Working with Translations in the History of Political Thought

Translations as Speech Acts

As with any political text that is part of a wider political discourse, it is possible to see a translation as performing a speech act in the Skinnerian sense. We can ask the question: what was a person doing in producing any given translation?

However, then the story becomes more complex, as we need to find out who the actual agent making the speech act is here. Unlike a text published in its original language which ideally has an identifiable author (though early modern authorship itself is complex), a translated text has an original author and a translator who both have a stake in the text. In addition, in many cases the initiative for the translation does not come from the translators themselves, but the work is commissioned by a patron or a publisher.

The translation of Nedham’s True State includes a publisher’s dedication, a preface to the text and the text itself.

An example for such a case is the German translation of Marchamont Nedham’s A True State of the Case of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1654), which appeared as Gründtliche Beschreibung Der Neuen Regiments-Verfassung in dem gemeinen Wesen Engelland, Schott- und Irrland (1657). It was published by Johann Kaspar Suter in the Swiss town of Schaffhausen and dedicated to the mathematician John Pell, who at the time was the English envoy to Switzerland, charged with winning the Protestant cantons for a protestant alliance headed by Cromwellian England. The translation was made in collaboration with Pell, who provided the original English text.

The pamphlet comes with a publisher’s dedication, a preface to the text, likely written by the translator, and the translation itself which needs to be read against an original text (which might also exist in different versions). They all they flag up the importance of the text, and they steer the reading process in a particular direction – in this case to recognise the shared identity and common bond of England and Switzerland as independent sovereign republics in the mid-seventeenth century.

The question, however, becomes: who is actually speaking? Is the speech act being made by Nedham as the original author of the work, or has it become the speech act of the anonymous translator. Or is it the speech act of the individual commissioning the work, in this case Pell or the English government? 

Mirabeau’s adaptation of Milton’s Areopagitica.

We might also consider the quality of a translation and how it might be measured. Should the quality, or rather the success of a translation be measured by how faithful the translator rendered the original text into its target language, or by how well the translated work was adapted for its purpose? 

There might also come a point at which the adaptation process takes over a translation, and the translator becomes the author of something new and very different. An example might be Mirabeau’s 1788 French version of Milton’s Areopagitica in defence of freedom of the press produced on the eve of the French Revolution. As its translator, Mirabeau took the original work, but radically reduced it in size, edited out many of the religious and cultural references which located it firmly in mid-seventeenth-century England and added his own spin for an eighteenth-century French audience – thus using the authority of an existing text to create something that is dependent on a source, but no longer a mere translation of it.

By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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