Workshop report, 14-16 October 2019*

Participants in the Augusta’s Bibelsaal.

Ideas in early modern Europe were primarily dispersed via printed and manuscript texts. As they crossed linguistic and cultural borders, however, these texts had to be adapted to varying degrees to their new context and environment in a process we describe pace Peter Burke as cultural translation.


Our second Translating Cultures workshop at the Herzog August Bibliothek in the German town of Wolfenbüttel set out to explore how these cultural translation processes worked in practice and what they might be able to tell us about the dissemination and reception of ideas. A particular focus this year was on the broader themes of history, politics and religion with a few glimpses at literary and scientific translation.

No matter what their subject, however, early modern translators had to make choices about how faithful they wanted to stay to their original text or how much they needed to change it to serve a new purpose. In his preface to Ovid’s Epistles, the Restoration poet and translator John Dryden (1631-1700) had therefore distinguished between the three methods of ‘metaphrase’, ‘paraphrase’ and ‘imitation’ in relation to the translation of classical texts, each involving different levels of adaptation. Amelia Mills’ paper argued that Aphra Behn (1640-89) engaged with this classification and experimented with all three forms in her own translations of French romantic fiction thus securing her place in learned circles.

Early modern translators meanwhile did not just have to calibrate the right level of faithfulness to the original text, but also their word choices, as Rachel Foxley demonstrated in her paper ‘Translating revolutions’. Engaging with the question if the English had the means to conceptualise radical political change before the events of the mid-seventeenth-century gave the word ‘revolution’ its modern meaning, Foxley suggests that the closest equivalent was probably the Latin concept of ‘nova res’ often rendered in English as ‘innovation’. She concluded therefore that it was possible to imagine a revolution in England long before it had broken out.

Nevertheless, translators could also be lost for words or be inspired to invent their own. Asaph Ben-Tov showed, for instance, how seventeenth-century scholars struggled to translate the Old Testament Book of Job partly because it contained so many hapax legomena, words that only existed in this book. Lazlo Kontler and Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq meanwhile, demonstrated how translations of Montequieu into Hungarian or of Francis Bacon into French contributed to the development, refinement and standardisation of the target language as translators did their best to domesticate alien concepts and produce an elegant text. The Hungarian translator of the Spirit of the Laws, for instance, avoided foreign words and decided to render the word ‘parliament’ as ‘word house’ instead.

Translations, meanwhile, could also obscure the search for an authoritative or definitive text, especially with regard to self-translation, as Thomas Munck explained. This was the case with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which was first written in English and later translated into Latin by the author himself, which has left scholars wondering if the original or the Latin version should be seen as better representing Hobbes’s real views.

There was no shortage of women speakers at the workshop.

Many translations were not just part of a scholarly endeavour but also served a concrete political or religious purpose. Maria Avxentevskaya demonstrated how Tsar Peter I had German legislation translated into Russian to help him build up his administration. Helmer Helmers argued that the wide distribution of Emanuel van Meteren’s history of the Dutch Revolt in various European language could be seen as an act of political diplomacy. And Luisa Simonutti showed that the Medici Duke Ferdinando I sponsored Arabic translations of the gospels to missionize Muslim countries.


A missionary purpose was also pursued by the scholars and thinkers who adapted seventeenth-century English republican works for eighteenth-century audiences. Rachel Hammersley and Gaby Mahlberg showed how the works of James Harrington and Algernon Sidney were translated into French and German respectively during the French Revolution to inspire and influence constitutional debates. The philanthropist Thomas Hollis (1720-74) meanwhile aimed to spread English republican ideas through book donations in Europe and North America, as contributions by Mark Somos, Mahlberg and Hammersley showed.

Somos argued that Hollis’s volumes were in high demand across the Atlantic and avidly read by scholars and students alike, as is documented by the many annotations they left in the volumes still extant. Hollis’s efforts are an example of intralingual translation as he aimed to shape and edit seventeenth-century texts for an eighteenth-century audience. Yet his systematic use of liberty emblems and symbols on the books’ bindings, on frontispieces and title pages also helped him to convey his message abroad, even though the works he donated to libraries in Stockholm, Leipzig, Göttingen, Leiden, Zurich or Bern were in English.

The power of visual culture and its ability to transcend the written text, was also demonstrated by Jaya Remond, who used early modern botany books to show how early modern natural scientists developed conventions for the representation of plants that effectively created a whole independent language.

Sometimes, the sheer number of translations was overwhelming. Thus, Alessia Castagnino pointed out that late eighteenth-century Italy saw more than 50 translations of William Robertson’s historical works – more than 30 of them of his History of Americaalone. The driving force behind the translations, she suggested, was the market.

Yet, the early modern market for reading material is still a largely unknown quantity. Thomas Munck outlined a number of different ways in which we might get a sense of contemporary audiences, from the study of book-sale catalogues and library records to review journals. However, as Munck pointed out, even the editors of review journals themselves might only have had a vague notion of the ‘imagined community of readers’ they were writing for.


Workshop panels and papers

Day 1

Translating Faith and Heterodoxy

Asaph Ben-Tov (Erfurt, Germany): Mistaken identities: the (mis)identification of the Book of Job as a Hebrew translation from an Ancient Arabic source, and its intellectual ramifications

Luisa Simonutti (Milan, Italy): Le ‘case Magliabechi’: quelques manuscrits islamiques dans l’Europe baroque

Translating Cultures: Languages, Concepts and Methods

Thomas Munck (Glasgow, UK): Cultural translation in the later eighteenth century: review journals and the imagined community of readers.

Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin, Germany/Warwick, UK):Algernon Sidney in German: the reviewer as agent of cultural translation

Translating Politics, Propaganda and Diplomacy

Helmer Helmers (Amsterdam, Netherlands): History as Diplomacy: Emanuel van Meteren and the translation of the Dutch Revolt in Europe, 1585-1618

Thomas Munck (Glasgow, UK): Translations of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan

Translating History

Alessia Castagnino (Fondazione 1563, Turin, Italy): ”A mutilated translation is not a translation”. The Italian reception of William Robertson’sHistory of Scotland

Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq (Paris-Nanterre, France): The French translation of Bacon’s History of the Reign of Henry VII by La Tour Hotman (1627)

Day 2

Translating Seventeenth-Century English Republicanism and Revolution

Rachel Hammersley (Newcastle, UK): Beyond translation: the political uses of the works of James Harrington during the French Revolution

Rachel Foxley (Reading, UK): Translating revolution: ‘novae res’ and ‘innovation’

Translating liberty: Thomas Hollis and the challenges of intralingual and interlingual cultural translation

Mark Somos (Max-Planck Institute, Heidelberg, Germany):
Thomas Hollis at Harvard: translating the culture of liberty and adaptive networking

Gaby Mahlberg and Rachel Hammersley: Thomas Hollis and the cultural translation of English republican concepts in the eighteenth century

Translating French Culture: Romantic Fiction and Enlightenment Thought

Amelia Mills (Loughborough, UK): Translating love: Aphra Behn’s reworkings of French romantic fiction

Laszlo Kontler (CEU, Budapest, Hungary): Montesquieu in Hungary, and the problem of the long Enlightenment

Translating Natural History and Scientific Research

Maria Avxentevskaya (Max-Planck-Institut WG, Berlin): ‘Learned in Translation: Administering the Early Russian Empire’

Jaya Remond (Max-Planck-Institut WG, Berlin): New ways of speaking, new ways of depicting: Image-making as translation in Colonial botany (c. 1630-1700)

* The organisers would like to thank the Runset-Stiftung and the Herzog August Bibliothek for funding this wonderful and productive event.



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