Issues and Challenges in Translating Historical Texts

Helen Glanville and Murtha Baca

Translation always represents a shift not only between two languages but also between two cultures. A translator must take into account factors that are linguistic or semantic as well as, broadly speaking, cultural.1 Every translation is, to a greater or lesser extent, also an interpretation.

Translations, as much as the original work in question, rely on a common field of reference between the writer and the reader. This obviously becomes more difficult as we cross not only geographical and linguistic frontiers but also temporal ones; the past is indeed a foreign country.

It seems evident that early translators of historical texts would have had an easier time of it than we twenty-first-century translators do. Across the literate world of seventeenth-century Italy, members of the educated class tended to share the same classical education. Therefore quotations and echoes of these “classic” texts (which would have been common grazing ground for them) would also have been recognizable, and translations heavy with a multiplicity of meanings and poetic ambivalence would have been prized in a way that is not characteristic of our times.

Pietro Mellini considered himself to be among the educated class of his day, and his poetic inventory, though abysmal as a work of literature, is a characteristic example of the culture of a man of his education and social standing. The literary and even geographic allusions with which the poem is liberally sprinkled are clear evidence of this.

We have presented elsewhere some of the challenges of translating a text written more than three hundred years ago, the result of a linguistic and cultural environment very different from our own, and composed by a mediocre writer.2 Here is another telling example: in the sixth stanza on folio 1 verso of the manuscript, Pietro describes the “tribulations of the Prodigal Son” as depicted in a painting by Jacopo Bassano the Elder. He uses the words “aspre vicende” (literally, “harsh events”), which to the members of his social class (and to anyone who is familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original Italian), would have evoked the “selva selvaggia e aspra” (“wild, harsh forest”) in which Dante had lost his way in the opening Canto of the Inferno. And it is probably not coincidental that Pietro chose the rhyme scheme of the Divine Comedyterza rima—for his humble poem.3 We might even say that the character of Dante in what is arguably the greatest poem in the Italian language is the ultimate prodigal son, traveling on the harsh, sometimes brutal road to redemption. These are the kind of cultural resonances that Pietro’s choice of words, and even his choice of rhyme schemes, would have evoked in contemporary readers of his poetic inventory.4

The translator cannot help but bring to the translation a certain degree of the cultural “feel” of the times in which he or she lives; thus a translation carried out, say, in the 1920s will be recognizable as such in its use of words and cadences common to the era. If it strays too far from the tone of the original, however, it may provide a very different experience for the reader than was intended by the author.5 The challenge is to put across to the reader the culture and context of the time in which the original text was written (in the case of Pietro Mellini’s poem, Rome in the late seventeenth century), retaining as much as possible the original “flavor” of the era while making it intelligible to a reader who may know little either of the times, the subject matter, or the cultural context. Working in a digital environment, with the ability to annotate both texts and images, has helped us in our task of conveying the many meanings of Pietro’s poem to our contemporary readers.


  • 1. See Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (London: Phoenix, 2004).
  • 2. Murtha Baca, “Digital Mellini: Project Update and Observations on Translating Historical Texts,” Getty Research Journal 4 (2012): 153–60.
  • 3. See the essay “The Manuscript, and the Poem.”
  • 4. As is the case with Shakespeare in the English language, innumerable phrases from the Divine Comedy have entered into proverbial use in the Italian language; not for nothing is Italian known as “the language of Dante.”
  • 5. A stunning example is provided by two English translations of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. H. T. Lowe-Porter’s translation from 1930—regarded for years as the “classic” version, although it now feels “dated” to modern readers—varies so significantly from the 2004 translation by Michael Henry Heim that it almost seems to be an entirely different novella.