60 translators who changed the world

Marie Lebert

Translators have always responded to “the fierce, eternal will of the men and women on this planet to understand each other. At all times, many benevolent people have put people who are different by their language, their culture or their country in communication” (Rose Marie). This article owes a lot to Wikipedia.

In antiquity

Kumārajīva (344-413), a Buddhist monk from the Kingdom of Kucha (now in China), translated a number of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. His smooth translation style focused on conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal rendering. His translations were influential for the development of Chinese Buddhism.

More than three centuries later, Amoghavajra (705-774), a Buddhist monk born in India and living in China, travelled to gather Buddhist texts in Sri Lanka, Indochina and India, and returned to China with 500 manuscripts. After translating them into Chinese, he became one of the most politically powerful Buddhist monks in Chinese history.

In the Christian world, theologian Jerome of Stridon (347-420) translated the Bible into Latin from the original texts in Hebrew, and not from the Septuagint, the Bible translated into Greek a few centuries before. Known ast the Vulgate, the new Latin translation became the first printed book as the “Gutenberg Bible” ten centuries later.

Mesrop Machtots (362-440), an Armenian scholar, invented the Armenian alphabet and translated the Bible into Armenian with his colleague Isaac of Armenia (354-439). They also translated major Greek and Syriac works with other Armenian scholars. These translations strengthened both the Armenian language and Armenia’s national unity despite a country divided between the Byzantine Empire and Persia.

In the Middle Ages

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873) and Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), two Arab physicians, translated many Greek medical works into Arabic, a major task followed by later translators. Their hard work helped to gather in one century the knowledge from Greek medicine to include it into Islamic medicine.

Robert of Ketton (1110-1160), an English theologian, translated the Quran into Latin with his colleague Herman of Carinthia (1100-1154), at the request of Peter the Venerable, abbot of the Abbey of Cluny in France. Their translation allowed a better knowledge of Islam among Christians, and remained the standard Latin edition of the Quran until the 18th century.

Adelard of Bath (1080-1152), John of Seville (1110-1153), Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187) and others settled in Toledo in the Iberian Peninsula (that later became Spain), at the crossroads of the Christian world and the Muslim world. They translated into Latin major Greek and Arab scientific works (medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, natural sciences, mechanics) from the previous centuries. This major undertaking allowed the use of Greek and Arabic scientific knowledge throughout Europe.

Michael Scot (1175-1232), a Scottish philosopher, and William of Moerbeke (1215-1286), a Greek scholar, translated into Latin the works of Greek philosopher Aristotle, at the request of Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas. They translated Aristotle’s works directly from the Byzantine Greek manuscripts (that were lost later on) and not from their Syriac or Arabic translations. The new translations of Aristotle’s works had a major impact in the medieval world.

John Wycliffe (1320-1384), an English philosopher, translated for the first time the Bible into vernacular English, at his own initiative. English was less used than Latin and French at the time, and his translation contributed to the development of the English language. Later on, theologians William Tyndale (1494-1534) and Myles Coverdale (1488-1569) produced other translations into English, that were widely distributed with the recent invention of the printed press.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), an Italian philosopher, translated or supervised the translation of all the works by Greek philosopher Plato, at the request of Greek philosopher Gemistos Plethon and Italian politician Cosimo de Medici, who was the ruler of Florence and the patron of arts and leaning. Plethon’s meeting with Cosimo de Medici led to the foundation of the Platonic Academy in Florence, on the model of the original Platonic Academy in Athens.

In the 16th century

Erasmus (1466-1536), a Dutch philosopher, produced a new Latin version of the New Testament by collecting several manuscripts of the Vulgate, and by polishing the Latin texts to create a new critical edition. He also synchronised, unified and updated the Greek edition. Erasmus’ New Testament was influential in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German theologian, translated the Bible into German in his later years, from the original texts in Hebrew and Greek and not from the Vulgate in Latin. With the recent invention of the printinged press, the “Luther Bible” became the People’s Book in churches, schools and homes. It also contributed to the development of the German language and the creation of a national identity.

Jakub Wujek (1541-1597), a Polish Jesuit scholar, translated for the first time the Bible into Polish. He translated the Bible from the Vulgate in Latin while referring to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek. The “Jakub Wujek Bible” was the official Polish Bible for four centuries. Like the “Luther Bible” in Germany, it contributed to the development of the Polish language and the creation of a national identity.

Thomas North (1535-1604), an English lawyer, translated Greek philosopher Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”. His English translation was based on the French translation by Jacques Amyot (1513-1593). Both translations introduced famous Greek and Roman people of antiquity to French and English readers. North’s translation was the main source of Shakespeare’s Roman plays “Julius Caesar”, “Coriolanus” and “Antony and Cleopatra”.

In the 17th century

[After being anonymous or signing with a male pseudonym, women translators
began signing their translations with their real names.]

Anna Hume (1600-1650), a Scottish writer, translated works by Florentine poet Petrarch into English while Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681), an English poet, translated works by Latin poet Lucretius. John Dryden (1631-1700), an English poet who became the first Poet Laureate of England, translated many works by Roman poets Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucretius and Virgil. These translations introduced major works of Latin classical authors to English readers.

Antoine Galland (1646-1715), a French orientalist, was the first European translator of One Thousand and One Nights”, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. The French edition was then translated into English, German, Italian, Dutch, Russian and Polish. These translations popularised oriental tales in European literature, and influenced nascent Romanticism.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), an English poet, was the first translator of Greek epic poet Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” into English. His translations were based on the French translations by the French scholar Anne Dacier (1654-1720). These

translations introduced Homer’s epic poems to French and English readers. Anne Dacier also wrote an essay on Pope’s translation of the “Odyssey”, which gained her some fame in England as well.

In the 18th century

Giuseppa Barbapiccola (1702-1740), an Italian philosopher, translated French philosopher Descartes’ “Principles of Philosophy”. She demonstrated that Descartes created a philosophy praising the female intellect, and defended the right for women to learn. Her goal was to inspire women to educate and empower themselves. Her translation included a history of women’s learning and a history of philosophy.

Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801), a Polish poet known as Poland’s La Fontaine (a wellknown French fabulist), translated many works by classical poets (Plutarch, Anacreon, Hesiod, Theocritus) and modern poets (Boileau, Dante, James Macpherson). His translations contributed to the Enlightenment, a cultural, philosophical and literary movement throughout Europe.

Claudine Picardet (1735-1820), a French chemist, translated the scientific literature of her time in chemistry and mineralogy. A female chemist working alongside men was highly unusual at the time. She was proficient in five foreign languages (English, German, Italian, Latin, Swedish), which was highly unusual too. Her translations contributed to the scientific knowledge gathered during the Chemical Revolution, a movement led by French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.

Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826), a German poet, produced a 9-volume translation of Shakespeare’s plays with the help of his sons Heinrich and Abraham. Another German translation by August Schlegel (1767-1845), a leader of Jena Romanticism (the first phase of Romanticism in German literature), turned Shakespeare’s plays into German classics. Shakespeare’s plays were then translated into Swedish by the linguist Carl August Hagberg (1810-1864), who was a strong advocate of English and French literature at a time when Swedish universities were dominated by German influences.

Sarah Austin (1793-1867), an English writer, Louise Swanton Belloc (1796-1881), a French writer, Therese Albertine Luise Robinson (1797-1870), a German writer, and Mary Howitt (1799-1888), an English poet, translated a number of contemporary literary works for them to reach a wider audience. Mary Howitt translated into English some novels by Swedish feminist writer Fredrika Bremer while Louise Swanton Belloc translated into French “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, a novel that described the harsh living conditions of enslaved African-Americans.

In the 19th century

Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), an Egyptian writer, translated or supervised the translation of 2,000 European works into Arabic, including military, geography and history books. These translations – and his own works – introduced Enlightenment ideas such as secular authority, political rights and freedom, public interest and public good, and the principles of a modern civilised society. They contributed to the emerging grassroots mobilisation against British colonialism in Egypt.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), an American poet, was the editor of “The Poets and Poetry in Europe”, an 800-page compilation of translated poets, after travelling to Europe (France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, England) while learning languages along the way. He also translated poetical works, including Italian poet Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. In honour of Longfellow’s major role as a translator and editor, Harvard founded the Longfellow Institute to support the study of writings in languages other than English in the United States.

Elizabeth Ashurst (1813-1850), an English radical activist, and Matilda Hays (1820-1897), an English feminist writer, were the first translators of French novelist George Sand’s works. George Sand’s free-love and independent lifestyle was still highly unusual at that time, as well as the political and social issues tackled in her books. Following George Sand’s path, Matilda Hays was eager to improve the condition of women through her own writings.

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), a French poet, translated American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories. He claimed that Poe’s tales had long existed in his own imagination but never taken shape. Baudelaire had much in common with Poe, who died in 1849 at age 40. They both struggled with melancholy, depression, illness and poverty. Baudelaire saw in Poe a precursor, and was seen as his French counterpart.

Clémence Royer (1830-1902), a self-taught French scholar, translated English naturalist Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species”, and introduced Darwin’s concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection to a French audience.

Despite Darwin’s criticisms on his translator’s lack of knowledge in natural history, and the inaccuracies in her preface and footnotes, the French translation was very popular, with four editions.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Mary Louise Booth (1831-1899), an American writer, translated the book “Uprising of a Great People” by French antislavery advocate Agénor de Gasparin (just published in France) in a very short time by working twenty hours a day for one week. The American edition was published in a fortnight. After translating other books by French anti-slavery advocates, she received praise and encouragement from American president Abraham Lincoln himself. Senator Charles Sumner stated that her translations had been of more value to the cause “than the Numidian cavalry to Hannibal”.

Yan Fu (1854-1921), a Chinese writer, discovered the works of European thinkers (Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill) after being sent to England as a student to study navigation. He began translating their works during his internship, and continued these translations throughout his life to introduce western ideas in China. He joined the Chinese reform movement, which advocated a society based on a western model, but was disappointed by the behaviour of western nations during World War I.

Eleanor Marx (1855-1898), a socialist activist, translated into English some parts of her father Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”, the foundational text of Marxism, and edited the English translations of Marx’s lectures for them to be published into books. She then translated French revolutionary socialist Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s “History of the Paris Commune of 1871”. She translated literary works too, for example the novel “Madame Bovary” by French writer Gustave Flaubert, and plays by Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen.

In the 20th century

Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński (1874-1941), a Polish poet, translated more than 100 French literary classics, including works by poet François Villon, by writers Rabelais and La Rochefoucauld, by philosophers Montaigne and Montesquieu, by novelists Stendhal, Balzac and Proust, by playwrights Molière, Racine, Marivaux and Beaumarchais, and by philosophers Voltaire, Descartes and Pascal. He was murdered in July 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Poland, together with 24 other Polish professors, in what became known as the massacre of Lviv professors (Lviv is now in Ukraine).

Zenobia Camprubi (1887-1956), a Spanish feminist writer, was the first translator of Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore’s works into Spanish, and translated 22 works by Tagore (collections of poems, short stories, plays) over the years. Married to Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, she was a pioneer of feminism for actively promoting women in society in all the places where she lived (Spain, Cuba, the United States, Puerto Rico).

James Strachey (1887-1967), an English psychoanalyst, translated with his wife Alix Strachey (1892-1973) all the works of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud after moving to Vienna, Austria. The 24-volume translation was published by Hogarth Press in London under the title “The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud”, with introductions to Freud’s various works, and extensive bibliographical and historical footnotes. It became the reference edition of Freud’s works in English, as well as a reference work for translations into other languages.

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), a Russian writer, turned to translation to provide for his family after being vilified for his refusal to glorify communist values in his writings. He translated works by German poets Goethe, Rilke and Schiller, by French poet Verlaine, by Spanish dramatist Calderón de la Barca, and by English playwright Shakespeare. Because of their colloquial and modernised dialogues, his translations of Shakespeare’s plays were more popular with Russian audiences than translations by Russian writers Mikhail Lozinsky (1886-1955) and Samuil Marshak (1887-1964).

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), an Argentine writer, translated into Spanish — while subtly transforming — works by English writers Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf, by American writers William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, by German writers Hermann Hesse and Franz Kafka, by French writer André Gide, and by others. He also wrote and lectured extensively on the art of translation.

Charlotte H. Bruner (1917-1999), an American scholar, translated works by African French women writers for them to reach a wider audience. With her husband David Kincaid, she spent one year in Africa interviewing these women writers, and aired these interviews after their return to the United States. She was a pioneer in African studies and in world literature at a time when American universities mainly taught European literature.

Simin Daneshvar (1921-2012), an Iranian writer, and Jalal Al-e-Ahmad (1923-1969), an Iranian philosopher, translated many literary works into Persian. Simin Daneshvar translated works by Russian writers Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorki, by American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, by Armenian-American writer William Saroyan and by South African writer Alan Paton. Jalal Al-e-Ahmad translated works by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and by French writers Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide and Eugène Ionesco.

More examples are offered in our Dictionary of famous translators of the past.