The History Woman's Blog

Workshop: ‘Ideas and translation in early modern Europe’, Newcastle, 22 April

The title page of John Toland’s Anglia Libera (1701), translated from the English text.

As part of my Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship I am organising my first little workshop at Newcastle University to bring together historians and literary scholars with cognate interests in the area of translation and ideas transfer. It is intended as a rather informal gathering to discuss ideas without pressure – just for the sake of discussing ideas.

I see this event as a spin-off from the slightly larger Translating Cultures workshops I have been organising with Thomas Munck at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel over the last couple of years, but also as an event with a slightly narrower focus that speaks directly to my own research on the translation of English republican works in early modern Germany. This does not necessarily mean that the speakers have to address this topic, but that their papers will deal with some of the same questions I have been asking myself in developing my project.

This workshop addresses the significance of translation in the history of early modern political thought. Why were some texts translated while others were not? How did early modern translators go about their work? And what impact did translations have on the dissemination of ideas across physical and linguistic boundaries as well as over time?

In addition to those broader questions, a particular focus will be on the specific issues that arise from the nature of political language itself. As political terminology is often deeply rooted in a particular political culture and a specific context, how well do ideas and concepts travel and to what extent might they change as they do so? For example, how was the conceptual language of classical Greek and Roman republicanism adapted to suit the political culture of mid-seventeenth-century England? How might sixteenth-century Huguenot resistance theories fit in? And how were ideas from the English Revolution in turn imported into late eighteenth-century France?

Some terms might have been difficult to translate because the concepts they described in one language did not necessarily exist in another, or because superficially equivalent terms had very different connotations in different contexts. Thus, a concept like ‘democracy’ might be problematic despite its morphological similarity across languages.

A typical problem might be the translation of a political text from one language into another between two systems that did not share the same institutions or parties. For example, how would a late seventeenth-century German translator from the English convey the workings of parliamentary processes for the educated reader in a German princedom? How would the same translator explain party conflict between Whigs and Tories? 

Would terms like ‘royalist’ and ‘parliamentarian’, ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ mean the same things to different people in early modern Europe, and why might they not? Are there terms that were simply ‘untranslatable’? And, if so, what might these ‘untranslatables’ reveal about either the culture of origin or the target culture?

In order to tackle these questions, this workshop will look closely at early modern printed texts in a variety of European languages as well as engaging with different theoretical and methodological approaches in the history of political thought which might be useful in this context, including the literature of the linguistic turn and of German conceptual history.

Related questions we might want to consider include:

  • To what extent can translations both facilitate as well as complicate the dissemination of ideas?
  • What might the materiality of a text (size, format, paper quality, font etc) say about its potential distribution and use?
  • How might translations of political works differ from translations in other fields and subjects?
  • How far can translators be seen as intermediaries in the transmission process?
  • Which criteria can be applied to assess the success of a translation? 
  • To what extent might translations be vectors of change?

Confirmed speakers:

Tom Ashby (EUI, Florence)

Laura Kirkley (Newcastle)

André Krischer (Münster)

Gaby Mahlberg (Newcastle)

Nick Mithen (Newcastle)

Thomas Munck (Glasgow)

If you would like to participate in this workshop, please email gaby.mahlberg@newcastle.ac.uk to receive a Zoom link to the event closer to the time.

Re-reading old history books

Caroline Robbins’ classic.

Part of the joy of starting a new research project is that you get the chance to read a lot of new literature. I am currently reading about translation and conceptual history, book history and the history of English republicanism.

But I am also actively re-reading a lot of older historiography I first came across when I got my teeth stuck into seventeenth-century English republican thought for my MA and PhD theses. One of the books I have recently re-visited is Caroline Robbins’ Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (1959), now a classic in its own right.

Of course, a lot of it was still familiar in a reassuring way. The authors it covers, John Milton, James Harrington, Henry Neville, Algernon Sidney, John Toland and Robert Molesworth, among many others – back then virtual strangers I was only slowly getting to know – have by now become old friends. 

Robbins’ narrative analysis about the transmission of English republican ideas from the mid-seventeenth-century to revolutionary America has burnt itself into my brain just like the narrative of J.G.A. Pocock’s monumental Machiavellian Moment (1975), which starts the journey of ideas in the Italian Renaissance, but still ends up where Robbins does, across the Atlantic.

Where Robbins’ work was a collective biography of English-speaking Commonwealth authors, bringing together brief life sketches of an extraordinary number of authors writing on cognate issues, Pocock’s work was the biography of an idea travelling continents.

However, the re-reading of any work after a long time also lets you see its flaws more clearly, in part because of the plethora of secondary literature that has been published in the meantime, criticising and revising the arguments as well as developing them further. (more…)

What Germans made of the English Revolution

The Works of John Milton in an C18th edition held at Leipzig University. Library.

I know, it does not seem the best time to start a new research project in the midst of a pandemic. To begin with, many libraries and archives are still shut or operating a limited service, and I might not be able to make full use of my new office for quite some time. 

Moving from Berlin to Newcastle was enough of a challenge in itself, given I had to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, while also trying to sort out all the things one has to do when arriving in a new, if familiar, place. Still, I am determined to make the most of my fellowship after playing around with the idea for the project for quite a while now. After all, there should be enough quiet time for reading.

My new project explores the way in which ideas from the English Revolution (1640-1660) where received in Germany, or rather the German-speaking lands, through the means of translation and what potential impact they might have had on the constitutional debates before the revolution of 1848-49.

Challenging a largely Anglocentric and transatlantic historiography, I hope to establish the intellectual reach and legacy of English republican ideas in Europe by focusing on the country that from 1701 developed an ever-closer relationship with England through the Succession Act which established the Hanoverian dynasty and its heir as the next in line to the English throne. This will involve looking at the distribution history of English republican works in Germany, either in their original English version, or in a variety of translations that might include Latin, French or Dutch texts besides translations into German.

Proceeding from my work on the English republican exiles on the Continent, this is another transnational as well as (from its source base) multilingual study which addresses the communication and cultural exchange between societies across Europe and the way in which political ideas are understood in different contexts.

It is also timely as the UK is renegotiating its relationship with the EU following the 2016 referendum and the degree to which the UK is part of a shared European culture and value system has once again come under close scrutiny both from backers and opponents of Brexit. Then as now, the debates in Europe were about what we share and what divides us.

An C18th German translation of Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government.

In practical terms, I will be looking at the legacy of key authors emerging from the English Revolution, such as John Milton, Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington and Algernon Sidney, whose ideas were key for the development of modern representative democracy. Tainted as they were by the regicide, however, the ideas of popular sovereignty, religious liberty and the rule of law promoted by radicals during the first English revolution did not spread widely beyond the British Isles until after the second. 

Only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 which was – however misleadingly – presented as peaceful and bloodless did a concept of ‘English liberty’ emerge that was considered worthy of praise and emulation among the thinkers of early Enlightenment Europe.

In their view, the English had managed to combine the three classical forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy – in a unique way to balance the interests of the one, the few and the many in a parliamentary monarchy that was held up as a model to the rulers of Europe. By that time, radical republican ideas had been moderated and tamed. They were no longer considered as being in opposition to monarchy, but seen as supporting the rule of a sovereign bound by Parliament and subject to England’s unwritten constitution. 

In contrast, early modern Germany found both democratic government and its own national identity relatively late. It was divided into many smaller states and independent cities, and the territories ruled by the Holy Roman emperors in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were held together only by a loose bond. 

The dissolution of the Empire in 1806, meanwhile, led to the search for a new German identity, first in opposition to the Napoleonic forces and later during the pre-revolutionary period of the Vormärz (c1830-1848/9) against the conservative powers of the Restoration. Besides, many territories still struggled against outdated feudal structures. In this process of state formation and active state building, English republican ideas could offer a model for a parliamentary monarchy and clear constitutional order within the framework of a nation state. 

This does not mean that Germans aimed to emulate their English neighbours, but their identity was shaped through comparison and contrast with other European powers, notably France and England. My new project hopes to capture part of this debate and to contextualise it to gain a better understanding of contemporary constitutional discourse and the formation of national identities in Europe.

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Writing books as an independent scholar

Posted in Academia, higher education, History by thehistorywoman on February 27, 2020

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Here’s one I prepared earlier.

It is possible. You just have to be organised. More easily said than done, I know. But many of us are doing it. Writing books as an independent scholar means that nobody pays you for the time you need to research, read, travel, dig in archives, draft and re-draft your chapters.

You are doing it in your own time and, most of all, you have to find that time. I have spent many an evening after work, an early morning before work or a weekend or holiday to make some progress on my current book.

The annoying thing is, as many of you will know, that it always take a while to get back into the writing process before you actually produce something. I usually have to re-read the last thing I’ve written to remember exactly where I left off, and I frequently get side-tracked reading around and waste an entire session I had set aside for writing only to catch up with what I was doing.

So it is important to find larger chunks of time – to start on a Friday evening when you come home and continue working with appropriate breaks until you need to go back to your day job on Monday morning.

Naturally, this kills any remaining social life you might have, and those of your friends who are not the bookish types might get tired of you and look for better things to do than wait for your excuses why you can’t go out this weekend. (more…)

How not to write women out of history

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, literature, Political Thought, Politics, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on January 17, 2020

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The Parliament of Women (1646), on which Neville based his satirical libels.

Admittedly, my headline sounds a bit dramatic. But I am serious about this. Several years ago, I reviewed two books in short succession: one, a collection of essays on Oliver Cromwell, another, a history of gender in the English Revolution. The former barely mentioned any women at all, the latter focused on gender relations during this crucial period of British history.

The two books could not have been more different from each other, and yet, they covered similar issues. This made me think more about the way in which I was treating women in my own writing on seventeenth-century English republicanism.

I had to admit to myself, that I too had written my PhD thesis on a male republican, Henry Neville (1619-94), who was a bit of a misogynist himself. (He married a much younger woman to lay hands on her estate and then largely ignored her for the rest of her short life.)

It had not even occurred to me to look for a female subject to write about, mainly because I was under the naïve impression that – with the possible exception of Lucy Hutchinson – female republicans in the seventeenth century simply did not exist. This impression, no doubt, was based on the existing literature.

Ironically, it was through Neville himself that I came to engage with women in the English Civil War and its aftermath after all. In his Parliament-of-Women satires, Neville had used the image of an all-female assembly to poke fun on the weak and useless male MPs at Westminster in the late 1640s and early 1650s. This led me to investigate the political activities of women during the period from female petitioners to prophetesses and the activist wives of Leveller leaders.

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Frontispiece of Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1669).

Likewise, Neville’s fictional Restoration travel narrative The Isle of Pines had used a particular depiction of gender relations to pose questions about the legitimacy of political patriarchalism and hereditary rule. So I got hooked on the gender theme and promised myself to pay more attention to the female figures and voices that appear like faint shadows in the documents and secondary literature.

When I was writing my forthcoming book on The English Republican Exiles in Europe during the Restoration, for instance, I realised what an important role Elizabeth Ludlow (c 1630-1702) held in the wider republican nexus.

Not only did she facilitate the flight of her regicide husband, Edmund Ludlow (1617-92), into continental exile in 1660, she also maintained a communication network that allowed the fugitive to stay in contact with important allies over many years. (more…)

A small workshop shows why I like the EU and Brexit is a bad idea

Posted in Academia, Comment, Conferences, Early Modern, higher education, History, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on October 18, 2019

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Our Translating Cultures group in the HAB’s Bibelsaal.

I have just returned from our annual workshop on Translating Cultures at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel (HAB, Germany) which is always a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues while discussing the significance of translation for the dissemination of ideas in early modern Europe. The spread of papers was amazing – from translations of the Old Testament Book of Job via the reception of William Robertson in Italy to Montesquieu in Hungarian and new conventions of botany books that created a whole new language for the description of plants. (You can catch up with the live tweets under #tcHAB2019.)

The mix of languages present at the conference was reflected in our conversations as well. While most papers were presented in English, one was presented in French, and French was also often used in discussions around the table or during break times outside of the conference room, where Italian and German could also be heard. Among the participants were an Israeli, a Hungarian, a Russian and a French national who live and work in Germany, while the event was co-organised by a Danish national living in Scotland and a German who had spent almost one third of her life in the UK and Ireland. (more…)

Life in the non-academic world – and what I miss

Posted in Academia, higher education, Journalism by thehistorywoman on June 13, 2019

Prompted by a tweet by Jennifer Polk the other day I started thinking about what I miss about working in an academic environment. Strictly speaking, she asked, ‘What aspects of non-academic employment did you have to learn/ get used to when you moved beyond the professoriate?’ – and I honestly did not have to think long.

One thing I am still finding hard four years after transitioning from a senior lectureship in History at a UK university to an editorial post at a press agency in Berlin is that I no longer have my own office. I like having people around, even though I am a rather private person, and journalism is all about team work.

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But working in an open-plan newsroom is something else. Technically speaking I no longer even have my own desk, even though I try to sit in the same place most days. We usually move around desks wherever we are needed, and people around you talk all the time – on the phone, to each other and to you – while you are trying to focus on whatever you are currently researching, writing or editing.

There is a certain buzz in the office that can be very uplifting. It makes you want to write and play your part in the big orchestra of keyboards, accompanied by a cacophony of ringtones and vocals. But it is very hard to concentrate and you cannot tell people to shut up all the time just because you are trying to focus on your work. So your multitasking skills are seriously challenged. (more…)

Historical monographs without footnotes?

Posted in Academia, Comment, History by thehistorywoman on April 28, 2019

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Yes, my own monograph also has endnotes.

I have long been irritated by the common practice of academic publishers to ban notes from the page they refer to. Many history publishers consolidate notes either at the end of a journal article or a book chapter or, even worse, relegate all notes and references to the back of a book.

There might be sound reasons for doing so, such as making the printed page look tidier or avoiding that overlong footnotes hamper the reading flow. Alas, it means you have to go backwards and forwards all the time, should you actually be interested in finding out which sources the author used or where the information presented comes from.

However, recently, I have also come across several academic monographs without any footnotes at all. These were not popular history books or text books, but actual monographs by a reputable university press, one from the 1980s and another from 2015. The former had a brief bibliographical essay in the back, the other a select bibliography. But no notes. (more…)

Crisis and Renewal with Aristotle and Machiavelli

Posted in Academia, Conferences, History, Political Thought, translation by thehistorywoman on October 13, 2018

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Honoré Daumier, L’Équilibre européen (1866)

I’m just on the train back from the ESHPT conference on ‘Crisis and Renewal in the History of Political Thought’ in Heidelberg and, as so often happens after an event like this, I’m both completely exhausted but also in good spirits and keen to get back to my research full of new ideas. I also notice that I enjoy those kinds of conferences more as I get older because some of the people there I have known for years and several of them by now have become good friends. What brings us together is our passion for the History of Political Thought as well as our curiosity and love for debate.

In case you are wondering, the ESHPT is the European Society for the History of Political Thought which has been around for roughly ten years now. It was founded at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence by scholars from all over Europe to facilitate communication between people established in the field and the younger ones still trying to find a place in the research community.

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‘Crisis and Renewal’ proved a productive subject in the city where Reinhardt Koselleck once wrote his dissertation, ‘Kritik und Krise’, in 1954. While ‘turning crisis into opportunity’ became somewhat of a platitude during the Financial Crisis of 2008, the conference was a reminder that the word ‘crisis’ is not just used to describe a period of intense difficulty, but also a critical moment when a decision has to be made, and this decision can turn things around.

Andrea Catanzaro from the University of Genova analysed the use of the ancient Greek krísis in Plato’s political works (primarily the Laws), where it mainly carries the meaning of choosing, deciding or resolving an issue after due consideration. A crisis can have a positive or a negative outcome. It does not have to be something inherently bad. Thus, George Gallwey from Harvard University showed how economic crisis became the basis for constitutional reform in the early United States, while Erica Benner from Berlin pointed out in her keynote that a certain amount of drama is part and parcel of a functioning democracy.

In fact, Niccolò Machiavelli, who had studied and analysed democratic or popular governments, believed that tumulti were normal and necessary, while it was discordiae that he thought one should worry about because they did harm to a polity. Benner also made the point that citizens – by their lack of action – are often complicit in crisis and that it might sometimes be worthwhile thinking about what the people could do to help the situation.

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The Neue Universität in Heidelberg

The papers and discussions dealt primarily with the past, but present-day politics were always hovering somewhere: worries about a decline of democracy in the West, the shenanigans of an unpredictable individual like Donald Trump wreaking havoc on international security, the threats of climate change or even nuclear war.

Part of the reason why past and present talk to each other at political thought conferences is that some things don’t change. There will always be conflicts about power, the distribution of resources, the relationship between religion and secular government. While it is important to read political thinkers in their own context and to relate their ideas to their own immediate environment, there is also a part of political thought that is timeless based on general observations on humankind and that can be transferred and applied to other times and other situations.

It was no accident that about half of the papers I listened to referred to Aristotle, many to Machiavelli, a few to Thomas Hobbes and James Harrington, and others to Karl Marx. They are thinkers who have shaped our world and who can still offer important insights on political life. There is no harm in looking to the past to find answers for the present.

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Translation Matters

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, Political Thought, Seventeenth Century, translation by thehistorywoman on September 7, 2018

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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? (more…)