Groundbreaking translations

The Greek authors of Antiquity were available in the medieval West in Latin translation. But the merit of those who translated their works remains largely unacknowledged

Translations never make the headlines. Translators don’t enjoy the same reputation as authors do, although a translation is, by many accounts, a work of authorship. And yet, cultures would have been very different if translations hadn’t existed.

The background noise to a literate culture is made up of translations. In Western Europe, Christianity triumphed over late-antique and medieval culture largely due to a translation. The Latin Bible – the Vulgate – was a translation of the Greek. Without it – and without further translations down the line, such as Luther’s German translation – Scripture would’ve been incomprehensible to non-Greek readers, which is to say the majority of the Western world.

Later on, in the 13th century, Western culture and scholarship came to be dominated by Aristotle, but an Aristotle translated twice over, sometimes even three times over. Now, as then, readers didn’t extol the work of the translator, what mattered was the availability of the written work and its authoritative authorship. Beyond the medievalists, who still remembers the name of the person who made Aristotle’s De Anima available to Latin readers? (It’s James of Venice). Or the translator of the Metaphysics from Arabic into Latin, from Syriac into Arabic or from the original Greek into Syriac?

Many translations have been and continue to be groundbreaking. By exposing new readerships to original works, translators have an important role in culture, that of opening new worlds, bringing languages and peoples together and working towards a healthy convergence of truth and beauty, scattered around the world.

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