Translation, a Tudor political instrument

Roberto A. Valdeón

Starting with an overview of F. O. Matthiessen’s work on the role of translation during the Elizabethan period, this article delves into the paratexts of the translations of Spanish colonial texts by Richard Hakluyt, Edward Grimeston, Michael Lok and John Frampton to discuss the underlying reasons why Spanish accounts of the conquest were rendered into English. The analysis of the dedications and addresses shows that, although these translations may have served to express admiration for the Spanish conquerors or to criticize their actions, the ultimate goals of these texts were to encourage England to replicate the Spanish empire in the Americas, on the one hand, and to obtain social, political and economic benefits for the translators, on the other.

Publication history
Table of contents

In 1931 the Harvard scholar F. O. Matthiessen published Translation, an Elizabethan Art, based on his doctoral thesis. Better known for his work in the field of American studies (for instance, with studies on T. S. Eliot, Herman Melville and Henry James), Matthiessen developed an interest in translation which found its origin in his dedication to the historical study of English literature, as indicated in the work’s “Prefatory Note”: “The idea for this book was suggested by the late Charles Whibley’s penetrating analysis of the Elizabethan translations, in The Cambridge History of English Literature (Volume IV, Chapter I)” (vii). Matthiessen highlighted the crucial role of translation for the introduction of the ideals of the Renaissance as well as for the creation of an English national literary canon. In the study, Matthiessen focused on five translations of prose, namely Thomas Hoby’s Castiglione (The Courtyer, 1561), Thomas North’s Plutarch (The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, 1589), John Florio’s Montaigne (The Essayes, 1603), and Philemon Holland’s Livy (The Romane Historie, 1600) and Suetonius (Historie of Twelve Caesars, 1606). These five works span the reign of Elizabeth I, from The Courtyer in 1561 to Twelve Caesars in 1606. In Matthiessen’s view, these works represented the literary achievements of the Elizabethan period, and illustrated the various phases of the Renaissance in England (5-6). The political importance of these translations is also reflected by the dedications to Queen Elizabeth (Weissbort and Eysteinsson 2006, 90). Matthiessen was writing on translation well before the emergence of Translation Studies, but his significant contribution to the discipline would be later highlighted by, among others, Jiří Levy (2011, 167).

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