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  • Translation
  • A. Zuercher Reichardt

translation, language, orthography, Iroquois, Mohawk, Joseph Brant, Native Americans, literacy, communication, missionaries, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

Translation is having a moment in early American studies. Long gone is the era of scholarship defined by monoglot British colonialism clinging to the Eastern Seaboard: early America has become the study of various European, Indigenous, and African peoples, societies, and structures, a dynamic field concerned with the interactions of diverse—notably linguistically diverse—people across the breadth of the continent and the Atlantic world. Methodological and conceptual shifts toward studies of networks and communication, and toward questions of comparison and entanglement, have further pushed our migration beyond the strict confines of anglophone societies and material texts.

Yet, for all its importance in early America, translation is not so simple a keyword to define. For the purpose of this essay, translation denotes, broadly (1) the process of communicating or attempting to communicate the meaning of a source-language text by means of a target-language text, and (2) the material text produced by this process.1 This essay does not offer an assessment of the field of translation studies but, rather, takes stock of how scholars of early America have approached historical instances of translation. And while attuned to the influence of cultural translation, this essay emphasizes linguistic and material translation performed both by professional translators and by editors, as well as by writers, readers, and others who more informally transformed the language and form of texts.2 [End Page 801]

Long predating the recent widening of our field, one of the deepest lines of inquiry has concerned the translations of classical texts in the British colonies and early United States. This literature built to a fever pitch during the Revolutionary and early republic periods in studies that assessed the influence of ancient Greek and Roman texts during America’s founding. Other scholars have turned to the circulation of classical translations in other European colonies in North America, and to literary translations across the broader Atlantic world.3 Although early modern European scholarship on the professionalized process of translation and multilanguage texts has not been fully incorporated into early American studies, this literature underscores the important work still ahead to weave North American material text studies into the broader Atlantic, imperial, and European fields of print culture and communication studies.4

Translations were central to the book trade and all the more important for the circulation of newsprints across America and the Atlantic. Though many scholars have acknowledged the importance of foreign and recycled items in North American and European papers, work by Will Slauter and others has examined how mobile paragraphs of news crossed linguistic borders, using translation as a lens for reconstructing information and print networks. Translation of news was also actively wielded: American politicians encouraged translations of foreign newspapers to mold public opinion; printers founded and published French-language papers in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, finding a large audience in the young republic.5 As this work suggests, then, translation should be central, even to material text studies deliberately focused on the British colonies and United States. [End Page 802] Joining scholarship on French-language newspapers is a substantial literature on German prints during the long eighteenth century. From studies of the colonial-era Philadelphische Zeitung, Germantauner Zeitung, and Christopher Saür’s Bible, to work on the early republic market for translations of German philosophical, scientific, and literary prints, the multilingual makeup of Euro-American populations put translations and translators at the center of the world of print.6

The place German-speaking peoples occupied in early America presents another important subject of translation. Interpreters and political intermediaries who operated as arbitrators between Iroquoian and Algonquian tongues, Germanic dialects, and English understood that translation was about far more than the transformation of texts between European languages—it was essential to the communications of European and Indigenous North Americans. Two of the more established fields in early American translation have revolved around Bibles and other religious texts printed in Native American languages, and around missionary education of Indigenous peoples.7

Following that scholarship, examinations of Indigenous textual forms and their...


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