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  • The Task(s) of the Translator(s):Multiplicity as Problem in Renaissance European Thought
  • Belén Bistué (bio)

In the early fifteenth century, the Florentine humanist Leonardo Bruni characterized translation as an esentially problematic practice: "Magna res igitur ac difficilis est interpretatio recta" ["Correct translation is an ambitious and difficult task"]. 1 Bruni's Spanish contemporary Alfonso Fernández de Madrigal, also known as el Tostado, defined the difference between translation and glossing precisely by noting that translating is "dificile" ["difficult"] while glossing is not. 2 These claims are representative of what would become a commonplace in Western translation theory. In spite of the fact that translation had pervaded the culture and institutions of Western Europe at least since Roman times, Renaissance theoreticians began to define this practice as a very complex, always inadequate, and, at times, almost impossible activity. Even today, the field of translation theory continues to offer numerous examples of this conceptualization. Bo Utas's recent statement that "we all know that exact and complete translation is impossible" is representative of long-standing, widely shared assumptions. Equally representative, however, is Utas's qualification that "still we translate and often understand much—perhaps most—of what is translated." 3 This paradox seems to be intrinsic to translation's difficulty. Indeed, in his essay on "Des tours de Babel" ["The Towers/Tricks/Tropes/ Detours of Babel"], Jacques Derrida highlights the centrality of translation's paradoxical inadequacy when he reads the myth of [End Page 139] the Biblical tower as a foundational figure for both translation's necessity and its impossibility—for "its necessity as impossibility." 4

In the following pages, I historicize this paradox and interrogate the self-evident character of translation's proverbial difficulty—after all, there are many other textual practices that are considered difficult, but their difficulty has not become the center around which theorization on these practices revolves. With this purpose in mind, I trace a persistent—but often neglected—theoretical effort to define this difficulty, which goes back to humanist writings on translation in general and to Bruni's formulation in particular. I argue that, in order to understand this effort, it is important to consider not only speculative writings on translation but also specific translation practices and texts. Above all, it is important to consider the rift that emerges between these two fields in Renaissance Europe. In particular, I propose to read Bruni's definition of translation against the background of team translation, a practice that was widely used for the translation of literary texts in medieval and Renaissance Europe but that has tended to be excluded from Western theorizations on translation.

The work of medieval and Renaissance translation teams involved the collaboration of Latin scholars with experts in Greek or Arabic. In these teams, the different tasks of the translation process (the reading of the source, the writing of the new version) were performed by different members. Thus, this multilingual practice formalized a multiplicity implied in translation practices in general: as a textual practice, translation entails not only more than one language but also more than one writing event, more than one writing subject, and more than one interpretive position. Nevertheless, Renaissance translators consistently reject this multiplicity in their speculative and prescriptive writings. In fact, the assumption that translating entails a single task, performed by a single translator, is perhaps the main legacy of Renaissance theorizations. As I show, these theorizations recurrently called for a uniform and unified translation text that allow for only one writer and only one version. This call was, of course, compatible with the demands for unity that underlie many other discourses and institutions of early modern Europe: not only the demand for poetic unity of action, time, place, and style but also the more actively enforced demands for one standard language, one faith, one official version of the Scriptures, one king, and one head in the household. What my article aims to highlight is the degree to which an ideological demand for unity is implicit in early modern translation theory.

I want to argue that in the context of political unification processes—and of the linguistic and stylistic ideologies that accompanied them—translation's multiplicity became conceptually...


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pp. 139-164
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