Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Royal Child Translator


Today is December 31.

On this day in the year 1544 – in the words of Anne Lake Prescott, a distinguished American scholar of the English Renaissance –
"the eleven-year-old Lady Elizabeth presented Catherine with her own beautifully bound and embroidered translation of Marguerite's long poem Le miroir de l'âme pécheresse."
This was a red-letter day in the annals of child translators. Lady Elizabeth was the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. Catherine was Catherine (or Katherine) Parr,
"the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII, destined to outlive the mercurial ruler... She was an admirable wife to Henry and a loving stepmother to his two youngest children, Elizabeth and Edward. She was also the most intellectual of Henry's wives, caught up in the turbulent religious climate of the times."
Marguerite was Marguerite de Valois (aka Marguerite d'Angoulême, 1492–1549),
"queen consort of Henry II of Navarre. Her brother became king of France as Francis I, and the two siblings were responsible for the celebrated intellectual and cultural court and salons of their day in France... As an author and a patron of humanists and reformers, she was an outstanding figure of the French Renaissance."
As for her poem Le Miroir de l'âme pécheresse (The Mirror of the Sinful Soul), it is
"an outpouring of surprising intensity: over 1,400 lines of self-accusation and self-abasement. The Reformist orientation is apparent in the poem's Pauline-Augustinian bent, as in the prominence of biblical allusions. The speaker of the poetic monologue presents herself as a wretched sinner, who has so violated and betrayed her relationship with God that she is totally unworthy of his grace. Parsing out that relationship into a series of familial paradigms - daughter, mother, sister, wife - she explores each area of defection through an exemplary episode from the Bible."
So the translator may have been a child, but the text was no children's poem.
"Scholars sometimes assume that Elizabeth chose to translate this poem. In fact... someone older, possibly Catherine herself, would very likely have known of the book and pressed it on her.... Elizabeth could hope that by obediently translating the Miroir she could please an influential and affectionate stepmother....
“Neither do we know who, if anyone, helped Elizabeth with her translation. It seems unlikely she was utterly on her own, yet her errors and omissions suggest inattention (or inadequate French) on someone's part. She opens with a letter to Catherine. She knows of the queen's 'affectuous wille, and fervent zeale... towardes all godly learning.' So, to avoid idleness, she has turned 'frenche ryme in to englishe prose, joyning the sentences together as well as the capacitie of my symple witte, and small lerning coulde extende themselves.' Her effort is merely a beginning, so she hopes Catherine will not show it ot anyone ‘lesse my fauttes be knowen of many.’ Maybe Catherine can amend it. Happy New Year."
Who might have helped Elizabeth? Let’s not underestimate her. She'd been put through a thorough Renaissance Christian education that included learning, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin besides English rhetoric and French. So she no doubt had capable teachers. We know, for instance, that her tutor in Greek was Henry Savile, later one of the King James Bible team of translators. By the time she was eleven, we can suppose, on the basis of this education and the translation itself, that she was an Advanced Native Translator.

In spite of Elizabeth’s reticence about the quality of her translation, once she became queen it was obviously in some courtier’s or bookseller’s interest to publish it and that’s what happened. See References below.

There are some other noteworthy things about this translation:
* Author, translator and intended reader were all women, unusual for its time but indicative of a breakthrough by women into the literature of the Renaissance
* The important role of religious translation, about which I've often commented elsewhere
* The constant flow of ideas and literature between France and England, aided by translations
* It's a translation from rhymed poetry into target-language prose, a not uncommon technique used even by Expert Translators
* Elizabeth's self-criticism, her meta-translational awareness(pardon the term)
* The proof that sophisticated translations by children at the Advanced Native Translator level are by no means a modern phenomenon. This example pushes it back by nearly five centuries. Elizabeth was very intelligent but she was surely not unique. How many other literary and religious translations by children have been done over the centuries, and then lost because the child was not famous or royal?

References
Anne Lake Prescott. The Pearl of Valois and Elizabeth I: Marguerite de Navarre's Miroir and Tudor England. In Margaret Patterson Hannay (ed.), Silent but for the Word, Kent OH, Kent State UP, 1985, pp. 61-76.

Kaherine Parr. http://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/parr.html.

Marguerite de Navarre. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marguerite_de_Navarre.

Marguerite de Navarre. Le Miroir de l'âme pécheresse. 1521. The full text is available on Wikisource, http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Le_Miroir_de_l%E2%80%99%C3%A2me_p%C3%A9cheresse.

Susan Snyder. Guilty sisters: Marguerite de Navarre, Elizabeth of England, and the Miroir de l'ame pecheresse. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 50, 1997, pp. 443-458. http://www.questia.com/googleScholar.qst?docId=5000487330.

The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul. Elizabeth's manuscript in her own handwriting. The dedication reads:
"From Assherige, the last daye of the yeare of our Lord God 1544 ... To our most noble and vertuous Quene Katherin, Elizabeth her humble daughter wisheth perpetuall felicitie and everlasting joye."
Elizabeth probably also embroidered the binding. The book is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The binding is illustrated in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Miroir_or_Glasse_of_the_Synneful_Soul

A Godly Meditation of the inwarde loue of the Soule.Compiled in French by Margaret Queene of Nauerre translated by Princesse Elizabeth, Queene of Englande. London, circa 1570. There are three versions of this publication in the British Library in London.

Image
Elizabeth at age 13. Painter unknown. Source: Wikipedia.

4 comments:

  1. That sounds amazing. However, child prodigies don't come along every day and it is also questionable if they can convey certain aspects of a text. Successful cross-cultural transfer, for instance is essential for a good translation, particularly in literature that has been translated. - or humour - humour is not just a language thing. Professional translation companies work with linguists who are familiar with both the culture of the target and the source language.
    http://www.rosettatranslation.com/”

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    1. Thank you for your comment.
      Elizabeth was certainly intelligent, as her reign as queen proves, and she was put through an intensive education. Also we don't know how much help she got from her tutors. A child today is hardly likely to choose a religious poem to translate, but Elizabeth's stepmother was pious and no doubt influenced her.
      As for the subtleties of the translation, I haven't read it to evaluate it. But one can't expect more from a child like Elizabeth in a translation than she would be capable of in her English discourse.

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  2. I've written a couple of papers on this subject and done extensive comparative work between the original French and Elizabeth's translation. Not only was she well versed enough in French to complete the translation, there is also the point to be made that at that time foreign language was largely taught through grammar translation techniques. This would be revised and have a resurgence under the Neo-Grammarians of the 19th century. So, Elizabeth would work on correct pronunciation of the language, but the main vehicle of instruction was translation, rather than the communicative methods or total physical response (TPR), which is common in French language instruction present-day. One also shouldn't forget that the nature of this text is religious and reflects Biblical exegesis and mysticism. Elizabeth would also have received instruction in the Biblical studies. The final point to be made is that, rather than present day, Elizabeth was trained by some of the top scholars in England at that time. Her fluency in Latin was on par with scholars at Oxford early into her reign. And seeing that she was trained by a tutor and only shared instruction with her half-brother, the pace would be faster and the instruction more individualized.

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    1. I'm very glad to hear from somebody with such a close knowledge of the texts. I'd like to read your papers. Where can they be found?

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