The Image of the Translator – Past, Present, Future

Today, 30 September, is St Jerome’s day, aka Eusebius Hieronymus, aka the patron saint of translators. He was an extraordinary character in many ways. He was born in Stridon, near present-day Ljubljana, Slovenia, in c. 347 C.E. and died in 419/20 at Bethlehem, Palestine.

Having spent some years as a hermit, in the desert of Chalcis, he undertook most of his translation work when he was secretary to Pope Damasus I, and then later in the monastery he established at Bethlehem. He learnt Greek, Hebrew from a Jewish convert – while in the desert – and sought out original documents, including the copy of a Hebrew gospel alleged to be the original Gospel of Matthew. He was an outspoken advocate of Origen’s exegetical methods and translated several of his homilies – although in his later life he was to turn against Origen (185-245 CE).

Jerome’s culminating work was, of course, a revision of the Latin version of the Gospels on the basis of the best Greek manuscripts. Then, when in Bethlehem, between 391 and 406, he produced a Latin translation of the Old Testament on the basis of the original text.

The iconography of Jerome during the Renaissance varied, as can be seen from just these three very well-known examples: the rather affluent figure – dressed in a cardinal’s robe – portrayed by Antonello da Messina, the hermit rendered in all the agony of his suffering in the desert by Leonardo, and finally shown as a semi-clothed ascetic, in an engraving by De Barbari. Of course, there are plenty more images, and plenty more learned comments on them, too.

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Jumping forward a few hundred years, the importance of women translators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been highlighted by several recent studies. As many have noted, translation was one of the few fields open to women. It even allowed some to earn a living. Examples include Sarah Austin (1793-1867) and Lucie Duff-Gordon (1821-69): both worked from German to English. Lucie Duff-Gordon is even better known for her own work, Letters from Egypt, a notable contribution to the travel literature of the time.

Lucie Duff-Gordon

Just one more example from the late nineteenth century, Constance Black (better known as Constance Garnett), who was born in Brighton in 1861 (and died in 1946). She graduated in classics from Cambridge, but her interest in socialism led her into the circle of exiles from Tsarist Russia. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenina was published in 1901, and she made her second trip to Russia in the summer of 1904, immediately after completing War and Peace. As Rosamund Bartlett writes (author of ‘Tolstoy: A Russian Life’, and translator of ‘Anna Karenina), “arguments have raged for decades” over the merits and flaws of Garnett’s translation and those of the Maudes. “Having lived in Russia for so long, the Maudes had flawless Russian, as well as Tolstoy’s imprimatur, while Garnett’s less advanced linguistic skills were compensated by her greater literary sensitivity.” Anyone who’s read the Pevear & Volokhnosky translation, or indeed the one by Anthony Briggs (whose dialogue is probably insuperable), will know how Garnett’s literary English phrasing sometimes overrides Tolstoy’s meaning.

Constance Garnett and her son David, known as Bunny, mid-1890s.

And this brings me to the present and future: well, I can hardly produce pictures of today’s translators – in various states of (un)dress, seated in front their computers! (guilty as charged). However, I will say that they are extraordinarily well-trained, far more so than in the past. Nowadays, a masters in literary translation or translation studies is virtually compulsory before you can make a start as a literary translator. When I started in the late 1980s, I had a Ph.D., it’s true, but in history rather than in translation. So far, it’s served me well: my first book was for the great Bolognese historian and anthropologist, Piero Camporesi: The Fear of Hell was published in 1991. Since then, I’ve worked on other fabulous books, by historians, sociologists and art historians, not to mention endless articles and shorter pieces. My latest books (since 2014) include:

Antonio Foscari, Frescos in the Rooms of Palladio: La Malcontenta (1557-75). Lars Müller, 2014

Marzio Barbagli, Farewell to the World. A History of Suicide. Polity, 2015

Antonio Forcellino, Leonardo. A Restless Genius. Wiley, March 2018

Sandro Carocci, Lordships of the Mezzogiorno, Viella (still working on this one)

I’ve taught translation at University of Edinburgh for the past few years, which is both a pleasure and a privilege. Some of these young linguists – who are in their fourth year  – bring fabulously fresh insights and clarity to their work, even though for many of them, this is the first time they’ve done any formal translation – certainly at university level.

Together with other younger translators, whom I’ve met through the Translators Association, in London, or more frequently at ScotNet, the Scottish branch of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, they are the translators of the future: well placed to bring increasing numbers of translated works, from a wide range of languages, to fascinate, enthuse, and educate (in the broadest sense) readers here – of all ages.

Let’s smash those barriers and do what we all do best – carry words across cultures and build bridges that unite, rather than divide, the world.

The good news is that books, in all forms, are here to stay, and that the market is expanding – as are the different publishing models available. We’ve hardly even started on self-publishing for translators – either working for a self-published author or doing it for yourself. For a taster of what’s possible, try Tina Tenneberg’s article at Free Word.

What’s more, while Google Translate is improving all the time, it’ll be hard to replace the human translator!

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(courtesy of Google Translate –

Happy International Translation Day, everyone!