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Translation

Translation

Translation made both ancient and modern works available to a much wider audience during the Renaissance. Although many humanists* stressed the need to read ancient Greek and Roman works in their original languages, translations opened up these texts to the large number of readers who did not know those languages. Scholars translated many volumes from Greek to Latin and from both Greek and Latin into vernacular* tongues. At the same time, translations from one vernacular language to another brought books to readers in different parts of Europe.

From Greek to Latin. Few Europeans knew ancient Greek before 1397. In that year, the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras arrived in Italy. Other learned Greeks followed, especially after 1453, when the city of Constantinople, a center of Greek culture, fell to the Ottoman Turks*. These scholars helped spread knowledge of the language and literature of ancient Greece.

Italian humanists learned to read Greek texts and began to translate them into Latin. They also produced improved versions of texts translated during the Middle Ages. Renaissance scholars pointed out many mistakes in medieval* versions of ancient works. Most of these were word-for-word translations, which simply replaced each word in one language with its nearest equivalent in the other. Humanists aimed to translate the true meaning of the text, even if it meant changing the wording.

During the 1400s, some of the most important efforts in the field of translation involved works of philosophy. The Italian humanist Leonardo Bruni, a leading translator of the early 1400s, created Latin versions of many Greek texts, including works by the philosopher Plato. In the late 1400s another Italian scholar, Marsilio Ficino, produced the first translation of Plato's complete works. His translation made all of Plato's writings available for the first time in western Europe. Humanists also produced new translations of works by Plato's student Aristotle, but these texts did not completely replace medieval Latin translations.

Several Renaissance scholars translated the writing of Galen, a Greek physician from the a.d. 100s whose ideas formed the core of Renaissance medicine. A new, ten-volume Latin edition of Galen's works appeared in 1541. First published in Venice, it included several pieces that had never appeared in Latin before.

Various literary scholars produced Latin versions of the works of the ancient Greek poet Homer. In the 1430s Lorenzo Valla translated part of Homer's epic* the Iliad. About 40 years later, Angelo Poliziano translated the entire poem, dedicating his edition to the Florentine statesman Lorenzo de' Medici. In Germany, the poet Helius Eobanus Hessus produced a verse translation of the Iliad in 1540.

From Latin and Greek to the Vernacular. Renaissance readers who did not know Latin or Greek also wanted information about ancient cultures. To meet this demand, vernacular translations of ancient works began to appear in the 1500s. Some writers made careers out of translating Latin and Greek classics into local languages. Ancient works on such topics as ethics* and rhetoric* often appeared in the vernacular, but professional works about science and law rarely did.

New Renaissance works in Latin might be translated into vernacular languages if they attracted enough attention. One example was Utopia (1516), a Latin work of social criticism by the English author Thomas More. Scholars also translated the Latin Praise of Folly (1511), by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus. This work attacked human foolishness and corruption in the church and urged readers to live according to the example of Christ.

In Britain, learning to translate ancient works from Latin and Greek was an important part of a humanist education. Publishers issued English versions of many works of history, biography, and moral philosophy. William Shakespeare used English editions of Lives, by the Greek biographer Plutarch, and Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid, as sources for his plays. In the early 1600s the scholar George Chapman translated both of Homer's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, into English.

Vernacular Works. Renaissance writers translated some popular works from one vernacular language to another. One example was The Book of the Courtier (1528), a book about courtly life by Baldassare Castiglione of Italy. Written in Italian, it later appeared in English, French, Spanish, and Latin. At about the same time, the Spanish scholar Antonio de Guevara published The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius, a partly fictional biography of an ancient Roman emperor. Translated into Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, and Latin, the book became a European best-seller.

Scholars translated some works because they viewed them as literary classics. In 1591 Sir John Harington published an English version of Ludovico Ariosto's epic Orlando Furioso. Nine years later Edward Fairfax produced an English edition of another Italian work, Torquato Tasso's epic Jerusalem Delivered. Fairfax gave his version a new title, Godfrey of Bulloigne. Changes of this sort were fairly common. In fact, many Renaissance translators freely added, removed, or rearranged material while preparing an edition in another language.

(See alsoClassical Scholarship; Greek Émigrés; Humanism; Ideas, Spread of; Latin Language and Literature; Literature; Poetry; Printing and Publishing. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* ethics

branch of philosophy concerned with questions of right and wrong

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

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