Working with Translations in the History of Political Thought

The Europa regina from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (C16th).  

As part of my project on ‘English republican ideas and translation networks in early modern Germany’, I look at the ways in which ideas from the English Revolution spread and were received in the German-speaking areas of Europe through the means of translation, and what potential impact they might have had on the constitutional debates before the revolutions of 1848-49.

Translation matters

One reason why translations matter is that they were crucial for the transmission of ideas and cultural transfer between countries and cultures. Consequently, studying translations – how they were produced, how they travelled as physical objects, how they transported content, and how they were read and used – should give us some insight into these transfers.

As our scholarly interests are becoming increasingly transnational, European and sometimes global, translation too is growing in importance for a more connected intellectual and cultural history.

While in the past historians of political thought might have read their Machiavelli or Bodin or Grotius in English as a fairly static text which was part of a canon of early modern political works, we are now much more likely to probe the quality of a translation, investigate how it came about, or how the translation process might have shaped the text itself and how it contributed to the way in which it might have been read and received. We are now much more aware of active readers as well as of translators as active intervenors into texts.

In the early modern period, translations were rarely ever just a straightforward transfer of a text from one language into another – if such objective or unmediated translations are possible at all. However, in a world in which authors had comparatively little control over the use of their works, translators were prone to take much greater liberties with a text than they might in the present day. They were both critical readers and editors of a text who might rework it for new audiences and contexts in a process which Peter Burke has called ‘cultural translation’. Translators might cut and rearrange a text, add explanations and footnotes as well as prefaces and commentaries.

By unravelling their work we might therefore learn something both about the original text and about the purpose for which it was intended, its original context and the target culture, and the cultural gap it was trying to bridge. As I am dealing first and foremost with political texts, I am particularly interested in the way in which political language was translated and how individual concepts describing political and legal entities, constitutional forms, or the political nation travelled between languages and cultures.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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