Renaissance Translation

Updated: May 3, 2019

Without entering into the controversy over the temporal division in Western history regarding the periods known as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - for Le Goff (2003), for example, the Renaissance of the 12th century introduced more changes than that of the 16th century, which was only "a set of accelerations and inflections" - this work focuses on the 16th century because from then onwards reflections on the practice of translation in European countries multiplied. Moreover, the ideas expressed in the texts of that period shape our modern conception of translation, in the sense of an artistic textualization and a credible reproduction of the source text. However, in order to understand Renaissance thinking about translation and not to fall into deforming anachronisms and wrong conclusions, we need to understand something of the cosmovision of that time, of its conception of language and writing.

Included in its rhetorical dimension, the reflections and practice of Renaissance translation can be described as an "eloquent theory of Renaissance translation" (Furlan, 2002). The construction of this "eloquent theory" is the result of reading the texts of the time that propose reflections on translation, inscribed within classical rhetoric. The sources of the discourse on translation are, for the most part, prologues, forewords, introductions, laws, essays, commentaries, critiques, dedications and letters about translations.

In Western Europe, reflection on the practice of translation truly began with Italian humanists in the fifteenth century and developed in the sixteenth. The reading of the texts of the period raises important questions for the researcher, such as those concerning the world view, the conception of language, writing and the translation of classical thought. Do these reflections have a unity of thought? Is there a conception and practice of translation characteristic of those early translators? Is it possible to speak of translation theory in the Renaissance? How would the theory of renaissance translation differ from the thought that preceded it?

Language and translation in the Renaissance

Without giving a detailed account of the basic presuppositions of the reading of such texts, it is necessary to highlight what is taken for granted.

Every linguistic practice - and translation is a linguistic practice - reflects a specific conception of language and, consequently, a specific conception of translation, an almost always unconscious theory of translation.

2. To speak of a theory of translation in the Renaissance is to assume as a principle a certain unity of thought and action in a linguistic practice during a relatively limited historical period. This unity is perceived above all in the conception of the language common to Western Europe at the time, which is reflected in literary aesthetics (Varga, 1970) and, therefore, in the translations that were made. The new literary aesthetics of the Renaissance, also called neoclassicism, signified a revolution in the literary taste of the late Middle Ages and involved the substitution of the "pompous style of late medieval prose, with its flaccid syntax, fickle periods and imitated ornaments" for the classical patterns of good diction: "correction, clarity, order, variety, elegance" (Griffiths, 1987).

3. This conception of Renaissance language forms part of the essential definitions of rhetoric (Rener, 1989). One of the key words of this reflection, rhetoric, must be understood here in two areas: the first, diachronic, as a conception of language from Antiquity to the Renaissance; the second, systematic, as a systematic discipline (from a modern point of view), that is, one of the five studia humanitatis (grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy) cultivated by humanists in the Renaissance.

As the revision of each of the stages that make up the theory of language from ancient Greece and Rome and the investigation of the linguistic definitions of the different periods of classical rhetoric escape the ends of these reflections, it is enough for us to present a general theory of language that, from classical Roman Antiquity to the Renaissance - a space of time that interests us here - had as a correlate the development of a professional competence on the use of language distributed in two arts: grammar and rhetoric itself. In the first, the basic aspects that made communication possible were studied. The second, rhetoric, instructed to make communication effective.

The working material of these two arts was the word, generally treated in two separate phases: in the first, the words were presented as independent units, verba singula; in the second, they appeared as groups, verba coniuncta. The word was considered the smallest unit of speech and was the starting point for all linguistic operations. Thus, when starting work, it was necessary to concentrate first on simple words, an operation known as electio verborum (selection of words), before moving on to stadiums where words were joined in a sentence. The statements were considered to be unions of the basic elements in larger units. The language thus worked became the result of a mechanical, additive operation that advanced from the simple to the compound, and the final product towards which all operations were directed was the significant enunciation or sentence, a strictly controlled set of units that made possible the transfer of ideas from one mind to another.

For communication to take effect through speech, words had to be combined with skill through grammar and rhetoric. It was considered that such a combination was not the result of a merger, but of a juxtaposition where each component of the structure retained its identity; it was possible to undo, regroup and even modify the structure without prejudice to the idea expressed in the judgment. The sentence constructio was also susceptible of deconstructio.

If the original work was conceived as a structure, the certified translation began by dismantling its parts one after the other, to reunite them again in a foreign group. The translator was a craftsman who professionally undoes the original structure and remakes it in a different terrain (Rener, 1989, 26-30).

Every translation is a historical and linguistic practice and participates in a historical conception of language that is always intimately linked to a cosmovision; therefore, the transformation of one implies the transformation of the other. Thus, to investigate the conception and practice of translation means to investigate the theory of language underlying such conception of certified translation. The conception of the language of each period is expressed through codes, and it is the knowledge of these codes that allows us to treat it as a theory and analyze the construction of linguistic practices.

Regarding the period from classical Antiquity to the 18th century, we know that the basic code was rhetoric. However, we also know that, in different periods of the history of humanity and Western thought, the practice of writing and, consequently, of translation presented very different forms and styles; for this reason, it is important to discover which subsystems operated as canon at each given moment. Rhetoric can therefore be taken as the theory of language in Europe for almost two thousand years, however there are specificities in each historical period that explain the differences in the conception of language between the 1st century BC and the 18th century. Such subsystems operating in classical rhetoric in each period can be named from the three main parts of rhetoric: inventio, dispositio and elocutio. The fourth and fifth parts of a treatise on classical rhetoric (memory and actio) deal more with the performance of the speaker than with words and things. It is therefore worth recalling once again, albeit succinctly, the basic idea of each of these three parts.

The first part of the rhetorical building was dedicated to inventio, whose objective was to invent quid dicere, to find what to say. Invention is more a discovery than an invention of arguments: everything already exists, it is only necessary to find it again. It is a notion more "extractive" than "creative" (Barthes, 1970, 198); it is the phase of conception. We have to find the right subject and the right arguments.

The dispositio is the second phase of the elaboration process and is presented after the inventio, but there is no intention of a temporal separation between the two. The two are closely linked. The dispositio is the order or disposition of ideas and thoughts found through inventio; it is also the arrangement of the great parts of discourse.

Finally, in the third phase, elocutio, the ideas found in inventio and ordered in dispositio are translated into language through the choice of words and their entire compositio (the rules of good textual composition); this phase also corresponds to the stylization of discourse.

If we consider, therefore, that classical rhetoric is a theory of language and we consider its three main parts as operating subsystems of language in the great historical periods, we observe that the emphasis over time falls on different parts of rhetoric, which characterizes the conception and practice of language and certified translation.

During the Renaissance, the five precepts of eloquence were updated: latinitas, perspicuitas, ornatus, aptum and vitia. In working with the elocutio, the writer/translator was attentive to the Latinitas, the way of expressing himself with idiomatic correction; to the perspicuitas, the clarity, the intellectual comprehensibility; to the ornatus, the most important of the parts of the elocutio, whose subdivisions deal with the figurae and the compositio. The writer/translator was also concerned with the other parts of the elocutio known as aptum, which sought the harmony of all parts, and vitia, that which should be avoided. The elocutio as an operating subsystem in the Renaissance is clearly reflected in the precepts of classicism and places more emphasis on words than on things. The conception and practice of translation in the Renaissance must be understood within these parameters.

Having said this, we must also consider some factors that influenced the development of translation theory in the Renaissance. With the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and the seizure of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, many Byzantine scholars, philosophers and retort fled their homeland seeking refuge in Italy. This arrival brought back to Italy the teaching of the Greek language and philology and allowed the diffusion of many manuscripts carried by the Byzantines. The crystallization of a new conception of translation would have been favoured by the return to Greek classics, since the translation of a Greek text, much more than that of a Latin one, would have helped to perceive the distance in relation to the translated text and would have given greater importance to philological questions. The new emerging literary aesthetics (classicism: correction, clarity, order, variety and elegance), together with the philological method contributed by the Byzantines, led Italian humanists to want to recover the ancient texts in their own essence, freeing them from the weight of the secular interpretations and interpolations to which they had been subjected. The retrieval of the original text free from interpretation also required a free translation of interpolations of any kind. Additions, omissions and changes in translation, so characteristic of medieval practice, became in the Renaissance procedures restricted to specific questions of certified translation. The word represents thought: to translate words is to translate thought. This is why the "literal translation", defended by some humanists, does not mean a mere transposition of formal elements that ends up impeding comprehension, but the immediate reproduction of the meaning to which words are adorned. Translating is not betraying the thought of the original, but it is also a question of style: sticking to the model, but, above all, making that which is translated intelligible and pleasant.

The renaissance eloquence

The thought contained in the Renaissance reflections on the practice of translation, what we have called the eloquent theory of translation in the Renaissance, can be described by means of a five-part scheme.

I. Basic requirements. Many of the Renaissance reflections on translation present a hermeneutic conception of translation which presupposes a correct interpretation of the meaning of the text to be translated. Correct interpretation and subsequent translation depend on some factors unanimously mentioned by Renaissance translation theorists: mastery of the source language, mastery of the target language, knowledge of the subject matter, and possession of an ear or poetic ability. The command of the source language should not be understood only as a linguistic knowledge of the language of the original text, but also as a knowledge of philology, culture, history and literary works. In turn, mastery of the target language means a deep linguistic, grammatical and lexical knowledge of the language into which it is translated, as well as its literature, its society, its culture and its history. Now, all this is in vain, says Fausto da Longiano, one of the greatest Italian thinkers on translation of the time, without the knowledge of the subject to be translated: "One cannot call translation the certified translation of one who translates what he does not understand, even if he has total and perfect knowledge of languages. Many, being only linguists, tried to translate the matter but produced innumerable errors" (§ 36). In order to translate, it is necessary to have a great capacity for understanding languages and sciences. However, the correct translation must also add a fourth point, the great novelty brought by the Renaissance: the use of the ear or poetic skill. This requirement relates to the understanding and artistic reproduction of the original. Through the knowledge of languages and matter, associated with good hearing, the translator is able to grasp the art of the original, even in its rhythmic and harmonic nuances, to reproduce it in the translation. This fourth requirement, to have an ear, is one of the main contributions of the new Renaissance conception of translation because it is strictly linked to the question of eloquence. Roger Bacon, in the 13th century, would have been one of the first to present as fundamental requirements the mastery of both languages and of the subject matter involved in translation, but it was only in the 15th century, with Leonardo Bruni, that art began to be demanded in translation: "the good translator, however, will devote himself with all his mind, soul and will to the first author of the writing, and in a certain way will transfer the figure, the posture, the movement and the colour of the phrase, and will reflect on the way of expressing all its features" (2011:26).

II. Elocutio. With its transformation into the theory of language, eloquence goes from being one of the elements of discourse in classical rhetorical theory to becoming a literary aesthetic theory. Elocutio should not be understood in this context as a simple set of rules of ornamentation of discourse, but as an operation that encompasses discourse as a whole, body and substance, that extends to literature as a whole, a literature within which certified translation is situated in the linguistic sense of production of oral or written statements, but also of artistic textualization. The renaissance eloquence in the theory of translation proposes to produce textual art in the target language, but always starting from the recovery of the art of the model, pursuing a hitherto unpracticed form of fidelity to thought and expression. And among the main postulates of this new translation practice is that of the reproduction of the oratio of the original author. The oratio, that is to say, the speech, the language, the style, the expression, is what characterizes the language of an author and of a work, its spirit, its subtleties. By considering the properties of each language and its non correspondence with other languages, reproducing the oratio of the model in the target language will be tantamount to producing an oratio in that language and thus producing an artistic translation, attentive to both aesthetic and linguistic values.

Main translation problems. In addition to the four requirements and the elocutio, we can enumerate three important problems discussed by the Renaissance: the language of the original and that of the translation; the content and form; and the artistic reproduction of the original. The differences and singularities of each language have been given the name of properties since Roman times. Respect for the properties of each language is a central point demanded by the Renaissance and demands that the translator take the utmost care not to interfere violently in the genius of the target language and not to lose completely the values produced and proper to the source language. This respect for linguistic properties is closely linked to the need to combine, in certified translation, content with textual aesthetics, safeguarding as best as possible the values of the original: avoiding the transposition of linguistic forms, but maintaining the semantic function, recreating style, taking care of rhythm. The need to produce a more artistic translation raises the status of translation to the level of literary genre and, consequently, makes it a difficult and specialized task.

IV. The reader. Another important and defining point of Renaissance translation theory is the concern for the reader. Two principles are conceived in the name of the reader: care for the use of the common language and care for the sonority of the text produced. The defence of the use of the common language aims to protect the properties of the target language; the main function of sonority is to create an aesthetic sound material that can become an aid to memorisation.

V. Typology of texts and translation. Finally, in our selection of the main elements of Renaissance translation theory, we can include a further point, concerning the typology of texts and translation; that is, concerning the best way of translating the different types and genres of texts. There are texts that emphasize content more, such as religious, technical and philosophical texts; others that combine content and form, such as literary ones. However, in all of them it is necessary to observe the subject, the properties of the languages and the style of the author.


From the primary sources that reflected on the ars translatoria in the 15th and 16th centuries, it is possible to recognise the characteristics of Renaissance translation and compose a theory of translation in the Renaissance. It is undeniable that the European Renaissance, conceived as a movement and not a period (Burke, 1999), was constituted with its own cosmovision and, above all, a common one, with an equally common conception of language embodied in classical grammar and rhetoric and whose differentiating feature with respect to previous periods is the emphasis given to eloquence, which is reflected in literary production and, by extension, in certified translation. It is undeniable that Renaissance thinking on translation shares a common conception expressed by our authors in a very similar way, and that their reflections do not represent isolated facts but reveal a knowledge and continuity of the thinking of their contemporaries and their predecessors. The fact that they could be conceptually differentiated from previous periods is eloquent proof of the knowledge they had of ancient thought: rupture is only possible if there is unity. The fact that they could be conceptually resembled in a delimited historical period is by no means coincidental, but it is confirmation of a fantastic communion of ideas and ideals at a time when the dissemination of ideas through printing had barely begun. There is no doubt that these reflections institute principles that form a new and proper theory that, although considered lato sensu, satisfies the minimum requirements of the current theorizations stricto sensu. The novelty of this theory lies in the conjunction of the ancient basic requirements demanded of the translator and the need for possession of the ear, of poetic ability; its defining characteristic consists in the will to maintain the aesthetic values of the original together with the preservation of the thought present in the author's work. The translation is then conceived as the (re)production of the oratiodel model. These values of Renaissance translation theory became possible when the conception of language changed, when language became elocutio and interpretatio.


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