The art of translation is a complex and multi-faceted one that requires skills and knowledge in a variety of areas. Many well-known translators from history were polymaths, skilled in a range of endeavours. Linguists, philosophers, theologians, explorers and even accomplished creative writers in their own right – these three translators are a fine example of the seminal status a prolific and skilled translator can achieve.
Sir Richard Burton
Sir Richard Burton’s careers (according to Wikipedia) spanned the following pursuits: explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat. An enviable list!
His globetrotting experiences in the 1800s bought him into contact with innumerable stories and texts from cultures around the world, many of which he translated into English. His two most famous translations were both first for the English language – his 1883 version of The Kama Sutra (link NSFW) and his 1885 translation of A Thousand and One Nights, more commonly known today as The Arabian Nights.
As a side note, Burton is also widely known for being one of the first modern westerners to visit the Islamic holy site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Europeans were banned from entering the sacred grounds, under the pain of death, and so Burton, like something out a detective novel, entered in disguise. Needless to say, he returned to tell his well-chronicled tale.
From the erotic to the pious then, as we go back in time (around 1500 years to be exact) to the days of the Roman Empire. He is most widely known today for translating The Holy Bible from Hebrew and Greek. Originally asked to improve the Latin translations of the New Testament, Jerome piously embarked on translation project for the entire bible. Since his grasp of Hebrew was not good enough for his own vision of the translation, Jerome even upped sticks and moved to Jerusalem for many years in order to study the language. Prior to Jerome’s work, most Christians used versions of the holy text translated from Greek versions rather than the original Hebrew.
His completed work became known as the Vulgate, or ‘commonly used’, and was the authoritative version of the Bible for nearly a thousand years.
Jose Luis Borges
An iconic writer of short stories on his own back, Jose Luis Borges was also a prolific translator. One of Argentina’s most celebrated poets and authors, his books were highly influential on the genre of magical realism.
Borges translations began to take shape at the remarkable age of eight, when he translated Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince into Spanish and submitted it for publication in a local newspaper. Later in life he would translate 13th century Icelandic epic The Prose Edda from its original Old Norse into Spanish, as well as works by Franz Kafka, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe and more.
Somewhat playfully, Borges also ‘translated’ some of his own works and presented them as a discovery, as well as reviewing completely fictional epics of the past. He died completely blind in 1986, but will forever be remembered as on of the modern world’s premier translators of literature.