In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Translation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General Overviews of Early Modern Translation
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • Graeco-Arabic Translation
  • Translation Theory and Practice in the Middle Ages
  • Translation and the Study of Vernacular Tongues
  • Translation and Print Culture
  • Translation and Reformations
  • The Fortunes of Renaissance Classics
  • Translation and Colonization in The New World
  • Missionaries and Translation in Asia

Renaissance and Reformation Translation
Aysha Pollnitz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0290


In the early years of the 15th century, Renaissance humanists insisted that the capacity to translate texts from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, and later into and between vernacular tongues, was a critical aspect of grammar and rhetoric. When performed by students, schoolmasters claimed that translation and double translation facilitated eloquence in both languages. When performed by adepts, men and women of letters praised translation for transmitting texts to a new or wider readership, or to a more culturally and geographically specific one. Contemporaries regarded translations as literary works in their own right. As such, the translation of scripture became a flashpoint for controversy, particularly when Desiderius Erasmus’s Latin translation and annotations and Martin Luther’s German Bible encouraged religious reform and schism. Traditionally, scholarship on translation in this period has been dominated by studies of the transmission of the Renaissance or of religious reformation. There have been examinations of significant translators, such as Jacques Amyot, and of the way that the works of one major author, like Erasmus, were received in a specific locality. Scholars of the reformations have published significant studies of the scriptural translations of Erasmus, Luther, and Luther’s followers. In the 1970s, the new field of translation studies questioned whether it was ever possible to find real equivalences between languages and across cultures. This approach encouraged scholars to examine what was lost, gained, transformed, or created anew in an act of translation. More recently, a growing awareness of the historical contingency of acts of translation has encouraged interdisciplinary efforts to examine translation as a cultural event. The result of this historical turn has been a flowering of period-specific studies, series, and editions. Scholars of the Middle Ages have questioned the idea that Renaissance humanists’ translations represented a break from medieval efforts. Literary scholars and intellectual historians have examined early modern treatises on the theory of translation, as taught in schools and practiced by adepts. The identity of the translator has attracted the attention of scholars of literature and gender, in particular, since many early modern women’s literary productions were translations. A broader range of texts in translation—beyond classical and literary works and scripture—have been studied by historians of science, political and historical thought, and religion. Historians of the book have examined the relationship between translation and manuscript and print culture. The peripheries of translation culture are also being explored, and the world beyond Europe has become a focus, particularly in studies of missionary, commercial, and colonizing activities in Asia and the Atlantic.

General Overviews

The growth of interest in the history of translation in Europe has been shaped by the rise of international institutions generally, and of the European Union in particular. The EU has provided funding to foundations that have supported translation scholarship, and it serves as an institutional symbol of the cultural transformations and processes of exchange that linguistic translation requires and facilitates. Steiner 1975 revived critical interest in translation theory in the Anglophone world. Bassnett 2014 introduces readers to the field of translation studies. Even-Zohar 1978 proposes mechanisms for evaluating the status of translated literature and its meaning within the literary culture that produced it. Kelly 1979 compares creative, linguistic, and hermeneutical approaches to translation. Toury 1995 argues for the significance of descriptive translation within translation studies. Bermann and Wood 2005 collect post-structuralist reflections on translation as a mechanism of discursive power. Delisle and Woodsworth 2012 uses the figure of the translator to investigate global cultural transformations.

  • Bassnett, Susan. Translation. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    An introduction to the questions that prompted the rise of translation studies and continue to shape the field. Includes an analysis of the history of translation theory from Roman orators to 20th-century post-structuralists, including “Bible Translation,” “Early Theorists,” and “The Renaissance.” Includes extensive suggestions for further reading.

  • Bermann, Sandra, and Michael Wood, eds. Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400826681

    An anthology of twenty-two theoretical reflections on the role of language and translation in shaping the nation, international relations, and “othering.” Focuses on modern literature and culture. Influenced by the work of Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida.

  • Delisle, Jean, and Judith Woodsworth. Translators through History. Rev. ed. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1075/btl.101

    Describes the activities of translators from the creation of alphabets to the 21st century, organized thematically. Early modern European translation is located in a global context. Bibliographical information compiled by members of the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs. Provides a general introduction.

  • Even-Zohar, Itamar. “The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem.” In Papers in Historical Poetics. Papers on Poetics and Semiotics 8. By Itamar Even-Zohar, 21–27. Tel Aviv: Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, 1978.

    Proposes a mechanism for evaluating the position of translations within literary cultures. Argues that the selection of particular texts for translation and the rhetorical aspects of the translated literature are determined by and determining of a larger literary “system” (defined by time, place, and natural language).

  • Kelly, L. G. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1979.

    A synthetic, rather than historical, account of three theoretical approaches to translation: creative and literary, linguistic, and hermeneutical. Argues that theories need to identify the objectives of translation, its operations, and the relationship between them. Early modern translators are discussed in several chapters.

  • Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

    Employs linguistic theory and proto-hermeneutics to argue that translation is an intrinsic part of most communication, and that translatability across time, space, natural languages, rhetorical registers, and auditors remains possible for most speech acts. Considers Bruni, Erasmus, Luther, Florio, and Huet as part of the first “period” of translation theory.

  • Toury, Gideon. Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1075/btl.4

    Argues that translation studies requires a “descriptive branch” to become an empirical science. Function, product, and process would be interdependent aspects of its study. Proposes “laws” for translation activity.

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