Willi Paul Adams and David Thelen

Most of the world's past comes to us in translation. "It may not overstate the case," writes L. G. Kelly, "to claim that the history of the world could be told through the history of translation. Indeed, one might even assert that, without translation, there is no history of the world." 1At a time when people and ideas, culture and business, seem increasingly to cross barriers of language, translation from one language to another becomes a necessary part of the action. And that action is neither transparent nor automatic. Indeed, translators have an ancient wisdom, as Tiziano Bonazzi reminds us in the following round table, tradurre tradire (to translate is to betray).

Translation seemed to the Journal 's international contributing editors to be a promising topic for interrogating the nation-centered assumptions that often anchor the practice of American history in the United States. As a fundamental fact and tool of the historical craft for Americanists abroad, translation is a subject of everyday reflection as those Americanists face the challenges of introducing American texts to people for whom English is not a first language. And so the international editors encouraged Willi Paul Adams, the Journal 's German contributing editor, an authority on late-eighteenth-century American constitutionalism, and an experienced translator, to work with Journal editor David Thelen in designing a round table in which Americanists from different places could zero in on the precise moment when an individual carries a text across a national and language barrier, how that individual receives, adapts, and reports what that text means. We wanted readers to be able to see translators make choices about how to move the text across the barriers behind which cultures have evolved characteristic linguistic ways of seeing and thinking, of encoding and protecting their cultures. We would see the creativity of individual translators as they sought to push their texts through filters of culture and language.

From the start we wanted authors from different countries to analyze the translation and reception of a single American text in their countries. We chose the Declaration of Independence as that text because we expected that its translations would open up rich possibilities for observing both individual creativity and cultural filters. We wanted the articles to address the same questions so that readers could more easily compare similarities and differences in the challenges translators faced. We turned for guidance in compiling these questions to Eugene Chen Eoyang, an experienced translator of Chinese literature and authority on translation and comparative literature at Indiana University. Eoyang encouraged us by saying that our project of soliciting essays on the translation of a single historical text over time would be an important contribution to the new field of "translation studies." For this reason we append to this round table the list of questions we sent to all authors.

The next task was to identify and recruit authors. We wanted the project to reflect a range of national cultures and linguistic challenges. We solicited advice from the Journal 's international contributing editors and others, seeking authors who could bring both translation experience, preferably with the declaration, and research experience with the reception of the declaration or its ideas in their countries. Along the way we made discoveries. For example, we pursued dozens of leads on the declaration's translation history in Latin American countries before discovering that the declaration as a document simply did not have much impact in Latin America. 2In the end we persuaded Josefina Vázquez, the dean of American historians in Mexico, to write an essay that explored why the American text had little relevance to the movement for independence in that country. But to dwell on disappointments, on the languages and cultures that are not represented, would be to take our eyes off the remarkable and varied essays that we are delighted to present.

As we saw that authors addressed our original questions in different ways, as we discussed the feedback to provide authors, and particularly as we talked about how we wanted to introduce this round table, we came to recognize that translation opened even wider perspectives on historical practice than we had initially imagined. We had agreed on the questions we wanted authors to address, but we spoke in different accents or dialects about how translation was important for historians. A translator, Adams emphasized that the major task of the translator is to find the original intent of the text's author and as faithfully as possible to transfer that intent into the adopted language. As a believer in and builder of the Enlightenment's dream of a cosmopolitan republic of letters, Adams wanted translation to create common understanding of the past that transcended lines of language and culture. Thelen shared that dream, including the desire to discover the intent of the author and to remove distortions of language and culture. But as he read the essays you have before you and listened to translators trying to introduce the Declaration of Independence to their readers, he saw a different significance of translation for historians. What Adams saw as distortions of original intent struck Thelen -- when they were retranslated into English -- as exciting windows for seeing the declaration in stranger and clearer light. He saw more clearly the choices and confusions and evasions that Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had introduced in the original document. While filters of language and culture provided challenges to a translator's competence for Adams, they introduced alternatives for Thelen as he saw many lives in the Declaration, just waiting to be brought to life by the creativity of individual translators in different cultures at different times. Rather than try to merge our voices in introducing these essays, then, we decided to write two introductions that may also reflect different perspectives on the practice of history even as they catch differences in the perspectives that authors brought to the round table.

Readers will find translations of the declaration into some of the languages referred to in this round table by looking at There they will also find retranslations into English of the translated framing passages of the declaration. At this Web site authors of articles in this issue also present notes on the challenges posed by particular words in the declaration. We view this Web site as a work in progress and encourage readers to contribute other translations of the declaration and accounts of their own experiences in translating it to the site.

1. L. G. Kelly, The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West (New York, 1979), quoted in Eugene Chen Eoyang, The Transparent Eye: Reflections on Translation, Chinese Literature, and Comparative Poetics (Honolulu, 1993), 27.

2. Cf. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York, 1997), 188, and esp. 280n67.