TRANSLATORS WHO HAVE SHAPED OUR LITERARY WORLD

Journey through time and culture with translation legends whose work transcended borders and reshaped the world of literature.

Translators do more than convert words from one language to another. They bridge communication gaps, foster understanding, and shape cultures.

One clear example of how translation goes beyond transferring content between languages is literary translation. Thanks to this discipline, you can enjoy reading masterpieces by foreign writers in your own language.

As Italian writer Italo Calvino said, “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

Despite their crucial role, translators often work in the shadows, their contributions overlooked. That’s why we want to pay homage to relevant translators whose work has left a mark on literature, culture, and society.

From medieval scholars who preserved ancient knowledge to modern translators who bring contemporary works to global audiences. Keep on reading to learn more about their contributions across the ages.

The Middle Ages

  • Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873) and Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912).

These Arab physicians translated many Greek medical works into Arabic, advancing Islamic medicine by incorporating Greek knowledge.

  • Robert of Ketton (1110-1160) and Herman of Carinthia (1100-1154).

They translated the Quran into Latin, allowing a better understanding of Islam among Christians.

  • Adelard of Bath (1080-1152), John of Seville (1110-1153), and Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187).

As part of the Toledo School of Translators, they translated Greek and Arab scientific texts into Latin. Their contributions spanned various fields, such as:

    • Medicine
    • Philosophy
    • Cosmology
    • Mathematics
    • Physics
    • Natural sciences
    • Alchemy

Their worked helped disseminate knowledge across medieval Europe.

  • Michael Scot (1175-1232) and William of Moerbeke (1215-1286).

They translated Aristotle’s works from Greek manuscripts into Latin, ensuring the philosopher’s ideas influenced Western thought.

  • John Wycliffe (1320-1384).

Wycliffe translated the Bible into vernacular English. At that time, English was primarily a spoken language, while Latin and French were more commonly used for religious texts.

His translation lay the groundwork for the development of the English language.

16th Century

  • Erasmus (1466-1536).

He produced a new Latin version of the New Testament originating from Greek. His work corrected errors in the Latin Vulgate used by the Western Church and inspired the Protestant Reformation.

  • Martin Luther (1483-1546).

Luther “listened to the common man” (as he said) to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German. His goal was to make religious texts accessible to everyone.

His translation also contributed to standardizing the German language and creating a national identity.

17th Century

  • Antoine Galland (1646-1715).

Galland introduced “One Thousand and One Nights” (known in English as “The Arabian Nights”) to Europe through his French translation.

The book sparked a fascination with Middle Eastern literature, inspiring new translations into English, German, Italian, Dutch, Russian, and Polish.

  • Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

Pope’s translations of Homer’s epics, including “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” brought the tales of the ancient Greeks to English readers.

18th Century

  • Giuseppa Barbapiccola (1702-1740).

Her claim to fame is her 1722 translation of René Descartes’ “Principles of Philosophy” from French into Italian. By showcasing Descartes’ praise for female intellect, she advocated for women’s right to learn.

  • Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801).

Krasicki’s translations of classical (Plutarch, Anacreon, Hesiod, Theocritus) and modern poets (Boileau, Dante, James Macpherson) contributed to the intellectual and cultural ferment of the Polish Enlightenment.

  • Claudine Picardet (1735-1820).

A French chemist, she is known for translating scientific publications from Italian, German, English, and Swedish.

Her work contributed to the scientific advancements of the Chemical Revolution, a movement led by French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.

19th Century

  • Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873).

He translated or supervised the translation of European books on military strategy, geography, and history into Arabic.

By introducing ideas like political rights, freedoms and modern society, his work contributed to the growing movement against British colonial rule in Egypt.

  • Elizabeth Ashurst (1813-1850) and Matilda Hays (1820-1897).

Motivated by a desire to inspire an ideological shift, they brought George Sand’s work to the English public. Sand’s novels, which championed free love and female independence, were highly unconventional for her time.

  • Clémence Royer (1830-1902).

Royer’s translation of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” introduced evolutionary theory to French intellectuals.

  • Mary Louise Booth (1831-1899).

At the outset of the American Civil War, she translated the antislavery book “Uprising of a Great People” in a remarkably short timeframe. By working 20 hours a day for one week, she ensured the American edition was published in a fortnight.

According to Senator Charles Sumner, her translations were of more value to the cause “than the Numidian cavalry to Hannibal.”

20th Century

  • James Strachey (1887-1967) and Alix Strachey (1892-1973).

They produced a 24-volume translation of Freud’s works. This edition served as a major reference point for English-speaking readers and influenced translations into other languages.

  • Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

His immersion in literature began at the tender age of 9 with the translation of “The Happy Prince,” by Oscar Wilde.

He went on to become a renowned translator, bringing works from various languages into Spanish. The list includes those by Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, and André Gide.

21th Century

  • Edward George Seidensticker (1921-2007).

Thanks to his work, English-speaking readers can enjoy books by Japanese authors like Yukio Mishima, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and Yasunari Kawabata.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Seidensticker’s is translations are generally credited him with helping Kawabata secure the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.”

  • Stephen Mitchell (1943-).

Known for his vibrant translations of ancient texts, Mitchell has given a new life to works like the “Iliad,” “Gilgamesh,” and “Tao Te Ching.”

Fun fact: he’s been called the rock star of translators by the Wall Street Journal.

  • Gregory Rabassa (1922-2016).

Rabassa’s translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books are praised for their faithfulness and artistic flair. In fact, Marquez waited 3 years for Rabassa to translate ”One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

 

As literary translator Anthea Bell once wrote, “[translators] are in the business of spinning an illusion: the illusion that what the reader is reading is not a translation but the real thing.”

And we pay tribute to these linguistic magicians who unite cultures and enrich lives with their words.

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