Working with Translations in the History of Political Thought

Approaches and Methods

Interesting work over the past decades has come from comparative literature, translation studies, book history, the history of reading and reader reception theory as well as other fields and sub-disciplines which have shifted the focus from the author and their perceived intention to the audience and the reader. My own interest in translation has probably been shaped most by cultural historians studying reading practices, marginalia, note taking as well as the significance of paratexts, including Kevin Sharpe, Anthony Grafton and Peter Burke.

The History of Political Thought more narrowly defined, meanwhile, has its own tools for this type of study, but still rarely applies them to translations as such. Among the approaches which have displayed a remarkable longevity for their usability are those of the Cambridge School and historical discourse analysis which arose from the linguistic turn, notably John Pocock’s identification of ‘political languages’ as ways of talking about politics with their own specific patterns and vocabularies, and Quentin Skinner’s focus on the speech acts an author was performing in writing a text and on the illocutionary force of these speech acts – whether intentional or non-intentional.

While both Pocock and Skinner have worked with translated texts, either from ancient Greek or Roman or from Renaissance Italian authors, and engaged extensively with terms and concepts such as ‘virtue’ or ‘liberty’ – both across languages and over time – translation has only played a peripheral or implicit role in the theoretical frameworks they employed to understand the ways in which the conceptual universe of classical republicanism, for instance, was adopted in seventeenth-century England. Some of their followers, meanwhile, have extended their approaches and addressed translation issues more explicitly. 

By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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