1 Mar /12

Dangerous Deeds: The Risky Business of Renaissance Translators

Es ist mein Testament und mein Dolmetschung, und soll mein bleiben und sein.
Martin Luther “Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen und Fuerbitte der Heiligen”

Modern translators certainly face a lot of pressures from their clients. Literary authors want to ensure that their distinctive style of writing is preserved even in a language other than their own, while corporate clients may fear the legal consequences of a misconstrued mission statements and inaccurate contracts. While these daily pressures can certainly plague the mind of a professional translator, they pale in comparison to the dangers their historical predecessors faced. For Renaissance translators, finding the right words was often a matter of living with the blessings of royal patronage or burning at the stake.

In late September of 1536 the British scholar and translator William Tyndale was led to a public execution site near Vilvoorde in present day Belgium. The Englishman had been found guilty of heresy and treason and was now to be strangled and his body subsequently to be burned on the stake. Tyndale was a famous scholar of his time, but neither his fame nor his friendship with Thomas Cromwell could safe him from the public burning. Tyndall, a true child of the reformation and the changing intellectual and religious climate in Europe was the first to translate considerable parts of the Old and New Testament into English, thereby laying the groundwork for the authoritative King James translation of 1611. While his efforts to translate the Holy Scriptures from Greek and Latin into the English vernacular catapulted him to the top of the reformed scholar community of particularly Germany and France, they also placed him into the sights of the counter-reformation. When Tyndale added insult to injury and publicly opposed the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon his fate was sealed and he paid the price for both political and religious insubordination at the stake.

Not unlike his British contemporary, Etienne Dolet was both a public intellectual and a productive translator. In addition, he made a name for himself as one France’s leading printers who published, besides the standard repertoire of clerical and philosophical works, the volumes of French novelist Francois Rabelais. In his translations, Dolet mainly focused on the works of Plato and it was this passion for the ideas of the Greek philosopher that would ultimately cost Dolet his life. After Dolet had already been imprisoned multiple times on charges of alleged atheism and even murder, he was again charged with atheism and heresy in the summer of 1546. This time, however, the prosecution at the theological faculty of the Sorbonne judged his offense especially grave as they presented hard evidence for the charges. As proof for his heretic beliefs the tribunal cited his recent translation of one of Plato’s Dialogues in which, as James Munday explains, Dolet  had added “the little phrase rien du tout (“nothing at all”) in a passage about what existed after death” (Munday 24). After short deliberation the translator’s own words were deemed sufficient proof for his atheistic relapse and on August 31546 Dolet was publicly burned after he had been strangled and his body tied to a wooden pole in the Place Maubert.

William Tyndale and Etienne Dolet both burnt at the stake for their translations of religiously sensitive material. In a time of increasing tension between the defenders of the status quo and the emerging forces of religious and cultural change, church officials felt that their translations diverged too far from the “correct,” that is officially sanctioned reading, of the bible and its meaning. Nonetheless, both cases also exemplify the power of the written word and its seminal importance for the spread of revolutionary ideas; both in the Latin and Greek of the ancient philosophers and scholars and in the vernacular translations that reached the ordinary people. It is therefore no surprise that the possibly most famous of all translators of the period, Martin Luther, had something to say about the importance of translations for the spread of the Reformation.

Martin Luther is, of course, most famous for his translations of the New (1522) and the Old Testament (1534). In addition, however, he also wrote an explanation of his translation that outlines his methodology while addressing the criticism directed against his use of the German vernacular.  Luther’s “Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen und Fürbitte der Heiligen” (1530), he responded to the criticism that he had altered passages of the bible, “mistranslated them” and thereby distorted the divine message of the holy text. In a remarkable passage he answers the accusations by highlighting the individual aspect of all faith and points out that his translation not only spreads the gospel but also teaches the population, and the nobility, proper German. His bible translation is in Luther’s eyes therefore not only a religious achievement but also a social accomplishment. Luther writes:

Aber dieweil ich gewuβt, und noch vor Augen sehe, daβ ihrer keiner recht weiβ, wie man dolmetschen oder deutsch reden soll: hab ich sie und mich solcher Mühe überhoben.  Das merkt man aber wohl, daβ sie aus meinem Dolmetschen Deutsch lernen Deutsch reden und schreiben, und stehlen mir also meine Sprache, davon sie zuvor wenig gewuβt; danken mir aber nicht dafür, sondern brauchen sie viel lieber wider mich. Aber ich gönne es ihnen wohl; denn es thut mir doch sanft, daβ ich auch meine undankbaren Jünger, dazu meine Feinde reden gelehrt habe. (274)

Fortunately the times in which translators risk their lives by the mere selection of the text they translate or the language they choose are over. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to pause and remember from time to time how translators, publishers, and printers have helped to promote the ideas of freedom and equality we cherish and thereby shaped the societies we live in today.

Already tied to the stake, Tyndale utters his famous last words as the executioner strangles him.
Illustration from John Foxe’s The Horizon Book of the Elizabethan World. New York: Houghton Mifflin.1967: 73



Works Cited
Luther, Martin. Luthers Volksbibliothek: Ausgewählte vollständige Schriften Dr. Martin Luthers. St.Louis: Wiebusch und Sohn, 1867.
Munday, James. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2001.