Early translator-activists

I’ve been working on the next Reacting to the Past game that I’m going to incorporate into my Theory of Translation course this fall (for more details, see this post from June or this one from July). Unlike the last game, which was set in contemporary Canada, this one takes place in 16th-century England, when William Tyndale translated the New Testament from Greek into English, in spite of the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford prohibiting Bible translations without approval from the Church.

Initially, I wondered whether Tyndale (or his contemporary, Martin Luther) would be a good choice for a Reacting to the Past game intended to be played in a general theory of translation course rather than a history of translation seminar. I wondered whether the game would be set too far in the past to allow us to examine contemporary translation studies issues; after all, Introducing Translation Studies, which we’ll be using as the coursebook, has only one chapter devoted to pre-twentieth-century translation theory. We’ll be looking at that chapter in the first week of classes, but the Tyndale game will run for about four weeks. Would students find the game too far removed from the content of the rest of the coursebook? How would I be able to draw links between the game and the material from the other chapters of Introducing Translation Studies?

But then, as I read more about Tyndale and the context in which he was translating, I realized we could drawn many parallels between him and contemporary translators. For instance, we’ll be able to compare Tyndale’s activities and very recent studies of activist translators or translators who support a social cause when translating. Just consider Tyndale’s comments in “A Pathway into the Holy Scripture”, which he published around 1530 to explain the meaning of words like gospel, Old Testament, Christ and faith:

I marvel greatly, dearly beloved in Christ, that any man would ever contend or speak against having the scripture available in every language, for every man. For I would have thought no one so blind as to ask why light should be shown to those who walk in darkness—darkness where they cannot but stumble, and where to stumble is the danger of eternal condemnation. Nor would I have thought any man would be so malicious that he would begrudge another so necessary a thing, or so mad as to assert that good is the natural cause of evil, and that darkness proceeds out of light, and that lying is grounded in truth and verity. I would think he would assert the very contrary: that light destroys darkness and truth reproves all manner of lying.

Or what about this passage from Tyndale’s prologue to the Five Books of Moses, called Genesis, also printed in 1530:

For they which in times past were wont to look on no more Scripture than they found in their Duns, or such like devilish doctrine, have yet now so narrowly looked on my Translation, that there is not so much as one i therein, if it lack a tittle over his head, but they have noted it, and number it unto the ignorant people for an heresy. Finally, in this they all be agreed,–to drive you from the knowledge of the Scripture, and that ye shall not have the text thereof in the mother tongue; and to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine; […] For as long as they may keep [the Scripture] down, they will so darken the right way with the mist of their sophistry […]

In Tyndale’s texts, we see many of the same arguments that volunteer, cause-driven translation groups make today. Tyndale criticizes the Church for “trying to keep the world in darkness” and he recognizes that having access to the Bible in their mother tongue would allow his contemporaries to move beyond ignorance, to read and understand the Bible for themselves, without the Church acting as an intermediary. More recent activist and volunteer translator groups often argue that information is a powerful tool and that translators can help disseminate knowledge by making this information available in other languages. Translators Without Borders, for instance, states that:

Knowledge is power.
It saves lives, lifts people out of poverty, ensures better health and nutrition, creates and maintains economies.

Access to information is critical.
Language barriers cost lives.
Through the sophisticated Translators without Borders platform, important aid groups easily connect directly with professional translators, breaking down the barriers of language and building up the transfer of information to those who need it, one brick at a time.

Likewise, Babels, the network of volunteer translators and interpreters who help facilitate “interlinguistic and intercultural communication” at the World Social Forums describes itself in the following way:

Babels is made up of activists of all tendencies and backgrounds, united in the task of transforming and opening up the Social Forums. We work to give voice to peoples of different languages and cultures. We fight for the right of all, including those who don’t speak a colonial language, to contribute to the common work. We try to allow everyone to express themselves in the language of their choice. By increasing the diversity of contributions to the debate, we transform its outcome.

Like Tyndale, these groups believe access to information in one’s own language is important and something worth fighting for. Of course, the stakes for Tyndale were much higher: death was the penalty imposed on unrepentant heretics who translated or read the bible in English in the 1520s and 30s, causing Tyndale to work in self-imposed exile and in fear of the Church’s informants. Groups like Translators without Borders and Babels are able to operate much more openly today. Nonetheless, the similarities in the discourses of Reformation-era bible translators like Tyndale and contemporary activist groups like Translators without Borders are striking, and certainly support the arguments made by Chesterman (1995, 2000), Neubert (2000) and others that translation history needs to be integrated into translation courses if students are to fully understand the profession and their role within it. In the instructor guidelines for the Tyndale game, I will be sure to include some comments about how the game can be related to issues addressed in various chapters of Introducing Translation Studies (e.g. censorship, power), in case other instructors would like to integrate the game into their courses and need some guidance as to how a game set so far in the past is relevant to contemporary translation studies issues.

Chesterman, Andrew. (2000). Teaching Strategies for Emancipatory Translation. In Christina Schaffner & Beverly Adab, eds. Developing Translation Competence. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 77-90.

Chesterman, Andrew. (1995). Teaching Translation Theory: The Significance of Memes. In Cay Dollerup & Vibeke Appel, eds. Teaching Translation and Interpreting 3. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 63-71.

Neubert, Albrecht. (2000). Competence in Language, in Languages and in Translation. In Christina Schaffner & Beverly Adab, eds. Developing Translation Competence. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 3-18.