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Karen Newman and Jane Tylus, eds., Early Modern Cultures of Translation
by Neil Rhodes

Early Modern Cultures of Translation, edited by Karen Newman and Jane Tylus. U of Pennsylvania P, 2015. vi + 358 pages. ISBN: 978-0812247404. $55.00 cloth. 

This volume derives from a lively and wide-ranging conference held at the Folger Institute in Spring 2011. Since then a considerable amount has been published on the subject of Early Modern translation, but in terms of its range and the intellectual calibre of the individual contributions the present collection is outstanding. The book opens with a fine essay by Peter Burke—one of the first scholars to open up the subject of cultural translation—on the language of architecture in Early Modern Europe. Here he points out that translation in the literal sense simply makes the process of cultural translation more visible. For Burke the collective enterprise involved in the translation and publication of work on architecture provides the perfect illustration of Panofsky’s characterisation of the Renaissance as a period of decompartmentalization. He also shows how the domestication of newly invented technical terms heightened the awareness of different architectural styles and argues that translation is therefore capable of shaping perception.

Domestication is one of several strands in Margaret Ferguson’s contribution, which links the creation of a US department for homeland security in 2002 to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Although this essay probably tries to do too many different things, its discussion of Benveniste’s point that Latin hostis can mean both guest and enemy, which is at the centre of the argument, sheds light on many aspects of translation, both cultural and verbal, that appear elsewhere in the book. Host cultures debate whether they should welcome textual and linguistic immigrants for the enrichment that they bring or fear them for their potential to become the enemy within. One particularly striking example of the domesticated stranger is singled out by Jaques Lezra in a stimulating essay “On Contingency in Translation.” He homes in on a passage from Shelton’s English translation of Don Quixote, which in its English version of 1620 refers to an Arabic-reading Morisco as a “Moore turned Spaniard” (171). In the first edition of 1612, however, this appears as “a more translated Spaniard,” though whether this is the responsibility of Shelton or his printer is unclear. Since the earlier mistake makes perfect sense it represents a lectio facilior, and the discrepancy captures at the textual level the double sense of translation as both verbal and cultural conversion.

Gender is another issue in the Shrew, as it is in translation studies more generally, since in the Early Modern period translation was considered by some to be a suitable occupation for a woman by virtue of its being a more passive process than the masculine activity of invention. But this can sometimes work the other way round. Ann Rosalind Jones addresses the question “what happens to authorship when a text by a woman is translated by a man”? (97) and bases her answer on Louise Labé’s Folie in the translation by Robert Greene (1584). Jones places this in the category of the “ladies text” discussed by Juliet Fleming and shows how Greene’s treatment of it effectively neuters the original (99). Translation by a woman is a different matter, of course, as Line Cottegnies demonstrates in her essay on Katherine Philips’s translation of Pompey from the French of Corneille. Adopting the essential qualities of a gentlewoman as desiderata for style—“beauty (smoothness), modesty, and decorum”—she argues that Philips’s understanding of the principles of translation is thoroughly gendered (228). Attention to verbal texture is crucial to the practice of translation and there are few better close readers in this field than Gordon Braden. Here we see him at work on English versions of Ovid’s exile poems, where he shows why Ralegh’s line “Sorrowe hencefourth that shall my princess bee” in his exchange of poems with Queen Elizabeth “seems to be struck directly off the Latin” (49). The significance of lexical choice in translation is also in evidence in Naomi Tadmor’s impressive essay on the Hebrew Bible. Though her title refers to “social and cultural translation,” and this is indeed her subject, it is based upon verbal specifics. She notes that the English word “prince” represents fourteen different words in Hebrew and that its repeated use in English Bibles from the Great Bible of Henry VIII to the King James Version, had the effect of creating an English Bible with a distinctly monarchical inflection, unlike its original. Religion is, of course, a prime mover of Early Modern translation, and Sarah Rivett gives a fascinating account of how the translation of the Bible into Massachusett (the first Bible to be printed in America) joined up with seventeenth-century universal language theories, and later work on the origins of language, in a project that was underwritten by the ideal of recovering the original language of Eden.

Rivett’s essay is one of several that deal with translation into languages other than English. Katharina Piechocki deals with the reception of Ptolemy’s geography in eastern Europe, in particular in Poland; Laszlo Kontler discusses the translation of the Scot William Robertson’s History of Charles V into German and the difficulty his translators had with the terms “polished/polite” and “police/polity”; Carla Nappi writes about the Translator’s College in China which operated from 1407-1748. The last is an extremely interesting and unexpected contribution, though one might question Nappi’s repeated use of the term “early modern” in this cultural context. Perhaps most unexpected, because apparently not about translation at all, is A.E.B. Coldiron’s essay on macaronics in Early Modern England and Scotland. Coldiron explores different uses of macaronics in four case studies, situating each within the plurilingual world of early English printing. Where Caxton alternates Latin and English in a way that harmonizes the two languages, other writers use language difference for more oppositional purposes. In a brilliant aperçu she writes that the reformer “Bale’s amplifying translation smashes the lines like icons and reinterprets the meaning of the fragments” (65).

Since the range of this book is so impressive, the reviewer’s “what about?” objection will seem more than usually inappropriate. But one omission deserves comment because the editors, Karen Newman and Jane Tylus, explain the conditions for its inclusion in their excellent introduction. The difference between Petrarch and Bruni, they argue, is that Bruni knew Greek. This means that Bruni represents a “return to the bilingual world of Roman antiquity” and that for him Latin was still a living language “capable of growth and enrichment” (11). It is important to remember that a great deal of translation in Early Modern Europe was from Greek into Latin and that this was one of the defining features of the Renaissance. It is what Bruni discussed in his own treatise on translation (as did Cicero) and it is the principal concern of the only work of translation theory by an Englishman to be published in the period, Laurence Humphrey’s Interpretatio linguarum (1559). This might seem a very specialized topic, but important work has been done on the subject, for example by Paul Botley. That said, this is a volume of both breadth and depth and the reader will find every essay in it rewarding. 

Neil Rhodes
University of St Andrews


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Cite as:

Neil Rhodes, "Karen Newman and Jane Tylus, eds., Early Modern Cultures of Translation," Spenser Review 46.2.14 (Fall 2016). Accessed September 18th, 2018.
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