Translation Matters

Some excellent books on early modern translation.

I work at the Foreign Services Desk of a news agency and I moonlight as an intellectual historian of early modern Britain. Both jobs have been fostering my obsession with translation.

Part of my day job consists in translating news stories into German – mainly from English, less frequently from Spanish, and occasionally bits and pieces from French or Italian.

During a seven-month stint of lonely night shifts in the newsroom, I even cobbled together the odd story from Dutch or Swedish sources with the help of Google Translate, various online dictionaries and a bit of common sense.

Admittedly, I’m still feeling a bit queasy about what might have happened if I had got it wrong, but I was lucky (and I wouldn’t have touched the stories had they been too complex anyway).

The titles of political office-holders alone are a major challenge because there are so many false friends. The US ‘Secretary of State’ in German is the ‘Außenminister’, the equivalent of the UK’s ‘Foreign Secretary’, while the literal translation of the concept’s individual components could be rendered as ‘Staatssekretär’, which however in Germany is used to describe an official in a government department below the rank of ‘Minister’. While the heads of German government departments are known as ‘Minister’, however, in the UK the term ‘minister’ is often used for someone equivalent to the German ‘Staatssekretär’, while the chief minister of a department is the ‘secretary’. You get me?


Similarly, the word and/or concept of ‘chancellor’ is a difficult one. The British prime minister is the equivalent of the German ‘Kanzler’. Yet, we don’t write of ‘Kanzlerin Theresa May’, we translate her English title as ‘Premierministerin’. The UK Chancellor (of the Exchequer) meanwhile is sometimes rendered as ‘Schatzkanzler’, but more often as ‘Finanzminister’, while in many Latin American countries the ‘canciller’ is the foreign secretary. Of course, this has to do with the many complex ways in which both offices and languages have developed historically. But you need to know.

The sources of potential confusion are endless, as are the conflicts between a close literal translation and the (usually much better) rendering of the sense and content in idiomatic German. Naturally, desk editors and slotters insist on accuracy (and rightly so), but often fail to understand that the most literal translation is more likely to distort the meaning of the source text than a free translation using an equivalent German idiom. This renders translating politicians’ quotes a particular minefield, as it involves a certain amount of interpretation on the part of the translator and you are never far from being accused of misrepresenting someone’s intentions.

This brings me back to intellectual history and my interest in the role of translations for the dissemination and reception of ideas across geographical and linguistic boundaries in early modern Europe. For by studying translations we can learn a lot both about the target culture and about the ‘home’ environment of an author or text. (1) Admittedly, my research focuses more on theoretical political texts and utopian thought than on news, but some of the issues are quite similar, as foreign audiences tend to be interested most in content that is directly relevant to their lives, while much of the original context might be lost on them.

IoP_Full_Wood copy
Illustration accompanying the English original text of The Isle of Pines (1668).

The Isle of Pines – an Example

Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines (1668), for instance, was a complex satire on the Restoration government in England that was written in the shape of a utopian travel narrative and published in several parts. Within months of its publication in London, the first part of the story was translated into a number of European languages and became somewhat of a bestseller on the Continent. Yet, foreign translators and audiences only seemed to be interested in that one part of the story – the part that dealt with the shipwreck and survival of a man and four women on a lonely island in the Pacific Ocean, and with the way in which they had multiplied and created a new society over the generations.


The Isle of Pines had many of the elements that still sell (news) stories today: novelty (the discovery of a new island), strangeness (English people marooned in the Pacific), and sex (the titillating detail of what had been going on between the man and the four women at this exotic location).

European audiences were much less interested, or not interested at all, in the story’s sequel that could be read as a parable of the English Civil War and its legacy. The part that could be transported abroad was a travel adventure, or at best a satire on hereditary patriarchal monarchy that might be relevant in other national contexts as well. The rest remained in England.

Illustration accompanying a German translation of The Isle of Pines (1668).

Translations Past and Present

Needless to say that early modern translators cared little about faithful or literal translations. They were mainly interested in what a text could do for them, what truths it might reveal, or how it might be used to serve their own purpose.

The attitude towards translation has changed in the modern day as authors have become more important figures, individuals with a message, and protective of their intellectual property.


As the significance of the author has increased, the role of the translator has narrowed to that of an assistant who should be accurate and faithful, but not become part of the story. The best translations, however, remain those that cannot be recognised as such.



(1) On this point, see László Kontler’s excellent monograph, Translations, Histories, Enlightenments: William Robertson in Germany, 1760-1795 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 14.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

1 comment

  1. It’s interesting to read this today, as one of my students was asking what something meant in English, which had not been translated, or written, well (I saw written as it was probably not translated; instead it was probably written incorrectly in the first place). The student spotted not only a grammatical error, but also queried a turn of phrase which was clunky at best and terrible at worst. That travel guide, The Isle of Pines, sound fun and interesting!

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