Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel, eds. Elizabeth I: Translations. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P.,  2009. 2 vols.  490pp+494pp. ISBN 978 0 226 20131 3.

Patrick Hart
İstanbul Kültür University

Patrick Hart, "Review of Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel, eds. Elizabeth I: Translations." [EMLS 15.3 (2011): 7] http://purl.org/emls/15-3/reveliz.htm

  1. This two-volume set supplements the two books the University of Chicago Press has already dedicated to Elizabeth I’s writings, the Collected Works (henceforth CW), edited by Janel Mueller with Leah Marcus and Mary Beth Rose (2000), and Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals (henceforth ACFLO), edited by Mueller and Marcus (2003). Reviewing CW in this journal, Douglas Bruster argued that its appearance – that of a ‘general reader’s fantasy of a scholarly tome’ – betrayed its editorial principles, or lack of them, concluding that the ‘half scholarly, half popular collection’ ultimately offered up for consumption a ‘fantasy Elizabeth – a professorial erotic dream’(1). He had a point. Translations, however, is a quite different proposition. It shares the handsome looks of its sibling volumes – including the embossed capital ‘E’ decorated with scroll work on the cover – but the red silk ribbon to mark one’s place that adorned CW is gone, and this trivial change seems symbolic of a more fundamental shift in editorial attitudes: what we have here are two beautifully produced, rigorously edited volumes that are going to become indispensible to students of early modern translation, of courtly literary culture more generally, and of Elizabeth herself.

  2. Elizabeth emerges from the texts presented here as a tough-minded, sharp-witted translator whose instinct for the colloquial mot juste constantly rubs up against a tendency to follow the Latinate syntax of her sources. As the editors note, Elizabeth’s translations are ‘generally faithful to their originals while also being lively, artful specimens of English prose’ (1: 14). While she makes heavy use of cognates and often translates word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase, Elizabeth’s vocabulary is drawn mostly from the native English word stock, and as a result her translations often have an idiomatic if somewhat gnarled quality. While not going so far as to introduce overtly English references and allusions into her translations in the manner of her godson John Harington (original recipient of several of these translations) or of Ben Jonson, Elizabeth does frequently realign her sources to accord more closely with her own conceptions and values. This is sometimes evident in matters of gender, but, as the editors argue, is especially apparent in questions of religion and politics, where, for example, she tones down claims by Marguerite de Navarre and Boethius that humans can unite with the divine, and Christianizes Seneca’s references to fate. Her translation of Erasmus’s Plutarch, meanwhile, ‘strikingly deviates from its treatment of tyrants and informers by transferring the moral onus of spying from rulers to their spies’ (1: 17).

  3. The question of how far Elizabeth herself is present in her translations has already been raised elsewhere, and for the most part her editors are alert to the obvious dangers of drawing parallels between her activity as a translator and her public and private affairs (Hackett) . Occasionally, though, they do seem to be straining to establish biographical connections, of the sort that led Bruster, in reviewing CW, to talk of a ‘persistent interest in promoting a fantasy Elizabeth not unlike the Hollywood one’ (Bruster 9) - as when they suggest that translating Seneca’s letter on accepting adversity ‘may have provided a counterbalance, if not a catharsis, for Elizabeth’s anxiety’ at a time when she was writing reproachful letters to Mary, Queen of Scots, or that her translation of Cicero on friendship might ‘open perspectives on her final, and finally abortive, set of marriage negotiations’ (1: 6-7). . Such moments are rare here, however.

  4. What emerges most strongly from these translations, taken together, is the prevalence of a robust, Calvinized Stoicism.  This should come as no surprise, but the full range of Elizabeth’s engagement with Stoic thought here is striking, particularly when one focuses on her adult work (two-thirds of volume one is taken up with Elizabeth’s juvenile translations, produced as New Year gifts for immediate family members). The longest and most involved translation by some way is that of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae (discussed at length by Lysbeth Benkert in an earlier issue of EMLS); Elizabeth also translated letters with a Stoic flavour by Seneca and Cicero, as well as a hundred lines idealizing Stoic retreat from the tragedy Hercules Oetaeus (ascribed to Seneca in the Renaissance), and  Cicero’s oration celebrating Julius Caesar’s clement display of virtuous reason in the wake of  civil war (the editors skilfully draw out the affinities Elizabeth clearly felt with Cicero’s Caesar). Seneca and Cicero are also the two authors most often quoted or referenced in the Sententiae, a collection of 259 pithy pronouncements on the responsibilities of sovereign rule, printed alongside her Latin prayers in 1563, and published here, along with her book inscriptions, on the grounds that ‘they closely relate to the linguistic and intellectual exertions of her translations’ (1: 4).

  5. The one significant exclusion by the editors from the canon of Elizabeth’s translations is a version of the first ninety lines of Petrarch’s Trionfo dell’eternità previously almost unanimously attributed to her, which is here relegated to an appendix to volume one. Arguing that it ‘displays little of her curt sententiousness, characteristic ellipses, and inversions of normal word order’, and, in particular, that it does not make the heavy use of cognates typical of Elizabeth’s other translations (1: 463-4), Mueller and Scodel conclude that it presents too many discrepancies to be identified as a ‘plausible composition by Queen Elizabeth’ (1: 468).  The internal evidence the editors offer is persuasive, and raises at least two questions: firstly, do we need to revise our established notions of Elizabeth’s associations with Petrarchism; and secondly, if Elizabeth didn’t pen this translation, who did?

  6. Volume one opens with a concise general introduction to Elizabeth’s activities as a translator, and this is supplemented by more detailed introductions to each of the individual translations. The scholarly apparatus throughout is helpful without being intrusive. Detailed footnotes record Elizabeth’s pen-slips and her actual and apparent deviations from her source, clarify her probable meaning where it becomes obscure, and highlight where seeming peculiarities in the translation correspond to substantive variants in the editions from which she translated.  As in ACFLO, typographical reproductions of Elizabeth’s translations are offered alongside the editors’ facing-page modern-spelling versions. Given the difficulties for modern readers of Elizabeth’s frequent ellipses, her occasionally misleading cognates, her word-for-word construals and her tendency to use words and forms that were passing out of use in her own time,  this was probably a necessary editorial decision, especially in the case of the later translations. These are extant as first drafts only, probably completed at speed, and are replete with scorings-out, corrections and additions which make the transcriptions laborious if fascinating reading.

  7. Occasionally, however, particularly with the earlier, juvenile texts, the parallel modern version feels redundant, and one wonders whether, at the risk of violating editorial consistency, it might not have been preferable to substitute it with the original source text. This is especially true of Elizabeth’s translation for her father of Katherine Parr’s Prayers or Meditations into Latin, French and Italian, the only extant translation by Elizabeth into more than one language. While the editors translate into English Elizabeth’s dedicatory letter in Latin, no English equivalent is offered for the translations themselves. This may be on the grounds that the original is in English, but for many readers Parr's text might not be easy to come by.  While it would have meant violating the order of the original, presenting the three translations in parallel, along with Parr’s text, might have been an attractive alternative, facilitating comparisons between Elizabeth’s different versions and her stepmother’s while also aiding the fledgling linguist.

  8. Overall, though, Mueller and Scodel are to be commended on an excellent job. The centrality of translation in early modern literary culture has long been recognized, but this recognition has not always been matched by scholarly endeavour.  By making readily accessible for the first time all of Elizabeth’s substantial translations, the editors have filled in a uniquely significant part in our picture, effectively sending out an invitation to scholars to grapple further with the manifold implications of these intriguing texts. It is to be hoped the invitation will be taken up. 

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).