The translator of the 16th century had a much more challenging career than the translator today. Three famous translators met their death on account of being good at their industry’s trade. The first translator was tortured and burned at the stake, the second translator was strangled and burned; and the third died more naturally. While translators undergo hardships within their industry today; they certainly are not being burned or strangled.

Etienne Dolet, the first of the three translators killed for their translations, certainly had motives beyond that of an objective translator. Dolet’s work as a poet, scholar, painter and translator prized humanistic thought, which greatly influenced the French Renaissance. His work, however, was thought of by his authorities to be heresy. The religious and political authorities of his day believed he pushed the envelope. For the rulers of his time, the death sentence was logical; to Dolet’s fellow humanists and to the rest of the modern world, this execution is absurd. Regardless, his fate left him with the title of “the first martyr of the Renaissance.”

One of Dolet’s biographers indicates that his “erroneous” translations, which were one of the charges leading to his “heresy,” only added perspective to humanistic thought. Dolet was recognized in France as the first theoretician in the translation industry, though Luther and Cicero hold equal claim. This title can be said to be derived from a thin pamphlet written in 1540, entitled La maniére de bien traduire d’une langue en aultre. Dolet’s pamphlet reduces translation to five main points. The most applicable of Dolet’s points is expressed as follows:

“The third point is that while translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word. And if anyone does so, this comes from his impoverishment and deficiency of wit. Because if he possesses the above-mentioned qualities (which are needed in a good translator), without having regard for word order, he will concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed, while heedfully maintaining the propriety of both languages. And in this regard, it is excessive superstition (might I say stupidity or ignorance?) to begin one’s translation at the start of the sentence. But if by reversing the word order, you express the intention of your author, no on can take you to task for it. I do not wish to remain silent here about the foolishness of some translators, who instead of freedom submit to servitude.”

To be fair, the translation and localization territory comes with much subjectivity. However, what Dolet urges translators to do is to employ wit and to not be bound by verbatim translations, which in some cases do not actually convey the appropriate message. His advice is fitting, given the nature of the translation industry today.

The second of our ill-fated translators is William Tyndale, whose name is recognizable through the current Tyndale House Publishers, which serves to publish Bibles among other Christian books. This 16th century translator was motivated by spiritual devotion. He was captured by Martin Luther’s teachings and admired Luther’s early translation of the Bible into English. Tyndale so admired Luther’s attempt in Germany to bring a sacred text into the hands of the common man that he threatened to mimic Luther’s revolt in England. At the thought of having this sacred text, which was reserved for the elite, now available to the common man, Henry VIII put a price on Tyndale’s head; thus forcing Tyndale to flee to Germany. However, as the fate of the Translator’s life during the 16th century would have it, Tyndale was arrested in Belgium and strangled, then burned to death in 1536, after one year in prison.

The third translator who suffered during the 16th century is Martin Luther. While Luther did not suffer from a beheading or burned at the stake; he is considered by his followers to have undergone severe punishment or treatment due to his theology, proclamation thereof, and translation of the Bible into German. Luther died at age 62 of relatively natural causes. He suffered from a multitude of diseases that may have been normal for the time. Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms, a council in Worms, Germany headed by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V after Luther hung his 95 thesis on the door of the church. Luther was considered a heretic by his human authorities. His actions went against the norm, and therefore sparked the Protestant Reformation. Even though Luther was not killed instantly by the authorities, he was excommunicated from the church by Pope Leo X, and condemned as an outlaw by the holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The outcome of the Diet of Worms sealed Luther’s fate as an outlaw. This declaration banned his literature, required his arrest and punishment as a notorious heretic. It also criminalized any German who gave Luther food or shelter. Finally, this order enabled anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence.

 

Any 21st century translator that thinks they have it hard can reflect on the lives of their 16th century colleagues and note that it is easier today to be a translator than it was during the 1500s. For Dolet, Tyndale and Luther, freedom of speech was a distant and often non-existent concept. They were punished greatly, if not killed for their “actions,” which in essence are an every-day part of the translation industry.

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