Thursday, July 26, 2007

When Latin was Rex: a 1715 apologia for an English translation of a Latin work.

I came across something quite interesting.

Sébastien Castellion (1515-63) was a French-born Reformer and opponent of Calvin (and Church or state persecution of heretics). I was looking at an English translation of his Dialogorum Sacrorum Libri Quatuor printed in London, 1715 as The history of the Bible. Collected into one hundred and nineteen dialogues. By Sebastian Castalio. Translated from the original.

The translator (seems to have been someone called William Wyatt) gives an interesting explanation in his preface for translating a Latin book such as this into the English vernacular.

A bit of background is in order, since it is not self-evident why such an explanation (apologia, really) is necessary. At the time, Latin was still the uncontested lingua franca of European scholarship. Indeed, it would remain such for at least the remainder of the 18th century, although obviously that was also the century when it was changing. With so many tongues in Europe, it obviously made sense for their to be a common tongue, a medium by which a Polish astrononmer and an Dutch botanist and an English mathematician can hold a dialog, and this medium was Latin. If my history isn't too simplistic, this was eventually supplanted by German, which was supplanted by English, which today is still the international language of scholarship (not to minimize the use of vernaculars even then, and of course now).

Here are parts of the preface:

There are self-evidently disadvantages. But only good intentions!

The translator wants those who can't read Latin to be able to read this and profit from it.

But don't worry--its English style not going to hinder students (Boys) who are learning Latin.

Finally, the translator asserts that this work was merely the "Innocent Amusement of [his] Leisure Hours," that is, don't think he wasted time to produce it.

If I understand him correctly, he assumes that his work would be regarded as a simple waste of time, therefore he has to assure the public that this wasn't the case.

Wow. All this about translating a book from Latin to English.

Although I cannot supply any practical examples at the moment, a similarly defensive and apologetic posture is sometimes found by authors who translate seforim from Hebrew into English, "I understand the problems. I mean well. I deliberately made sure it isn't a substitute for the original and kept the bachurim in mind. This isn't the full focus of mine."

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