation involved an ideologically nationalistic system of linguistic and cultural ‘Englishing’. In this process, the translator negotiated between the original text, the intended audience and its cultural references, and the limitations, specifications, and nuances of the secondary language in order to create a ‘new‘ text which fit within a specifically ‘English’ cultural frame of reference.

Few translators in the early modern period would be considered professional in the sense that their output contributed significantly to their income.[10] Rather the individuals professionally involved in the intellectual and mercantile expansion performed acts of cultural mediation between foreign texts and English readers secondarily to their official roles as merchants, diplomats, teachers, displaced persons, scholars and travellers. As the complexities and challenges of translation required the mastering of two or more idioms, these individuals self-fashioned varied and complex textual identities as claims to authority. These were generally tied to the transcultural nature of their careers, their formal humanist educations, or their exposure to foreign languages and culture in their formative years or travels. As noted above with Bryskett, immigrants and their descendants frequently used their nationality or heritage as their claim to authority. Huguenot exiles and their descendants were renowned for their translations of French works, as of their translations of English texts into French. Dutch and Flemish Calvinist refugees also translated several Protestant works into and out of English.[11] The Italian-born lexicographer and translator John Florio was acutely aware of the necessity of fashioning a dynamic printed self that maintained cultural authority in the face of anti-Italian sentiment and shifting courtly vogues. Unlike Lodowick Bryskett (born ‘Lodovico Bruschetto’), Florio did not fully anglicise his name; in fact, as Manfred Pfister notes, he cultivated a duality of self in his texts as both ‘Giovanni’, the natural Italian, or ‘John’, the naturalised Englishman.[12] As a liminal figure, an ‘Englishman in Italianate’, Florio navigated the obstacles of anti-alien (specifically anti-Italian) sentiment by expounding a stern, English Protestant theology alongside his cultural and linguistic Italianate self.[13]

This underlying concern about the translator and translated work both acting in some capacity as mediators between the original and host languages and cultures emerges often in translations of literary and historical works. Robert Stapylton, in his translation of Dido and Aeneas (1634), suggested in the dedication to Lady Twisleton that the function of the translator was to transform the foreigner into the 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’.[14] In Thomas Barrett’s translation of Lancelot-Voisin, sieur de La Popelinière’s The historie of France the foure first bookes (1595), the idea of the translator as an agent who nationalized foreign literary works is underscored by the concept of translation as an act of union and shared intellectual endeavour between the original author and the translator: through the act of translation, Popeliniere’s work becomes ‘[Barrett’s] newe English Denizen’. The essence of the text, ‘though he now seeme Clownish & Rogish like … is well esteemed of’ in ‘own Country guise’.[15] Through the common metaphor of language as clothes for ideas, Barrett displays how ‘Englishing’ — or rather ‘endenizing’ — is not the interpretation of a foreign text but the rewriting of its meaning within a new cultural frame of reference.

Translation, of course, was a central tenet of early modern language education. Pedagogic treatises like Elyot’s The boke named the Governour (1531) and Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570) offered models of language learning and translation practice. For Ascham, ‘translatio linguarum’ was considered the most suitable and effective means of learning a language for grammar school students in Tudor England.[16] Critical of the effectiveness of the early sixteenth-century model, Ascham advocated double translation — the act of copying a classical texts from Latin into the vernacular and then back into Latin with no access to the original — as the best and most advanced means through which young students can gain both eloquence in Latin and a thorough comprehension of the literary techniques of classical authorities.[17] The expansion of English vocabulary between 1570 and 1630 was in direct response to the general and wide-ranging emphasis on translation during the period. The relaxed grammatical structures of English allowed for experimentation with elements of not only Latin and Greek, but also other European vernaculars. Advocates, like George Pettie, argued that the ‘ready way to inrich our tongue, and make it copious, and it is the way which all tongues have taken to inrich them selves’.[18] On the other hand, critics frequently argued that the pedantic use of Latin and Greek terms was counterintuitive when suitable English equivalents existed.[19] As John Florio noted in Firste fruites, English ‘is a language confused, bepeesed with many tongues’; foreign influence on the vernacular was so extensive that ‘if every language had his owne wordes againe, there woulde but a fewe remaine for English men’. Yet Florio is careful not to engage directly with the question or address his own prominent role in smuggling ‘rich lexical contraband into English’ through his translations and dictionaries.[20]

English theatre offers glimpses into both sides of the debate. In Ben Jonson’s Poetaster (1601), the character of Crispinus is administered an emetic after being found guilty of planning to plagiarise the work of the character Horace. Crispinus then proceeds to vomit all the excessively latinate words and phrases he has used throughout the play that Jonson opposes. ‘Magnificate’, ‘inflate’, and ‘fatuate’ are belched within a few lines of each other, with Jonson echoing John Hoskyn’s jibe that the suffix -ate is lazy rhyming. On the other hand, Thomas Heywood understood drama as an important means of refinement. While ‘Our English tongue,’ he writes in Apology for Actors (1612), ‘hath been the most harsh and broken language’ consisting of a ‘gallimaufrey’ of tongues, it is ‘now, by this secondary means of playing, continually refined so that in process from the most rude and unpolisht tongue it has grown to a most perfect and composed language’.[21]

Two factors were particularly significant both in the development of English translation cultures, and the associated perception of the figure of the translator. The first of these was religion. The huge upsurge of activity around Bible translation in general, and the translation of the King James Bible (1611) is well known. However, it is also worth noting the close relationship between translation and cross-cultural contact elsewhere in the world, which turned the translator into a dual mediator of cultures and religions. Catholic missionaries first propounded inculturation as an effective means of evangelising a native population. In 1616, the Jesuit Friar Thomas Stephens’s Kristapurana, a Biblical epic based on the Old and New Testament in the Indian regional languages of Konkan and Marathi, was printed in Goa. Stephen’s, a resident in India for forty years, was able to mediate between western Roman Christianity and local Indian cultures and incorporate elements of Indian, Maharashtrian, and Konkan elements into the work.[22] The evangelical policies of the English colonial enterprise in North America encouraged the translation of religious pamphlets and the Bible into local languages. John Eliot, a missionary in Massachusetts, translated the English Bible into Algonquian in 1663. The introduction reveals the connection between translators, readers, and patrons, and how translations of the Bible in the colonies bound Algonquians, missionaries, and English subjects together within a godly community. Also in the 1660s, the orientalist 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 of 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.[23] The translator, the Scottish clergyman and controversialist Alexander Ross, was given ‘a monition to meddle noe more wth any thing of yt nature’. This relatively light stricture was probably due to both the above-board licensing of the text and the careful way in which Ross addressed contemporary anxieties. He included a ‘Needful Caveat’ in the prefatory material which posited a series of propositions on the necessity of the translation as a means to highlight the truth of the gospel. His role as a ‘go-between’ was thus framed in evangelical terms: the translator’s purpose is to present to ‘the publick view … the sight of a Monstrous mishapen creature’ so as to ‘induce the beholder to praise God’.[24]

Implicit in some of the previous examples is the influence of the second significant factor: travel. Roger Ascham, a well-known critic of the rising Elizabethan fashion of continental travel, would comment about the dangerously close relationship between the transformative effects of travel on the susceptible minds of English youths and the invasive spread of translation:

And yet ten Morte Arthures do not the tenth part so much harme as one of these bookes made in Italie and translated in England. They open, not fond and common wayes to vice, but such subtle, cunnyng, new, and diverse shiftes, to cary yong willes to vanitie, and yong wittes to mischief, to teach old bawdes new schole poyntes, as the simple head of an English man is not liable to invent, nor never was hard of in England before, yea when Papistrie overflowed all … And that which is most to be lamented, and therfore more nedefull to be looked to, there be moe of these ungratious bookes set out in Printe within these fewe monethes than have bene sene in England many score yeare before. And bicause our English men made Italians can not hurt but certaine persons, and in certaine places, therfore these Italian bookes are made English, to bryng mischief enough openly and boldly to all states, great and meane, yong and old, every where.[25]

Yet even as Ascham lamented the traveller’s role in proliferating translated books in general, strategic translation of travel knowledge was fast becoming the cornerstone of English mercantile ventures. For the English merchant, the role of the translator was provide useful, accessible industry knowledge in order to promote further expansion and investment. While teaching in Oxford in 1580, John Florio was commissioned by Richard Hakluyt to translate Jacques Cartier’s A shorte and briefe narration of the two navigations and discoveries to the northeast partes called Newe Fraunce. In the epistle to the high sheriff of Oxford, Hakluyt — through Florio — promotes the settling of the north-west passage discovered by Cartier while the French are busy with domestic affairs.[26] Indeed, Hakluyt’s political and intellectual projects reveal an articulation between language and emergent ideas on nation or nationalism. As Hakluyt argued in the preface of Florio’s translation of Cartier, 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’.[27] These aims made the translations of these works a methodical and scientific enterprise which ought to be executed by highly-skilled experts. In his preface to António Galvão’s history of Portuguese overseas travels, The discoveries of the world, Hakluyt stated that ‘a good translator ought to be well acquainted with the proprietie of the tongue out of which, and of that into which he translateth, and thirdly with the subject or matter it selfe’.[28] The translator was therefore someone who, ideally, would be able to master foreign knowledge and make it truly accessible in English.

Increasingly in the seventeenth century, the development of English trade and colonisation in North America and regions like the Levant or South Asia, which figures like Hakluyt had advocated, stimulated the development of new bodies of texts and knowledge. Activities in these regions was dependent intrinsically on the work of translators and interpreters (see also ‘interpreter’), and some of the new information have left their mark on the 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’ was derived from the translation of Iberian colonial writing.[29] More importantly, such activities also gave rise to a new generation of scholar-translators whose work was often embedded deeply in Britain’s developing imperial and colonial ambitions. The texts themselves were often motivated by a combination of scholarly interests or religious purposes, as well as the career strategies of some of the translators. Indeed, 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 knowledge of Syriac, Arabic and Greek to translate several manuscripts he obtained in the Ottoman Empire, including a collection of 6,000 proverbs.[30] William Seaman, the chaplain of Sir Peter Wyche, the English ambassador at the Sublime Porte between 1628 and 1639, translated into English the Tac iit-tevarih.[31] The intellectual projects of these scholars and translators, although influenced by antiquarian perspectives, paved the way to the emergence of Orientalist disciplines that would support the development of English colonial activities later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their rather proto-colonial concerns in gathering knowledge on Levantine culture and peoples that could eventually be useful to English diplomacy and trade reveal, nonetheless, the role of the translator as a cultural mediator.
John Florio, engraving by William Hole, 1611[32]
1. 'translate, v. and adj.’, Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 15 May 2017]; see Peter Burke, ‘The Renaissance Traveller as Go-Between’, in Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Andreas Höfele (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005).
2. Miles Coverdale, Biblia the Bible, that is, the holy Scripture of the Olde and New Testament, faithfully and truly translated out of Douche and Latyn in to Englishe (Cologne, 1535; STC 2063.3), sig. D1r.
3. Thomas More, A dialogue of comfort against tribulacion (London, 1553; STC 18082), sig. C3v.
4. Lodowick Bryskett, A discourse of civill life containing the ethike part of morall philosophie (London, 1606; STC 3958), p. 29; see Burke, p. 29.
5. Ibid., p.278
6. Ibid.
7. Quoted in Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (Abingdon: Routledge, 1995), p. 238.
8. Brenda M. Hosington, ‘The Role of Translation and Translators in the Production of English Incunabula’, in Renaissance Cultural Crossroads: Translation, Print and Culture in Britain, 1473—1640, ed. by S.K. Barker and Brenda M. Hosington (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
9. Peter Burke, 'Cultures of Translation in Early Modern Europe', in Cultural Translation in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Peter Burke and R. Po-Chia Hsia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 36
10. Peter Burke, ‘The Renaissance Traveller as Go-Between’, p. 19.
11. Karen Newman and Jane Tylus, ‘Introduction’, in Early Modern Cultures of Translation, ed. by Karen Newman and Jane Tylus (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), p. 14; Sergio Portelli, ‘Translation and Adaptation in Original Composition: Lodowick Bryskett’s Use of His Sources in A Discourse of Civill Life (1606)’, in Translators, Interpreters and Cultural Negotiators: Mediating and Communicating Power from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era, ed. by Federico M. Federici and Dario Tessicini (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 105-120; Manfred Pfister, ‘John/Giovanni Florio: The Translator as Go-Between’, in Translation Practices: Through Language to Culture, ed. by Ashley Chantler, Carla Dente and Manfred Pfister (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), pp. 184-202.
12. Manfred Pfister, ‘Inglese Italiano - Italiano Anglizzato: John Florio’, in Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe, p. 39.
13. Ibid., p. 49.
14. Virgil, Dido and Aeneas the fourth booke of Virgils Aeneis now Englished by Robert Stapylton Esqr (London, 1634; STC 24812), sig. A2r.
15. Thomas Barrett, The historie of France the foure first bookes (London, 1595; STC 11276) sig. A2v - A3r.
16. Roger Ascham, The scholemaster or plaine and perfite way of teachyng children (London, 1570; STC 3958), p. 33.
17. Miller, p. 165.
18. George Pettie, The civile conversation of M. Steeven Guazzo written first in Italian, and nowe translated out of French by George Pettie, devided into foure bookes (London, 1581; STC 245:02), sig. iiv.
19. Charles Barber, Early Modern English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976), p. 42.
20. Pfister, ‘Inglese Italiano - Italiano Anglizzato: John Florio’, p. 196.
21. Thomas Heywood, An apology for actors (London, 1612; STC 13309), sig. F2v.
22. Arjan van Dijk, 'Early Printed Qur'ans: The Dissemination of the Qur'an in the West', Journal of Qur'anic Studies, 7.2, (2005), 136-43 (p. 140).
23. Noel Malcolm, 'The 1649 Translation of the Koran: Its Origins and Significance', Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes, 75, (2012), 261-95 (pp. 261-2).
24. Alexander Ross, The Alcoran of Mahomet (London, 1649; Wing K747A), p. Xix.
25. Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster, p. 27.
26. Jacques Cartier, A shorte and briefe narration of the two navigations and discoveries to the northeast partes called Newe Fraunce (London, 1580; STC 4699), sig. A2r.
27. Jacques Cartier, A shorte and briefe narration, sig. A2r.
28. António Galvão, The discoveries of the world (London, 1601; STC 11543), sig. A3v
29. See for example: Andrea Cambarini, Two very notable commentaries the one of the originall of the Turcks and Empire of the house of Ottomanno, trans. by John Shute (London, 1562; STC 4470), sig. FF1v, p. 53; For examples of introduction of words from the Iberian colonial world such as tobacco or mosquito see Richard Perceval, A dictionarie in Spanish and English (London,1599; STC 19620), pp. 173, 225; Edward Topsell, The history of four-footed beasts and serpents (London, 1658; Wing G624), p. 952.
30. Alison Games, Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560—1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 232
31. G.J. Toomer, Eastern Wisdom and Learning: The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 175; Charles G.D. Littleton, ‘The intellectual life of Robert Boyle’, in The Republic of Letters And the Levant, ed. by Alastair Hamilton, Maurits H. Van Den Boogert, and Bart Westerweel (Leiden: Brill, 2005), p. 158.
32. John Florio, engraving by William Hole, 1611
Usage Examples
'I should (as neare as I could) deliver unto them the contents of the same, supposing that my memory would not much faile me in a thing so studied, and advisedly set downe in writing, as a translation must be.'