Archive for March 2020

Translators in the 19th century

By Marie Lebert, 12 March 2020.

We often focus on the translations of the past, but how about the translators themselves? 19th-century translators were highly regarded alongside authors, scholars and scientists. They were often authors, scholars and scientists themselves. They helped disseminate foreign literature, foreign culture and foreign knowledge, and played a major role in society. Women translators began signing their translations with their own names instead of a male pseudonym. Some of them didn’t confine themselves to literary work, and fought for gender equality, women’s education, abolitionism, women’s suffrage and women’s social rights. Modern-day Wikipedia was very helpful to write these lines.


* The revival of Greek and Latin classics
* New editions of the Bible
* Medieval literature revisited
* Shakespeare’s plays
* One example: German literature
* Another example: French literature
* Women translators
* Poetry translated by poets
* Science and knowledge shared


The revival of Greek and Latin classics

Translators produced new editions of Greek and Latin classics in “modern” languages, for example English editions by Benjamin Jowett and Ellen Francis Mason, and German editions by Johann Heinrich Voss, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Johann Gottfried Herder.

Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) was an English scholar, and a translator from Greek to English. He began teaching Greek at Oxford University in 1855. He also began translating Plato’s works, which grew into a full translation of Plato’s “Dialogues” with introductory essays. He translated Thucydides’ works for several years. Every year, Jowett used his six or seven weeks of vacation, often spent with some students, to work on his translations. He revised Plato’s and Thucydides’ translations several times, and translated Aristotle’s “Politics”. Because of his duties as a vice-chancellor at Oxford and because of a failing health from 1887, Jowett didn’t have much time left for original writing, except a commentary on Plato’s “Republic” and some essays on Aristotle.

Ellen Francis Mason (1846-1930) was an American civic leader and philanthropist, and a translator from Greek to English. She lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and was a trustee of Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college near Harvard University. She befriended American novelist Sarah Orne Jewett. She translated some works by Plato and Socrates, and her annotated translations were published anonymously by Scribner’s in 1879. Although her name didn’t appear on the title pages of her translations, her identity was known to librarians by the following year. American novelist Jo Walton wrote that Ellen Francis Mason’s life “is like a type-example of how difficult it was for women to lead a life of the mind” (note in her novel “The Just City”, Tor Books, 2015).

Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826) was a German scholar and classicist, and a translator from Greek, Latin and English to German. Voss studied philology at the University of Göttingen before being appointed rector in Otterndorf in 1778 and in Eutin in 1792. After writing poetry, essays and treatises, he produced a first translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” (1781) which introduced Homer to the German literary world. He translated Virgil’s “Bucolics” and “Georgics” (1789) before translating Homer’s “Iliad” (1793), which was published with a revised translation of the “Odyssey”. Voss accepted a professorship of classical literature at the University of Heidelberg in 1805. His high wages allowed him to devote himself to his translations until his death. He translated Latin and Greek classics by Ovid (1798), Horace and Hesiod (1806), Theocritus, Bion of Smyrna and Moschus (1808), Tibullus (1810) and Propertius (1830), as well as all Virgil’s works (1799, revised edition in 1821). He also produced a 9-volume translation of Shakespeare’s works into German (1818-29), with the help of his sons Heinrich and Abraham Voss.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a German theologian, philosopher and biblical scholar, and a translator from Greek and Latin to German. After studying at the University of Halle (1787-90), he became a university preacher and a professor of theology there (1804-07) before teaching at the University of Berlin (1810-34). His 6-volume translation of Plato’s works (vol. 1-5 published in 1804-10, vol. 6 in 1826) was influential during German Romanticism. In his seminal lecture “On the Different Methods of Translating” (1813), Schleiermacher opposed translation methods that moved the writer towards the reader, i.e. transparency, and translation methods that moved the reader towards the author, i.e. fidelity to the foreignness of the source text. Schleiermacher favoured the latter approach. His distinction between “domestication” (bringing the author to the reader) and “foreignisation” (taking the reader to the author) later inspired the “non-transparent” theories developed by some 20th-century linguists, including Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti.

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) was a German literary critic and language theorist, and a translator from Latin to German. He studied at the University of Königsberg with German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Herder wrote his first works of literary criticism when he was a clergyman and teacher in Riga (now the capital of Latvia). While travelling in France, he met young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Strasbourg. Herder published his “Treatise on the Origin of Language” (1772) and established the foundations of comparative philology. Goethe used his influence at the Court of Weimar to secure a position for Herder as general superintendent in 1776. As a literary critic, Herder contributed to the Enlightenment and to the Sturm und Drang movement, a Romantic movement for German literature and music. He later endorsed the French Revolution, which earned him the enmity of many colleagues. Herder became a translator later in life. His two main translations were “Terpsichore” (1795-96), a translation and adaptation of German latinist Jakob Balde’s poems, and “The Cid” (1805), a free translation of “El Cantar de Mio Cid”, the oldest preserved Castilian epic poem. According to Herder, translators should translate towards (and not from) their own language, a statement already expressed two centuries earlier by Martin Luther, who was the first European scholar to assess that we translate satisfactorily only towards our own language.


New editions of the Bible

Julia Evelina Smith was the first woman to translate the Bible and sign her translation with her own name. Her translation was published before the “English Revised Version of the King James Bible”, the new official authorised version of the Bible in England.

Julia Evelina Smith (1792-1886) was an American feminist, and a translator from Latin, Greek and Hebrew to English. Her family, the Smiths of Glastonbury, lived in Connecticut, and all the women in her family were active in championing women’s education, women’s suffrage and abolitionism. Much later, in 1994, they were inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Julia Evelina Smith was well educated, with a working knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. After reading the Bible in its original languages, she decided to undertake her own translation of the Bible into English, with an emphasis on literalism. Her translation was completed in 1855, after eight years of work, and published in 1876, before the publication of the “English Revised Version of the King James Bible” (1881-94).

The “English Revised Version of the King James Bible” was a major undertaking, before becoming the new official authorised version of the Bible in England. American scholars were invited to cooperate by correspondence with 50 English scholars for the publication of the New Testament (1881), the Old Testament (1885) and the Apocrypha (1894). Debates over different translations continue to this day. The King James Only movement advocates the use of the original “King James Bible” instead of more recent editions. The original “King James Bible” (1604-11) included 39 books for the Old Testament (translated from Greek), 27 books for the New Testament (translated from Greek and Latin) and 14 books for the Apocrypha (translated from Hebrew and Aramaic). The 47 translators — all of them scholars and members of the Church of England — were given instructions to ensure that the translation would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. The “King James Bible” was the third translation into English to be approved by the English Church, after the “Great Bible” (1539) and the “Bishops’ Bible” (1568). It was also regarded as a literary achievement, with lasting effects on the English language and culture. It supplanted the Latin “Vulgate” as the standard Bible in the 18th century, and became the most printed book in history in the early 19th century.


Medieval literature revisited

Several pieces of medieval literature were translated and adapted to produce new works, for example “The Song of Roland” and “Letters of Abelard and Heloise” translated and adapted by Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, “Mabinogion” by Charlotte Guest, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám” by Edward FitzGerald and “Le Livre des Mille et Une Nuits” (the French edition of “One Thousand and One Nights”) by Joseph Charles Mardrus.

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff (1889-1930) was a Scottish writer, and a translator from French and Italian to English. He earned his living by translating French medieval and modern works. He first translated French medieval classics, including “The Song of Roland” (“La Chanson de Roland”), regarded as the oldest surviving work of French literature, and “Letters of Abelard and Heloise” (“Lettres d’Abélard et d’Héloïse”). Later on, he translated Marcel Proust’s 7-volume novel “Remembrance of Things Past” (“À la recherche du temps perdu”), from 1922 until his death in 1930. He also translated French novels by Stendhal (“The Red and the Black” and “The Charterhouse of Parma”) and Italian plays by Luigi Pirandello.

Charlotte Guest (1812-1895) was an English scholar and liberal educator, and a translator from Middle Welsh to English. Born in an aristocratic family, she studied Latin, Greek, French and Italian with her brother’s tutor, and Arabic, Hebrew and Persian by herself. Her first husband was Welsh engineer and entrepreneur John Josiah Guest, who built pioneering schools for his workers’ children. On his death, his company, the Dowlais Iron Company, was the largest producer of iron in the world. Her second husband was classical scholar Charles Schreiber. After learning Welsh and meeting Welsh literary scholars such as historian Thomas Price and writer Ioan Tegid, Charlotte Guest translated several medieval songs and poems with their support and encouragement. She began translating the “Mabinogion” in 1837 from the manuscript transcription made by Tegid when he was a young scholar at Oxford University. The “Mabinogion” was a series of medieval stories compiled from 12th- and 13th-century oral traditions, and the earliest prose stories in Britain. Charlotte Guest’s 7-volume translation was published in 1838-45. A new 3-volume edition was published in 1849 by the Tonn Press in Wales and by Longmans in London. Both editions were bilingual, with the Welsh transcription and the English translation. These editions included many scholarly footnotes and were lavishly produced, with full illustrations and gold-tooled leather covers. A one-volume edition was published in 1877 with the English translation only, and became the standard edition.

Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) was an English poet and writer, and a translator from Arabic to English and Latin. His major work, “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”, was the first English translation and adaptation of the many poems written by Omar Khayyám, an 11th-century Persian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. FitzGerald authorised four editions of his translation (1859, 1868, 1872, 1879). A fifth posthumous edition (1889) was edited after his death on the basis of the revised manuscript he had left. FitzGerald translated some rubáiyát into Latin. FitzGerald’s work was not noted for its fidelity. Many verses were paraphrased, and some of them could not be traced to any original poem. It is now believed that a significant portion of the “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” was FitzGerald’s own creation, but it has stayed the most famous translation of Khayyám’s poems to this day, despite more recent and accurate translations.

Joseph Charles Mardrus (1868-1949) was a French physician, and a translator from Arabic to French. He was a physician in Morocco and the Middle East for the French government. He produced a French edition of “One Thousand and One Nights”, a collection of folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, under the title “Le livre des mille et une nuits”. A first French edition (1704-17) had already been produced by Antoine Galland, a French orientalist and archaeologist who was the chair of Arabic studies at the Collège de France in Paris. Galland’s French edition popularised oriental tales in European literature and nascent Romanticism. The French edition was then translated into English in 1706, into German in 1712, into Italian in 1722, into Dutch in 1732, into Russian in 1763 and into Polish in 1768. Mardrus’ 16-volume translation (1898-1904, 2nd edition in 1926-32) was published by Henri Piazza. Mardrus’ translation was mentioned by French novelist Marcel Proust in “Remembrance of Things Past” (“À la recherche du temps perdu”) as more elegant than Galland’s translation. Like Galland, Mardrus inserted some material of his own to satisfy the tastes of his time.


Shakespeare’s plays

Shakespeare’s plays were translated into German by August Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck, and into Swedish by Carl August Hagberg, for example.

August Schlegel (1767-1845) was a German poet and literary critic, and a translator from English, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese to German. He was one of the leaders of Jena Romanticism, along with poets Friedrich Schlegel (his younger brother), Ludwig Tieck and Novalis. Jena Romanticism was the first phase of Romanticism in German literature, named after the town where they all lived in 1798-1804. Schlegel translated Shakespeare’s plays into German (1797-1810), and his highly praised translations turned them into German classics. Young composer Felix Mendelssohn, at age 17, drew his inspiration from Schlegel’s translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to write a concert overture. Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare’s plays was edited by fellow poet and translator Ludwig Tieck, and completed by Dorothea Tieck, Ludwig Tieck’s daughter, and by young poet and translator Wolf Heinrich Graf von Baudissin. Schlegel also translated five plays by Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca in the two-volume “Spanishes Theater” (1803-09). He produced translations of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese poetry by Dante, Luís de Camões and others in “Blumensträuße Italienischer, Spanischer und Portugiesischer Poesie” (1804). He translated into Latin the Sanskrit texts “Bhagavad Gita” (1823) and “Ramayana” (1829) during his time as the first professor of Sanskrit in continental Europe. The “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (1911) stated that, “As an original poet Schlegel is unimportant, but as a poetical translator he has rarely been excelled.”

Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), who edited August Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare’s plays, was a German poet, writer and literary critic, and a translator from English and Spanish to German. Tieck was one of the founding members of Jena Romanticism with August Schlegel, Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis. He attended the universities of Halle, Göttingen and Erlangen. In Göttingen, he studied Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama. He then attempted to make a living as a writer. He wrote “Der blonde Eckbert” (a fairy tale), “Minnelieder aus der Schwäbischen Vorzeit” (an essay about love poetry in early medieval literature) and “Phantasus” (a collection of stories and dramas in three volumes). Tieck translated Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote” (1799-1804) with his daughter Dorothea Tick. He also translated Elizabethan dramas in the two-volume “Altenglisches Theater” (1811).

Carl August Hagberg (1810-1864) was a Swedish linguist, and a translator from English to Swedish. After studying at Uppsala University, Sweden, he taught ancient Greek there in 1833. He travelled in Germany and France in 1835-36, and met with notable writers, for example Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Ludwig Tieck in Germany, and Victor Hugo in France. When he returned to Sweden, Hagberg became a strong advocate of English and French literature at a time when Swedish universities were dominated by German influences, and wrote an essay on contemporary French literature (“Om den nya Franska Vitterheten”, 1837). He taught aesthetics and modern languages at Lund University in 1840-59 before teaching Nordic languages there. He translated Shakespeare’s plays into Swedish (12 volumes, 1847-51). Some of his work was based on a previous translation by Johan Henrik Thomander (1825). Hagberg was a member of the Swedish Academy from 1851 until his death.


One example: German literature

German literary works reached English-speaking readers thanks to Sarah Austin, Lucy Duff-Gordon and Anna Swanwick, among others.

Sarah Austin (1793-1867) was an English writer, and a translator of German and French to English. As a child, she studied Latin, French, German and Italian. She married legal philosopher John Austin in 1819. The couple moved from London to Bonn, Germany, in 1827, largely living on Sarah Austin’s earnings as a translator and writer. Her translations from German to English included “Characteristics of Goethe from the German of Falk, von Müller, etc., with Notes, Original and Translated, Illustrative of German Literature” (1833), German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Carové’s “The Story without an End” (1834) and German historian Leopold von Ranke’s “History of the Popes” (1840). Her translations from French to English included the “Report on the State of Public Instruction in Prussia” (1834), a report written by French philosopher Victor Cousin for the Count de Montalivet, then French Minister of Public Instruction. In the preface to her translation, Sarah Austin personally pleaded for the cause of national education. She also stressed the need to create a national system of education in England in a pamphlet published in 1839 in the “Foreign Quarterly Review”. Her other translations included books by German prince Hermann and by French historian François Guizot. Sarah Austin always stood for her intellectual rights as a translator, writing that “It has been my invariable practice, as soon as I have engaged to translate a work, to write to the author to it, announcing my intention, and adding that if he has any correction, omission, or addition to make, he might depend on my paying attention to his suggestions” (cited in Macdonnell, 1885). She corresponded extensively with authors and thinkers of her time. She published her own survey of German institutions and manners under the title “Germany from 1760 to 1814, or Sketches of German Life, from the Decay of the Empire to the Expulsion of the French” (1854). She produced new editions of her husband John Austin’s works after his death, and edited her daughter Lucy Gordon’s “Letters from Egypt” (1865) and “Last Letters from Egypt” (1875).

Lucy Duff-Gordon (1821-1869) grew up in London surrounded by the literary figures who befriended her parents John and Sarah Austin. She travelled to Paris and Germany with her family for extended periods, and learned French and German along the way. She married English civil servant Alexander Duff-Gordon. She was a translator before becoming a writer under the name Lucy Gordon. She translated into English German historian Barthold Niebuhr’s “Studies of Ancient Grecian Mythology” (1839), German priest Wilhelm Meinhold’s “Mary Schweidler, the Amber Witch” (1844), French writer Clemens Lamping’s “The French in Algiers” (1845), German legal scholar Paul Johann Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach’s “Narrative of Remarkable Criminal Trials” (1846), and (with her husband) German historian Leopold von Ranke’s “Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg” (1847). After contracting tuberculosis, she left England in 1862 to settle permanently in Egypt. In her letters to her husband, her mother and other family members, she gave vivid descriptions of domestic manners and customs, with many observations on Egyptian culture and religion. Her letters were edited by her mother Sarah Austin, and published as “Letters from Egypt, 1863-1865” (1865) and “Last Letters from Egypt” (1875). One of her daughters, Janet Ross, also settled in Egypt after marrying English banker Henry Ross, and became a historian and bibliographer, including for her own family in “Three Generations of English Women” (1893).

Anna Swanwick (1813-1899) was an English feminist author, and a translator from German and Greek to English. Born in Liverpool, England, she moved in 1839 to Berlin, Germany, to study German, Greek and Hebrew. When she returned to England in 1843, she began translating some works by German poets Goethe and Schiller, and published them as “Selections from the Dramas of Goethe and Schiller” (1843), with Goethe’s “Torquato Tasso” and “Iphigenia in Tauris”, and Schiller’s “Maid of Orleans”. She produced blank-verse translations of other works by Goethe (1850, 2nd edition in 1878). Her translation of Goethe’s “Faust” was highly praised and republished several times. She also produced a blank-verse translation of Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ “Trilogy” (1865), followed by a translation of all his plays (1873). She was interested in many social issues of her day, especially the education of women and the working classes. She helped extending the King’s College lectures to women. She advocated the study of English literature in universities, and gave private lectures to young working men and women.


Another example: French literature

French literary works were translated into English by Matilda Hays, Elizabeth Ashurst, Katherine Prescott Wormeley, Marie Louise Booth, Louise Swanton Belloc and Rifa’a el-Tahtawi, among others.

Matilda Hays (1820-1897) was an English journalist and novelist, a translator from French to English, a feminist, and one of the first openly gay women. She became the first translator of French novelist George Sand’s works with her friend Elizabeth Ashurst. They both loved George Sand’s free-love and independent lifestyle, still unusual in the 19th century, and the fact that her books tackled the political and social issues of her time. Matilda Hays and Elizabeth Ashurst translated George Sand’s “Spiridion”, “Letters of a Traveller” (“Lettres d’un Voyageur”), “The Master Mosaic-Workers” (“Les maîtres mosaïstes”) and “André”. Matilda Hays translated “The Last Aldini” (“La dernière Aldini”) alone, before meeting with Elizabeth Ashurst, and also translated “Fadette” (“La petite Fadette”) alone after Elizabeth Ashurst’s death. Except for “Spiridion” (1842) and “Fadette” (1851), the translations were published in 1847. Like George Sand, Matilda Hays was determined to use her writing to improve the condition of women. In her own novel “Helen Stanley” (1846), she wrote that women couldn’t secure their financial and social future until they “teach their daughters to respect themselves to work for their daily bread, rather than prostitute their persons and hearts” in marriages. She co-founded the monthly “English Woman’s Journal” in 1858, and was its co-editor until 1864.

Elizabeth Ashurst (1813-1850) was an English radical activist, and a translator from French to English. She belonged to a family of radical activists who supported causes ranging from women’s suffrage to Risorgimento (Italian unification). She attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 with her father and her sister Matilda Ashurst, but was not permitted to speak at the conference because women were not regarded as full delegates. She befriended Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, and exchanged correspondence with him from 1844 until her death. She and her friend Matilda Hays became the first translators of French novelist George Sand’s works into English. Elizabeth Ashurst married French artist Jean Bardonneau after meeting him in Paris in 1847, and died in childbirth in 1850.

Katherine Prescott Wormeley (1830-1908) was an American nurse, a writer and a translator from French to English. Born in England as the daughter of a naval officer, she emigrated to the United States at a young age. She became a nurse in the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the American Civil War, and wrote about her experience in “The U.S. Sanitary Commission” (1863) and in “Letters from Headquarters during the Peninsular Campaign. The Other Side of War” (1888). She was also a translator of French literary classics. She translated Honoré de Balzac’s novels (40 volumes, 1883-97), Molière’s plays (6 volumes, 1892), Henri de Saint-Simon’s memoirs, and some novels by Alexandre Dumas and Alphonse Daudet. She wrote a “Life of Balzac” in 1892.

Mary Louise Booth (1831-1889) was an American writer and editor, and a translator from French to English. Born in Millville (now Yaphank) in the State of New York, she was of French descent on her mother’s side. After moving to New York City at age 18, she wrote many pieces for newspapers and magazines, and translated around 40 books. Her first translation was “The Marble-Worker’s Manual” (1856), followed by “The Clock and Watch Maker’s Manual”. She then translated works by French writers Joseph Méry and Edmond François Valentin About and by French philosopher Victor Cousin. She assisted American translator Orlando Williams Wight in producing a series of translations of French classics. She wrote a “History of the City of New York” (1859). At the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, she translated French anti-slavery advocate Agénor de Gasparin’s “Uprising of a Great People” in a very short time by working twenty hours a day for one week, and the English edition was published in a fortnight by Scribner’s. She then translated other books by anti-slavery advocates, including Agénor de Gasparin’s “America before Europe” (1861), Pierre-Suzanne-Augustin Cochin’s “Results of Emancipation” and “Results of Slavery” (1862), and Édouard René de Laboulaye’s “Paris in America” (1865). She received praise and encouragement from President Abraham Lincoln, Senator Charles Sumner and other statesmen. Sumner wrote her a letter stating that her translations had been of more value to the cause “than the Numidian cavalry to Hannibal”. She also translated Gasparin’s religious works (written with his wife), Laboulaye’s “Fairy Book”, educator Jean Macé’s “Fairy Tales”, historian Henri Martin’s “History of France”, philosopher Blaise Pascal’s “Provincial Letters” and other works. She was the editor-in-chief of the American weekly magazine “Harper’s Bazaar” from 1867 until her death. Under her leadership, the magazine steadily increased its circulation and influence, and became very popular. After struggling financially for decades as a writer and translator, she earned a larger salary than any woman in America.

Louise Swanton Belloc (1796-1881) was a French writer, and a translator from English to French. Born in La Rochelle, a seaport in western France, she received an education with a focus on English language and culture. She advocated for women’s education, and contributed to the creation of the first circulating libraries. Her first translation was the translation of Irish poet and novelist Adelaide O’Keeffe’s “Patriarchal Times; or, the Land of Canaan: a Figurate History” (1818), a retelling of the first five books of the Bible. She wrote articles for the French “Revue Encyclopédique” under the supervision of its founder and editor Marc-Antoine Jullien. She also wrote a life of Lord Byron and a series of books for children. She befriended many literary figures, including French writers Victor Hugo, Emile Souvestre and Alphonse de Lamartine, English writer Charles Dickens, Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth and American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. She translated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a book depicting the harsh living conditions of enslaved African-Americans. She also translated Scottish writer Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel “Cranford”, Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s novel “The Vicar of Wakefield”, Irish poet Thomas Moore’s “Irish Melodies”, Lord Byron’s memoirs, and works by Charles Dickens, Maria Edgeworth and Scottish writer Walter Scott.

Rifa’a el-Tahtawi (1801-1873) was an Egyptian scholar and Egyptologist, and a translator from French to Arabic. He studied ethics, philosophy, mathematics and geometry in Paris (1826-31), and read works by French philosophers Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and others, as explained in his memoir “Rihla” (“Journey to Paris”). He returned to Cairo, Egypt, and became one of the first Egyptian scholars to write about western cultures. He was an early adopter of Islamic Modernism, a movement that attempted to integrate Islamic principles with European social theories. In 1835, he founded the School of Languages, also known as the School of Translators (that became part of Ain Shams University in 1973). He supervised the translation into Arabic of 2,000 foreign works on a range of subjects (history, geography, military, etc.), and these translations contributed to the emerging grassroots mobilisation against British colonialism in Egypt. Tahtawi’s own works were influential in the development of science, law, literature and Egyptology in his country. Tahtawi wrote works of political and moral philosophy showing that the principles of Islam were compatible with European modernity. His works introduced Enlightenment ideas such as secular authority, political rights and freedom, public interest and public good, and the principles of a modern civilised society. His works influenced many scholars and were the first efforts towards the “Al-Nahda” (Egyptian renaissance, 1860-1940).


Women translators

Several women translators are mentioned above. Other influential women translators were for example Mary Howitt, Aniela Zagórska, Francesca Alexander and Eleanor Marx.

Mary Howitt (1799-1888) was an English poet and writer, and a translator from German, Swedish and Danish to English. Born in a Quaker family living in Gloucestershire, a county in southwestern England, she began writing verses at an early age. Her famous poem “The Spider and The Fly” was written in 1828. She married fellow Quaker writer William Howitt in 1821, and began a lifelong career of joint authorship and travels with him, except during his Australian journey in 1851-54 when he tried to make a fortune there. The first of their joint productions was “The Forest Minstrels and Other Poems” (1821), followed by “The Desolation of Eyam and Other Poems” (1827) and many other publications, for example “Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain” (1862). They befriended English literary figures such as novelists Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, and poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth and Dorothy Wordsworth. When living in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1840, Mary Howitt got acquainted with Scandinavian literature, and learned Swedish and Danish along the way. She translated Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer’s novels, and her 18-volume translation (1842-63) helped introduce Fredrika Bremer to English readers, including her ideas as a feminist reformer. Mary Howitt also translated Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, for example “Only a Fiddler” (1845), “The Improvisators” (1845), “Wonderful Stories for Children” (1846) and “The True Story of Every Life” (1847). She translated German physician Joseph Ennemoser’s “History of Magic” (1854) for his ideas to reach a new audience. She received a Silver Medal from the Literary Academy of Stockholm for conveying Scandinavian literature through translation.

Aniela Zagórska (1881-1943) was a Polish translator who, from 1923 to 1939, translated from English into Polish nearly all the novels written by her uncle Joseph Conrad, a Polish-English author who wrote in English. At the beginning of the First World War in 1914, Conrad returned to his native Poland for the first time since leaving his country in 1874. He and his family took refuge in Zakopane, a mountain resort town in southern Poland. They lived in a pension run by Aniela Zagórska’s mother, who introduced Conrad to fellow Polish writers and artists who had also taken refuge in Zakopane. Aniela Zagórska kept him company, provided him with books, and became his translator. In Conrad’s view, translation, like other arts, involved choice, and choice implied interpretation. When Aniela Zagórska began translating his books, Conrad would advise her: “Don’t trouble to be too scrupulous. I may tell you that in my opinion it is better to interpret than to translate. It is, then, a question of finding the equivalent expressions. And there, my dear, I beg you to let yourself be guided more by your temperament than by a strict conscience” (cited in Zdzisław Najder, “Joseph Conrad: A Life”, 2007).

Francesca Alexander (1837-1917) was an American writer and illustrator, and a translator from Italian to English. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she moved to Florence, Tuscany, Italy, at age 16 with her family. She began collecting folk songs, tales and customs in Tuscany, translated them and added her own drawings. In 1882, she met English art critic John Ruskin, who became a close friend and correspondent until his death. Ruskin purchased her two manuscripts, and published them as “The Story of Ida” (1883) and “Roadside Songs of Tuscany” (1884-85). He then published her third manuscript “Christ’s Folk in the Apennines” (1887-89). After Ruskin’s death, Francesca Alexander published herself “Tuscan Songs” (1897) and “The Hidden Servants and Other Very Old Stories Told Over” (1900). She was blind and in poor health in her final years. Her archives now belong to the Boston Athenaeum, one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States.

Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) was a socialist activist, and a translator from German, French and Norwegian to English. Known to her family as Tussy, she was the English-born youngest daughter of German revolutionary socialist Karl Marx. As a child, Eleanor Marx often played in Karl Marx’s study while he was writing “Capital” (“Das Kapital”), the foundational text of Marxism. According to her biographer Rachel Holmes, “Tussy’s childhood intimacy with Marx whilst he wrote the first volume of ‘Capital’ provided her with a thorough grounding in British economic, political and social history. Tussy and ‘Capital’ grew together” (in “Eleanor Marx: A Life”, Bloomsbury, 2014). Eleanor Marx became her father’s secretary at age 16, and accompanied him to socialist conferences around the world. She translated some parts of “Capital” from German to English. She edited the translations of Marx’s lectures “Value, Price and Profit” (“Lohn, Preis und Profit”) and “Wage Labour and Capital” (“Lohnarbeit und Kapital”) for them to be published into books. After Karl Marx’s death in 1883, she published his unfinished manuscripts and the English edition of “Capital” in 1887. In London, she met with French revolutionary socialist Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, who had fled to England after participating in the Paris Commune, a revolutionary socialist government that briefly ruled Paris in 1871. She translated Lissagaray’s “History of the Paris Commune of 1871” (“L’histoire de la Commune de 1871”), published in 1876. She wrote political works and translated literary works, for example French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” in 1886. She expressly learned Norwegian to translate Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen’s plays, for example “An Enemy of the People” (“En Folkefiende”) in 1888, and “The Lady from the Sea” (“Fruen fra Havet”) in 1890. She took her own life at age 43 after discovering that her partner, English Marxist Edward Aveling, had secretly married a young actress the previous year.


Poetry translated by poets

Poetry was translated by poets, for example by Vasily Zhukovsky in Russia, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the United States and by Charles Baudelaire in France.

Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852) was a Russian poet, and a translator from German and English to Russian. His free translations covered a wide range of poets, from ancient poets such as Greek epic poet Homer and Persian epic poet Ferdowsi to his contemporaries Goethe, Schiller and Byron. Zhukovsky published in 1802 a free translation of English poet Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in the literary journal “The Herald of Europe” founded and run by Nikolay Karamzin. Zhukovsky’s sentimental melancholy style, highly original at the time, made him well known among Russian readers, and Karamzin asked him in 1808 to become the journal’s editor. Zhukovsky explored Romantic themes, motifs and genres, largely by way of translation, and introduced the Romantic movement to the Russian literary world. He translated from a wide range of sources, often without attribution, given that modern ideas of intellectual property didn’t exist in these days. His melodious translations of German ballads, especially the ballads “Ludmila” (1808) and “Svetlana” (1813), became landmarks in Russian poetry. Both were free translations of German poet Gottfried August Bürger’s ballad “Lenore”. Zhukovsky later translated “Lenore” a third time, as part of his lifelong effort to develop a natural-sounding Russian dactylic hexameter. His translations of Friedrich Schiller’s poems became Russian classics, and were considered to be of equal if not higher quality than the originals. Zhukovsky also produced a verse translation of German author Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s prose novella “Undine”. Written in a waltzing hexameter, Zhukovsky’s version inspired an opera libretto by Russian composer Tchaikovsky. In his remaining years, Zhukovsky wrote hexameter translations of Eastern poetry, including for Homer’s “Odyssey” and Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh”. After being criticised for its distortions from the original text, Zhukovsky’s translation of the “Odyssey” (1849) became a classic in its own right in the history of Russian poetry.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was an American scholar and poet, and a translator from French, Italian and Spanish to English. After graduating at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Longfellow toured Europe in 1826-29, and travelled to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and England while learning languages along the way, mostly without formal instruction. He became a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College and at Harvard College, as well as a poet and translator. He translated medieval Castilian poet Jorge Manrique’s funeral eulogy “Verses on the Death of his Father” (“Coplas a la Muerte de su Padre”) in 1833. Longfellow’s debut book of poetry, “Voices of the Night” (1839), was mainly based on translations, with a few original poems. He edited “The Poets and Poetry of Europe” (1845), an 800-page compilation of translated poems, including poems translated by his colleague and friend Cornelius Conway Felton. The anthology was meant “to bring together, into a compact and convenient form, as large an amount as possible of those English translations which are scattered through many volumes, and not accessible to the general reader.” Longfellow spent several years translating Italian poet Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. He organised weekly meetings with a group of friends, named the Dante Club, to help him perfect the translation and to review proofs. The 3-volume translation was published in 1867, and went through four printings in its first year. Longfellow’s last years were spent translating Italian artist Michelangelo’s poetry, with a posthumous edition published in 1883. In honor of Longfellow’s major role as a translator and editor, Harvard founded the Longfellow Institute in 1994 to support the study of non-English writings in the United States.

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a French poet and essayist, and the translator of American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe’s works into French. His own volume of poetry “The Flowers of Evil” (“Les Fleurs du Mal”) was published in 1857, and his original style of prose-poetry influenced French poets such as Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. Baudelaire began reading some short stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe in 1847, and claimed that Poe’s tales and poems had long existed in his own brain but never taken shape. Baudelaire had much in common with Poe, who died in 1849 at age 40. They both struggled with illness, poverty and melancholy. Baudelaire saw in Poe a precursor, and was seen as his French counterpart. He translated Poe’s short stories “Extraordinary Stories” (“Histoires Extraordinaires”, 1856) and “New Extraordinary Stories“ (“Nouvelles Histoires Extraordinaires”, 1857), his novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” (“Les Aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym”, 1858), his prose poem “Eureka” (“Eureka”, 1864) and his short stories “Grotesque and Serious Stories” (“Histoires Grotesques et Sérieuses”, 1864). Baudelaire’s scrupulous translations were highly praised. Baudelaire also wrote two essays on Poe’s poetry. In his later years, he translated and adapted English essayist Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” (“Confessions d’un Mangeur d’Opium”).


Science and knowledge shared

Translators actively contributed to the dissemination of foreign science and knowledge, for example Claudine Picardet and Clémence Royer in France, Therese Albertine Louise Robinson in Germany and the United States, and Yan Fu in China.

Claudine Picardet (1735-1820) was a French chemist, mineralogist and meteorologist, and a translator from Swedish, English, German, Italian and Latin to French. Born in Dijon, in eastern France, she lost her first husband in 1796, and remarried in 1798 with French scientist Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau. As the only woman in the Dijon Academy, and the only scientist who was proficient in five foreign languages, she undertook translations into French of the scientific literature produced by leading foreign scientists. The demand was high, especially in the fields of chemistry and mineralogy. Claudine Picardet translated three books and dozens of scientific papers originally written in Swedish (works by Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Torbern Bergman), in English (works by John Hill, Richard Kirwan and William Fordyce), in German (works by Johann Christian Wiegleb, Johann Friedrich Westrumb, Johann Carl Friedrich Meyer and Martin Heinrich Klaproth) and in Italian (works by Marsilio Landriani). Her translations contributed to the dissemination of scientific knowledge during the Chemical Revolution, a movement led by French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, often called the Father of modern chemistry. Claudine Picardet also hosted renowned scientific and literary salons in Dijon and Paris, where she moved later on, and actively participated in the collection of meteorological data.

Clémence Royer (1830-1902) was a self-taught French scholar, and a translator from English to French. She translated English naturalist Charles Darwin’s 1859 book “On the Origin of Species”. His concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection attracted widespread interest, and Darwin was anxious to have his book published into French. In the translation’s first edition (1862), based on the third English edition, Clémence Royer went beyond her role as a translator, with a 60-page preface expressing her own views and detailed explanatory footnotes. Her preface promoted her own concept of progressive evolution, which had more in common with French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s ideas than with Darwin’s ideas. After reading her translation, Darwin criticised her lack of knowledge in natural history, and was unhappy with her preface and footnotes. He requested changes in the translation’s second edition (1866) to correct some errors and inaccuracies. The translation’s third edition (1873) was produced without Darwin’s consent, with a second preface that also made Darwin unhappy, and with no mention of the additions to the fourth and fifth English editions. The translation only included an appendix stating the additions to the sixth English edition published in 1872. The three French editions were published by Guillaumin. The translation’s fourth edition (1882) was published by Flammarion the year of Darwin’s death, and stayed popular until 1932. Her controversial translation brought fame to Clémence Royer, who extensively wrote and lectured on philosophy, feminism and science, including on Darwinism.

Therese Albertine Louise Robinson (1797-1870) was a German-American writer and linguist, and a translator from English and Serbian to German. Born in Germany, she translated Scottish writer Walter Scott’s novels “Old Mortality” and “The Black Dwarf” (1822) under the pseudonym Ernst Berthold. She published a series of literary criticisms without signing them. She was reluctant to use her own name to publish her poetry and short stories, so she invented the pen name Talvj, formed with the initials of her birth name (Therese Albertine Louise von Jacob), to sign her collection of short stories “Psyche” (1825) and other works. She learned Serbian after reading German philologist Jacob Grimm’s translations and comments on Serbian folk songs. She translated Serbian folk songs herself with Goethe’s support and encouragement. Her translation “Volkslieder der Serben” (Folk Songs of the Serbs) appeared in 1826, and was praised by Goethe and the German literary world. She married American theologian Edward Robinson in 1828, and moved with him to Massachusetts in 1830. She assisted her husband in introducing and publishing German theology in America. She studied Native American languages and wrote a handbook. She translated American linguist John Pickering’s seminal article “On Indian languages of North America” published in “Encyclopedia Americana” (1830-31), under the title “Über die Indianischen Sprachen Amerikas” (1834). In his article, Pickering advocated for a phonetic transcription of Native American words, in order to remedy inconsistent schemes adopted by scholars from different nationalities. Therese Albertine Louise Robinson wrote a history of Slavic languages with her husband (1834, 2nd edition in 1850). The poems she translated into German were first published anonymously in an essay on popular poetry in the German nations (1836), and later published as a book (1840). They were also included in “The Poets and Poetry of Europe” (1845), an anthology of translated poems edited by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Yan Fu (1854-1921) was a Chinese scholar, and a translator from English to Chinese. He is credited for introducing western ideas to China. He developed in 1898 his three-facet theory of translation, based on his experience with translating works in social sciences: faithfulness, i.e. be true to the original text in spirit; expressiveness, i.e. be accessible to the target reader; and elegance, i.e. be written in an “educated” language. Of the three facets, Yan Fu considered the second facet as the most important. If the meaning of the translated text couldn’t be understood by the reader, there was no difference between having translated the text and not having translated the text at all. Yan Fu established three more rules in order to facilitate comprehension: the word order could be changed; Chinese examples could replace original ones; and people’s names could be rendered Chinese. Yan Fu’s theory had much impact worldwide, but was sometimes wrongly extended to the translation of literary works.


Please see also:
* Some famous women translators of the past
* A short history of translation and translators
* History of translation and translators
* History of translation and translators — timeline
* Dictionary of famous translators through the ages


Copyright © 2020 Marie Lebert
License CC BY-NC-SA version 4.0

Written by marielebert

2020-03-09 at 15:36

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