- Three Very Different Translators:Joseph Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon and Richard Thomson
This essay revisits some ideas on translation which I developed several years ago. They were published as part of a book on Latin translation in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and one of the purposes of the present essay is to discover whether the intervening years have been kind to them.
That book, Latin Translation in the Renaissance, examined the work of a number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century translators, in particular, Leonardo Bruni, Giannozzo Manetti and Desiderius Erasmus, and suggested an alternative approach to categorising renaissance translations. It argued that in the fifteenth century ideas about translation became more sophisticated because of the proliferation of different translations of the same text. This was a new phenomenon: by and large, the Middle Ages had been obliged to make do with unique versions of a rather small number of Greek texts, and medieval scholars were seldom in a position to compare the merits of rival versions. In the fifteenth century, a number of versions of the same Greek text became available. As a consequence of this multiplication of renderings, even those who knew nothing of the original language were able to evaluate the differences between versions. Thus, in the fifteenth century, it became possible for a reader with no knowledge of Greek to deepen his understanding of a Greek author by collating a number of Latin translations of the original text. In such circumstances, the relationship of the translation to the other available translations was at least as important as the relationship of the translation to the original, Greek, text.1
Thinking about these relationships between these early modern translations led me to suggest that they could be placed into three broad categories, which I called replacements, competitors and supplements. Under this scheme, replacements are those versions which attempt to make the original text redundant by providing Latin readers with everything which they might have wanted from the Greek text; [End Page 477] competitive translations self-consciously attempt to surpass the versions of their predecessors, either in accuracy or literary polish; and supplementary translations are created to facilitate the reader’s access to the original Greek text. The plain prose translations of the Loeb Classical Library, for example, belong to this third category.
This straightforward scheme is open to a number of objections, but two considerations may be cited in its defence. First, it is useful to keep these categories in mind when assessing a Renaissance translation: they draw attention away from the Greek text from which it was made and onto the function envisaged for it by the translator and his readers. Second, and most important, it is a conceptual framework which was at least partly articulated by its practitioners. I believe that Renaissance scholars would have understood the categories and distinctions described below.2
This essay will consider how these categories functioned in relation to real translators. As a rule, medieval versions tended to function as replacements of the original Greek text: very few contemporaries could read Greek, and so they were not equipped to take issue with the equations of their translators. Moreover, most medieval translations were of works of Greek science, and of the technical manuals of medicine and philosophy, practical works with no pretensions to literary merit. What follows will deal first with the idea of translations as competitors or supplements. To this end, it will briefly examine two of the early translators (Leonardo Bruni and Giannozzo Manetti) who appeared in my book before turning to the three later translators, Joseph Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon, and Richard Thomson. At the end, I shall suggest that the idea of translations as replacements retained its currency in the sixteenth century, but that it coexisted with an awareness that specific claims about replacement would not survive scrutiny.
Leonardo Bruni and Competitive Translation
Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) was chancellor and historian of Florence in the first half of the fifteenth century. He was one of the most talented Latinists of his day, and one of the most prolific translators of the century. He was also a characteristic exponent of the competitive mode of...