The Historian as Translator: Initial Proposal

The following statement was sent to prospective participants in the round table "Interpreting the Declaration of Independence by Translation" in 1995 and 1996.

The purpose of this round table is to explore the ways historians mediate between and interpret cultures. Its focus is on the problems historians of the United States face every day in non-English-speaking countries when they publish and teach: They have to translate American documents and experiences into their own cultures.

The central challenge of intercultural translation is that while translators are expected to produce perfect reflections of the thoughts expressed in the original language, they know that there may not be words or concepts in the new language that can perfectly reflect every thought. How then does the translator determine the meaning of the original word, sentence, argument? How does the translator's late-twentieth-century "German mind," for example, choose between contending meanings that are put forth by happily contending late-eighteenth-century "American minds"? How do translating historians make these choices? By what criteria and standards?

Each essay will center on the historian's experience in translating and interpreting the American Declaration of Independence. As the founding proclamation of a new nation, the Declaration of Independence contains and presents to its readers special problems for those who would read it at different times and / or places from where it originated. Authors of essays in this round table should explore these problems both as issues of translation into a different language and as issues of historical reception in a different country. For one thing, its authors stated very specific grievances within a very particular British context at a very particular moment in the history of the British Empire, but they embedded those grievances in classic enlightenment and universalistic claims about natural or trans-historical rights. For another thing, in this document the Founding Fathers chose to ground the birth of a new nation in the embrace of ideals -- natural rights and republican government -- instead of in geography, language, religion, culture, dynasty, or other sources from which nation builders elsewhere constructed or proclaimed their nations. For Americans these ideals -- "all men are created equal" or "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it" -- become challenges to subsequent practices (slavery, sexism, for examples), retaining the nature of eternal truths. Finally, as a justification for revolution, the document is a classic statement of reciprocal rights and responsibilities of citizens and regimes, of when citizens are expected to bestow allegiance and when to rebel. These issues go to the core of republican theory and practice throughout the world, and the essays should explore what happens to them as they enter very different times and places from where they were first proclaimed in Philadelphia in 1776.

We have asked individuals with experience translating American documents into different languages to write essays in which they address these challenges. As they discuss the experience of translating the Declaration of Independence or seek to illustrate difficult-to-translate phrases, authors are encouraged to refer to other American founding documents as well, especially to the early state constitutions (including the Virginia Bill of Rights), the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution, and The Federalist Papers. At the same time, authors are asked to present their personal experience with translating the Declaration of Independence in the context of previous translations, explaining why they decided to accept certain phrases from previous translations and to retranslate others. We have identified the following sets of questions that we hope our contributors will engage.

Specific Questions

(1) Which of the key concepts were the most difficult to translate? (Select no more than twenty.) What choices did you as the translator face, and what interpretative consequences flowed from the choices the translator made? Which terms were simply left in English (in the way the Latin phrase habeas corpus is used in lawyers' English)? Which terms required the invention of a new term or word or phrase in your language?

Were there words / concepts / ideas in the receiving culture and language that constituted taboos or other constraints which the translator had to take into consideration if the text was to be understood and published? If so, how did you translate to overcome those constraints?


(2) More broadly, what was the political-ideological environment in which these translations were published? What debates and traditions going on in the translator's country at the time of translation shaped both the translation of the document and the ways it has been used or received? How well do translations reflect the contending eighteenth-century American interpretations? Do they show a variety of different interpretations to fit particular emphases and traditions in the translator's culture?

What was the intended audience of a given translation? What were the political / cultural / economic considerations that in part motivated (or discouraged) a translation? That is, was it made as a work of propaganda, as a work of literature, as a political document, etc.? What role did governments play: that of the host country? the U.S. embassy and the United States Information Service ( usis )? What role did private commercial publishers play? Private non-profit foundations? Scholarly institutions like universities, academies, research centers?

Were there special issues in the way a translation would be received in a country because the document originated in the United States? Are there perceptions of the United States or American culture in the country that affect the way translation of such documents might be received by some intended audiences?

How did contemporary debates about political rights, the role and limits of government, republicanism, or representative government affect the translation?


(3) Translation across two centuries is a basic problem historians face even when they do not have to cross a language barrier. We want to hear historians reflect on how they translate across time as well as across cultures and languages. Did the translation ignore the time gap between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries by using a late-twentieth-century style? Or did a modern translation deliberately use eighteenth-century terminology or an equivalent "historical" mode of expression in the target language? For example, in introducing the late-eighteenth-century "aura" of English to modern Spanish-speaking readers in Argentina, translators face the challenge of what aura or tone to strike, and this depends on how they want their particular audience to apprehend the American document.


(4) Some theorists have suggested that cultures wax and wane in their receptivity toward translations of foreign texts. At some moments, cultures (e.g., Elizabethan England) are eager to welcome new languages, drawing upon foreign ideas and encouraging translation of foreign works; at other moments (Victorian England) they are more disposed to seeing only their own culture and so view translation mainly as a means to export their ideas. Has interest in receiving translations of foreign texts (including the American founding documents) waxed and waned over time in your country? What was the general receptivity of the receiving culture at the moment of the translation of your document(s)? From your perspective, do you regard the United States as more or less hospitable to translating "foreign" works than your country? Could you explain the reasons for the difference, if any?


(5) What beliefs / values / assumptions guided your translation? Did you intend your version (or did other translators intend their versions) to be an exact duplicate of the original in your language? An approximation? An admittedly subjective interpretation? How and why?


(6) Do the "we" markers in your translation refer implicitly to all humankind, or merely to those humans who use the language into which you translated the original? Would a reader of your translation be (a) slightly, (b) very, or (c) not at all aware that the original was in English -- indeed, American English?


(7) What gender biases of your language did you have to cope with in translating? How did you deal with the real or imagined gender biases in the original? (e.g., "all men are created equal.")


(8) Which dimensions of the original, in your opinion, were you most successful in capturing: the content, the tone, the style, the rhythm, the imagery, the logic? Which qualities of the original were you least successful in capturing?