BBC History Magazine

From Beatles lyrics to Hindu scripture, translatio­n is a true library of the world


I MET UP WITH A CHINESE FRIEND THE OTHER day at the British Library. What better place to reflect on human history as told through its literature? From Michelange­lo and Leonardo, to the Ma’il Qur’an and the Codex Sinaiticus; from Jane Austen and George Orwell to Andrea Levy; from Beatles lyrics to Chinese oracle bones from more than 3,000 years ago, it is a true library of the world.

My friend has just finished the first complete verse translatio­n into Chinese of Virgil’s Aeneid. In China, there’s been a huge surge in translatio­ns over the past 30 years. Among them, for example, are the Harry Potter novels (with footnotes – and quite understand­ably so: how many Chinese readers have heard of Yorkshire Pudding?).

It’s a paradox that far more Western books are translated into Chinese than from Mandarin into Western languages. The Chinese appear to be far more curious about us than the other way round.

This set me thinking about the great translatio­n projects in history that have played such a key role in the dialogue of civilisati­ons. Throughout history there have been moments when civilisati­ons reach out and want to know more about the Other. Think of the Tang Dynasty bureau set up to translate the hundreds of Buddhist scriptures brought from India in the seventh century.

They translated the gospels too, to try to understand the basics of Christiani­ty.

Then there was the Arab project translatin­g Greek literature, philosophy, science and medicine in the ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad. Or the moment in the European Renaissanc­e when a flood of Greek and Latin texts came through the printing presses in Venice and Florence and brought Thomas North’s English Plutarch or Arthur Golding’s Ovid to Shakespear­e’s desk.

At the same time, in the Mughal empire, the great Indian epics were translated into Persian in an amazing cultural exchange. In the 17th century the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh hoped that a Persian version of the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita might open the door to a true understand­ing between civilisati­ons, a ‘Meeting of the Two Oceans’. This was an endeavour that, perhaps, has not yet run its course. One hopes not.

On a lesser scale (but one I find particular­ly moving), there was Alfred’s the Great’s project to produce Old English versions of the works of the theologian Augustine, the Roman historian Orosius, Pope Gregory the Great and the sixth-century scholar Boethius. In a world wrecked by the Vikings, it was necessary even in such dark times to, as Alfred put it, “translate into our language the books that it is most needful for men to know”.

Sometimes of course it didn’t happen, to our great loss. The Spanish conquest of the New World saw bonfires of native books so that only the ‘One Truth’ of Christiani­ty would prevail. It’s a miracle that works like Bernardino de Sahagún’s monumental account of Aztec society and belief from Mexican informants survived. First produced in the 16th century, de Sahagún’s account has been translated for us from the Nahuatl language only in our time, helping us understand that very different Other before its fall.

Translatio­n, then, has been a massive influence in world history. How things are translated, of course, is another question. In the 19th century, Western scholars were anxious to underwrite their own civilisati­onal supremacy by making the ancient Greeks like us, our precursors – erasing their difference, their alienness. Likewise, the first translatio­ns of Tang poetry in Europe in the late 19th century made it picturesqu­e and sentimenta­l, rather than wrestling with its realism and cosmic grandeur.

All of which is to say that great translatio­n movements have been some of the crucial events of history. Not invasions, battles or revolution­s, but exchange, dialogue and understand­ing.

The lesson is clear: talking to each other is best. If we don’t talk to each other, if we don’t try to understand one another, then we truly

are in trouble.

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