Oct. 10, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 2

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    Book of translations reveals intellectualism of England’s powerful Queen Elizabeth I

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Elizabeth I, (attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1572)

    We no longer think of rulers as intellectuals. The winning, just-plain-folks style of a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan seems worlds away from the difficult inwardness of scholars translating ancient texts and learned divines writing in foreign languages.

    It may come as some surprise, then, to realize that the powerful and popular Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled during the English Renaissance, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, had translated religious texts and composed in French, Italian and Latin before she reached age 18.

    But what Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel’s projected edition of Queen Elizabeth’s translations reveals is even more interesting–that her learning was not incidental to her power and political life but a key to it.

    A greatly successful ruler at a time when women were thought physically unsuitable to hold power, Elizabeth I was described as having a “man’s mind.” Her mind was undoubtedly disciplined and independent, due in no small part to her early regimen of study.

    Mueller, Dean of the Division of the Humanities and the William Rainey Harper Professor in English Language & Literature and the College, describes the translations Elizabeth did of religious works as a princess. “They were done very much under the benign and loving influence of her stepmother Katherine Parr. Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had made England Protestant in the 1530s, a decade before Princess Elizabeth and Katherine Parr came on the scene as literary players.

    “Elizabeth was born in 1533, so she was a teen-ager when she was doing these–for example, her translation of the first chapter of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin first wrote this in French in 1541, and just four years later, in 1545, before Calvin had even finished the Latin translation, at the age of 12, Elizabeth is translating this into English. She’s really state-of-the-art in terms of European Christianity. Then she took a religious work that Katherine Parr had done in English and translated it into Latin, French and Italian and gave it as a New Year’s gift to her dad. The dates of most translations are December 30 or 31; these are Elizabeth’s ideas of good New Year’s gifts.”

    A few translations from the early part of Elizabeth’s reign provide a window into how the Chicago scholars have been proceeding. Mueller has transcribed manuscripts in England and Scotland, while Joshua Scodel, Chair of Comparative Literature and Professor in English Language & Literature and the College, has been working on comparing the translations with their classical and continental Renaissance sources. The final product will be a close collaboration.

    Mueller said of the early period of Elizabeth’s rule, “She translates a few letters and a chorus from one of Seneca’s tragedies. There’s a shifting of gears: classical texts, rather than devotional literature, when she is a ruler.”

    There was one text Scodel and Mueller agreed to throw out, for some interesting reasons. “There’s a Xenophon translation, actually not in her hand, with phrasing that’s much less elliptical and condensed than Elizabeth’s usually was.

    Elizabeth I, (unknown artist, c. 1575)

    “This text also uses a very prissy set of expletives, ‘Marry,’ ‘Tush,’ ‘In good sooth,’” Mueller said. “But Elizabeth was known to have sworn quite a bit, with more muscular curses like ‘God’s blood!’ or ‘Jesus!’” So Mueller and Scodel removed this text, which had been attributed to Elizabeth by Horace Walpole, an English antiquary and horror novelist, who is one of their few predecessors to attempt to catalogue her translations.

    Scodel described the issues he and Mueller are addressing. “Both of us are very interested in the historical and political significance of the works she translated–why she chose these, what kinds of analogies she might have seen between the historical situations of the texts she’s translating and her own situation, to what extent these translations are a veiled autobiography.”

    For example, Mueller said, Elizabeth’s translation of Cicero’s Pro Marcello has “never been published. And it’s quite a puzzling and intriguing choice of an oration to translate. The oration on Marcus Marcellus is a fulsome tribute to Caesar for being magnanimous toward Marcellus, who had (along with Cicero) supported Caesar’s enemy Pompey.

    “Marcellus’ citizenship wasn’t revoked, but he was under a cloud. Cicero praises Caesar for mandating Marcellus’ return to Rome and reinstitution into civic life. He praises Caesar’s unifying intent to override faction with magnanimity, a political vision beyond that of what other strategists might have done to old enemies. He describes this act as a divine blessing that no human being could have done.

    “Now, the only way it would seem to make sense would be to have Elizabeth associating herself with Caesar and his act of magnanimity. In which case, who is Marcellus? What Cicero praises in Caesar as characteristics of a great ruler are things she wanted to claim as her own. She holds up the mirror to herself using her scholarship.”

    Scodel said that as much as original writing provides a window into people’s minds and contexts, so, too, does translation. “What does it mean for the Queen of England to be doing this? Elizabeth is very self-consciously participating in the humanist movement of the Renaissance, which heavily involved the translation of classical texts,” said Scodel.

    While these translations provided proof of one’s learning, they also were a way of using the text as part of a national or even nationalist agenda. “One question we’re interested in is, to what extent does Elizabeth anglicize, not just render the texts into English, but also make them seem like English texts?

    “A central issue of translation theory this gets at is, how much do you deviate from your text to bring it up to date, make it seem less foreign? There’s a whole spectrum from quite literal with all the local detail, to the Renaissance idea of imitation, where you really update a text, substituting English references for classical references.

    “Elizabeth is far more on the literal end, but she’s participating a in culture that is very interested in this spectrum of possibility. Translation also is an act of cultural translation, carrying over something from the past into the present, from the foreign to the native, implicitly or explicitly.”

    Among the most captivating details are the translations that illuminate Elizabeth’s private life. Mueller explains that Elizabeth translated Boethius’ Latin Consolation of Philosophy into English during a dark period.

    “She was very distraught, when in late summer and early fall of 1593, Henry IV, King of France, converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. The nobles and people of Paris, who were deeply Catholic, had kept him out of the capital and prevented his crowning. So Henry capitulated to them, uttering his famous remark that, ‘Paris is worth a Mass.’”

    At that point, said Mueller, “Elizabeth translates the Consolation of Philosophy, because she’s so bummed out that she needs the consolations of philosophy.”

    Among these private texts are some marginal notes in Prince Edward’s Latin exercise book, which show her helping her little half-brother with his homework, “being an officious older sister.” The collection will include a French translation and a Greek epistle of St. Gregory on the celibate life, by Jean Belmain, Elizabeth’s and Edward’s French tutor, and are presented to the teenaged Elizabeth as a gift. “The importance of this for the ‘virgin queen’ needs no belaboring,” noted Mueller.