If you follow our article series on the history of translation, you will already know about the incalculable role that translation has had in the development and spread of human culture around the globe. You will also know that, unfortunately, the individuals that dedicated their life to the craft are often overlooked by history. However, there are a few exceptions that made such a significant impact in the field, even Google Translate itself would love to be a member of their fan club.
Jorge Luis Borges
A native of Argentina, Jose Luis Borges was a poet, writer, translator, and an all-around literary Renaissance man of languages and words that led the way for countless future generations of Spanish translators. When Spanish had already lost its eminent position as a global language that began during the age of discovery, Borges swam against the stream and rendered masterful translations from English, French, German, and even other ancient languages into Spanish, bringing a whole wave of art and knowledge to the Spanish speaking world.
Learning Japanese for a westerner is a very significant undertaking, but translating the masterpieces coming from the land of the rising sun can be considered nothing short of a colossal endeavor. Seidensticker and his boundless talent not only achieved that, but he also brought the until then rather obscure and poorly translated Japanese works right into the heart of western culture, eventually culminating in the first ever Japanese literature Nobel Prize award for Yasunari Kawabata, the original author of one of Seidensticker’s translations.
An interpreter of Native American origin, Scawagea became an integral part of the Lewis and Clark expedition into the still largely undiscovered American West during the early 18th century. The expedition quickly realized that their inability to communicate with the population would leave them unable to trade or secure supplies for a journey that had no end in sight. Scawagea became a priceless asset to their mission thanks to her grasp of the Shoshone language spoken in the region, and it’s safe to say that without her contribution, the American West would have remained out of reach for many more years to come.
If Jose Luis Borges brought the works of the world to Spanish readers, Gregory Rabassa can be credited for delivering the best of Spanish literature to the angloshpere. He translated a significant number of Spanish masterpieces into English during his lifetime, and was considered to be so good, that Gabriel Garcia Márquez pursued Rabassa relentlessly until he translated his One Hundred Years of Solitude. When he was done, Márquez read the work and believed that the translated text surpassed the original. Now that is definitely something special as feedback is concerned.
Constance Garnett became the bridge between the thriving literary culture of Russia and the rest of the globe, by translating works from titans such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. Garnett was a tireless worker that translated over 71 volumes until her retirement in the early 1930’s. While she was considered a polarizing figure in the business, largely due to her pretty much omitting words or expressions she didn’t happen to know, the general consensus among the Russian greats authors was rather positive overall.
We can’t end the article without including one of the illustrious oldies, and Saint Jerome is as good as it gets. He translated the vast majority of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, and his translation, commonly known as the Vulgate, was used almost exclusively for over a millennia. While it’s true that translation back then moved at a much slower pace, creating a work that remained relevant for so long is probably something that will never be achieved again. Nowadays, he is widely recognized as the patron Saint of translators, which is a title that would do wonders on anybody’s business card.