Translating the Canon

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By Contributing Writer Julian Koch

Unless we are unashamed linguistic chauvinists, some, maybe most, of the works of literature we consider to be part of any form of literary canon are inevitably written in languages we do not understand, and we read them in translation. Thus, a notion of translation tacitly underlies any notion of canonicity. Yet, our understanding of translation and its place in our thinking—and consequently its bearing on our conception of the canon—has undergone a remarkable but relatively unnoticed change between the Latin Middle Ages and our present day. Today, in English, we take the word translation inevitably to mean the transfer of a work from one language to another. What is translated how, when, and where is fundamental to whether a work can receive admission into the canon.

But this notion of translation as a cross-linguistic transfer is a relatively recent one. It was preceded by a notion of translation that we only rarely stumble upon today: the transfer of something from one place or time to another. The Latin translatio simply means “to carry over,” and in the Latin Middle Ages the term was used accordingly broadly—as the Latin term for metaphor or as the ceremonial transfer of a saint’s relics from one place to another, among many other meanings. The most relevant use of translatio for the notion of canon in the Latin Middle Ages, however, was the idea of a translatio studii et imperii as a spatio-temporal transfer of learning and power. This idea was used by European kings to legitimize their hold on power or by institutions of learning to establish intellectual pedigree. For instance, Chrétien de Troyes writes in his Prologue to Cligès:

Our books taught us Greece was extolled


for learning and for chivalry.

Then chivalry came next to Rome;

now all that knowledge has come home

to France, where, if God has ordained,

God grant that it may be retained.

(ll. 25-42)

Frenchmen drew on the theme of the translatio studii in order to establish the Université de Paris as the center of learning by evoking a temporal continuity between the university and the ancient centres of learning (cf. Jeauneau, Translatio studii, 24-36). If such a historical and locational transfer from venerable ancient institutions was perceived to be successful by enough scholars, legitimacy was bestowed upon the institution that so claimed its lineage.

Similarly, Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, better known as Barbarossa, legitimated his power by tracing it, in an act of translatio imperii, to Charlemagne’s which, in turn, was understood to have renewed—and therefore received its legitimacy from—the Roman Empire (Curtius, European Literature, 29). Certainly, such claims of translatio studii or translatio imperii were not uncontested by other centers of learning (especially Oxford and Cambridge) or other emperors. Yet, such rivalries shared the core idea that legitimacy was derived from translatio studii et imperii. Whoever established themselves as the translator of knowledge and empire, so to speak, would occupy (or at least claim to) center stage in Christendom and would trace their lineage back to the ancients. The notion of time, which is at the heart of this spatio-temporal translation, was understood to be continuous and linear (Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 165). Likewise, the spatial horizon implied in the translatio studii et imperii is a universal, not national, one (Curtius, European Literature, 29; on medieval space cf. Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 138, 165).

This notion of spatio-temporal translation was fundamental to the understanding of canonicity in the Latin Middle Ages. The canon was universal and eternal, irrespective of the fact that the works thought to be comprised within it differed depending on whom was asked.

While spatio-temporal translation was central, cross-linguistic translation played no role in this understanding of canonicity. Even though canonical texts—first and foremost the Old Testament—were often read in (cross-linguistic) translation, this was not acknowledged. In fact, the Church actively suppressed any notion of the Vulgate being a translation of the (mostly Hebrew) Old Testament (Weissbort and Eysteinsson, Translation, 100), and interdicted any translation of it into other languages.

How we view canonicity along the lines of languages as well as time and space changed considerably with Dante’s Convivio and De vulgari et eloquentia (both written in the first decade of 1300). Dante made the canon malleable by language and thereby gave the canon spatial and temporal specificity. Certainly, in his Convivio, written in vernacular, Dante holds that: “Latin is eternal and incorruptible, while the vernacular is unstable and corruptible” (Book 1, Chapt 5). Yet, despite the eternal status of Latin, Dante writes most of his works in (Tuscan) vernacular. Dante’s conflicting relationship with the vernacular is perhaps most apparent when his De vulgari et eloquentia emphatically communicates the possibility of a vernacular aesthetics rivaling that of Latin, despite the work itself being written in Latin. His Magnum Opus the Divina Commedia, of course, is written in vernacular. The Commedia’s reception into the canon inevitably introduced the vectors of time and space into the notion of canonicity, since  “our [vernacular] language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but […] it must vary according to distances of space and time” (De vulgari et eloquentia, Book 1, Chapt 9). Despite these developments, the crucial role of translation in creating the canon was still awaiting full acknowledgement.

Five-hundred years later, it was Goethe who went beyond the mere inadvertent admission of the canon’s changeability because it now comprised works written in languages reflecting the spatio-temporal vicissitudes of daily life. Goethe rethought the notion of canonicity altogether. Goethe’s canon—his Weltliteratur (world literature)—comes into being through a different notion of translation. Whereas the Latin Canon relies on the mechanism of historical transfer with implicit claims to universal validity in its translatio studii et imperii situating the canon in a realm beyond time and space, Goethe’s world literatureis characterised by a geographical and temporal concurrency enabled by cross-language translation.

Goethe envisions a highly unusual notion of cross-language translation, as he explains in his notes to the West-Eastern Divan. He believes that there are three successive epochs of translation, and in the third, most radical epoch, the translation takes the original’s place and assumes its identity (258; for this interpretation see also Olschner 153). We could not imagine a more decisive departure, at least in theory, from the principles of the medieval canon which was thought to comprise timeless and placeless original works. As we saw, even if the Vulgate Bible was a translation, its canonical status was possible only by the Church’s rigorous exorcising of the notion that it was not an original. Goethe, however, believes that, at least in the third, most mature, epoch of translation, the duality of the original and its translation is transcended (256).

Unfortunately, Goethe remained famously opaque on how these epochs are reached, and it is unclear exactly what transcending the duality of translation and original means for translation in practical terms. Furthermore, Goethe did not always practice what he preached. Indeed in some of his musings on the German language, Goethe seems to attempt a form of translatio studii when he claims that the German language is the true inheritor of Greek and Latin (Krobb, “Priapean Pursuits,” 6).

Goethe’s flaws in formulating notwithstanding, his message of the age of world literature enabled by translation gained currency. Perhaps surprisingly, given that he was later ennobled, Goethe’s message resonated with two figures who sought to fundamentally transform European politics: Marx and Engels. Perhaps the most radical pronunciation and enactment of world literature by cross-linguistic translation is found in their Communist Manifesto (published anonymously). The Manifesto embraces world literature and in so doing its perspective is decidedly geopolitical and contemporaneous. All trace of translatio studii et imperii is gone. Rather, the Manifesto’s purpose was to spread the idea of Communism presently and as far as possible—a task only achievable through translation.

Thus, in order to facilitate translations, it seems that Marx and Engels resorted to a remarkable ploy: they concealed the Manifesto’s original language. Consequently, we have the curious situation that the authors call for the Manifesto to be published in—and thus translated into—a variety of languages without giving any indication of the original language (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution, 51). In accordance with such ideas of linguistic and translational relativity, the Manifesto was, at times, even translated from translations (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution 53).

Endowing translation with such importance may seem exaggerated, especially given that translations only make up 3% of the UK and US book market. However, a look at canons tells a different story. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canonlists Henryk Ibsen, among 13 other non-English authors (out of a total of 26), whose original works would be intelligible only to Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish speakers—a group comprising only about 20 million people. Broader and more multicultural, the recent Norton Anthology of World Literature consists almost entirely of translated works. Cross-language translation is so prominent in canons that they do not exist without it. Given the near-universal presence of (cross-language) translation in canons, we are well into Goethe’s third epoch and the real issue is to remain aware that many, probably most, of “our” canonical works are only accessible to us as translations.

Julian Koch is a German and Translation Studies Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick. His research interests include Translation, Post-WWII German and French poetry, narratology, documentaries on genocide, analytical approaches to continental philosophy (esp. Kant), and philosophical notions of the imagination (18-19th century).

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