Journal of the Northern Renaissance

~ Radical Open Access ~

Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel (eds.), Elizabeth I: Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel (eds.), Elizabeth I: Translations. University of Chicago Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780226201313 and 9780226201320. 2 vols, 490 pp. and 494 pp. Hbk. $50 per vol.

Reviewed by Helen Hackett

[1]  There is, of course, an unceasing flood of books about Elizabeth I, many of them doing little more than repackaging familiar stories about the Virgin Queen. Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel are to be applauded for making a genuinely new contribution to the field, by rising to the considerable challenge of a comprehensive edition of Elizabeth’s translations. These two handsome volumes complete a set begun by the Collected Works of Elizabeth (edited by Mueller with Leah S. Marcus and Mary Beth Rose in 2000) and the accompanying volume of source materials, Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals (which appeared from Mueller and Marcus in 2003). The four volumes together will not only grace any bookshelf, but will engender much fruitful discussion: not only of Elizabeth, who may now take her place as a significant and accomplished early modern author; but also of translation, as an important literary art of the period which we are perhaps still only beginning to take as seriously as we should.

[2]  It was not long ago that those wishing to read Elizabeth’s works were compelled either to seek them out in scattered archives or to rely on modern publications which provided only a sample, such as G.B. Harrison’s edition of her letters (Cassell, 1935), or Leicester Bradner’s of her poems (Brown University Press, 1964). In 2004 the renowned early modern manuscript scholar Steven W. May published an edition of Elizabeth’s Selected Works (Washington Square Press) which is extremely valuable, but sadly this has not achieved wide availability, at least in the UK: there is no copy in the British Library, for example. Moreover, it does not aim for the same coverage as the Chicago edition, including, for instance, only three translations as against the Chicago edition’s thirteen.

[3]  In a Latin prayer of 1563 Elizabeth thanked God for making her ‘distinguished and superior in the knowledge and use of literature and languages, which is highly esteemed because unusual in my sex’ (Collected Works, p.141). Much later, in 1597, her court marvelled as she retorted to the impertinent Latin oration of a young Polish ambassador with an extempore and eloquent Latin speech of her own. This new edition conclusively demonstrates that her achievements in languages and translation were prodigious, from the displays of skill in her youthful gift-books, to presentations in middle years to her godson Sir John Harington, to the rapid and voluminous translations of her last decade. At the age of eleven she presented her stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr, with The Glass of the Sinful Soul, an English translation of Marguerite de Navarre’s Le Mirour de L’Âme Pécheresse. The next year, Queen Katherine received her own Prayers or Meditations translated into Italian, but this was not enough for Princess Elizabeth, who had simultaneously translated the same text into Latin and French for her father. These were classroom projects which demonstrated not only the linguistic prowess and elegant italic hand attained by a humanist education, but also, in the choice of texts, a proper piety, and, in their beautiful hand-crafted bindings, the feminine skill of embroidery. They exhibited to the royal family and the court young Elizabeth’s excellence in all areas of princess-ship. By contrast, the extensive translations of her later life – volume 2 alone covers the years 1592-98 – seem to have been undertaken mainly for personal satisfaction, though not necessarily as an entirely private practice; as the editors point out, it was in Elizabeth’s interests to let her courtiers know that she spent her leisure time in such mind-sharpening pursuits. Her lengthiest translation is Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae of 1593, which occupies nearly 300 pages of annotated parallel text in the present edition, and which her secretary Thomas Windebank estimated took her no more than 30 working hours spread over a month.

[4]  Among the many well-designed features of the volumes is the inclusion of plates illustrating the degeneration of Elizabeth’s hand from the lapidary italic of her adolescence to the hasty running script of the adult Queen. We see in graphic form her transition from one seeking to impress others with her writing to one writing to please herself. The almost preternatural visual correctness of her youthful script and the daunting intellectual power of one who translated philosophy and theology for fun are also offset by the mistakes in her translations which the editors identify, and which lend her a refreshingly human aspect. Indeed, Mueller and Scodel find that throughout her life she had a ‘self-reliant’ and ‘nonscholarly approach to translation, which, as far as we have been able to determine, never extended to consulting endnotes or appendices in any of the Renaissance editions that she used’ (vol.2, 57).

[5]  Critics have often been sceptical of George Puttenham’s claim in The Arte of English Poesie (1589) that the best poet of the age was ‘the Queene our soveraigne Lady, whose learned, delicate, noble Muse, easily surmounteth all the rest that have writte before her time or since’. Suspicions that some courtly sycophancy might have been going on here are not assuaged by Puttenham’s assertion that Elizabeth’s poetry surpasses all others ‘even by as much oddes as her owne excellent estate and degree exceedeth all the rest of her most humble vassalls’ (51). Yet what emerges from her translations is a writer who took real pleasure in intense engagement with her source texts and in the artful wielding of language, developing a distinctive personal style that is surprisingly knotty and muscular. Indeed, despite that humanist education, Elizabeth developed an English verse style that tended to Anglo-Saxon ruggedness rather than elegant neo-classicism. She makes vivid and expressive use of archaisms and alliteration: her version of a choral ode from Hercules Oetaeus (attributed to Seneca) deploys words like ‘cark’ and ‘clots’, participles like ‘y-got’ and ‘y-tied’, and phrases like ‘gainful grasps’ and ‘hoarded heaps’, all of which may encourage us to believe that she did indeed relish Spenser’s writing (vol.1, 439). She tends to pithy contraction rather than expansion, a terseness especially appropriate to another Seneca translation: ‘The winter bringeth his colds: shiver then’ (vol.1, 418). Her approach to metre is flexible, often in the later translations evidently affected by haste, but this adds to the arresting and frequently elliptical effect. Another welcome feature of the present edition is the provision of parallel texts, in original and modernised spelling; the modernised texts give aid and ease to the reader, but the original texts convey the frequency of excisions and revisions in Elizabeth’s later translations, and the idiosyncrasy and force of her writing, as in the lyrics in her Boethius:

happy to muche the formar Age
With faithful fild Content
Not Lost by sLuggy Lust
that Wontz the Long fastz
to Louse by son got Acorne (vol.2, p.150)

This was a project requiring polyglot skills comparable to those of the remarkable Queen herself, and it is no surprise that it involved two editors and four research assistants. The introduction to each work offers admirably close analysis of style, metre, and relation to the source text. Works of doubtful attribution are included as appendices, and overall there is careful and judicious attention to questions of attribution, date, and the relative authority of different sources. Some of the translations of Elizabeth’s works included in the Collected Works are revisited and revised (e.g. vol.1, 213). Presentation is generally excellent, though there are a few typographical errors in the section on Elizabeth’s Sententiae. This collection of Latin sayings ought perhaps in any case to have belonged in the volume of Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals, but such is its interest that one can hardly object to having it in print here.

[6]  A pressing question is provoked by these volumes: how far is Elizabeth herself present in her translations? She is, perforce, always speaking through the voices of others in these works, always standing behind them, and she therefore to some extent remains enigmatic. This is particularly so in the Sententiae, which contain sections on Rule, Justice, Mercy, Counsel, Peace, and War. Their aphoristic nature makes it tempting to read them as evidence of Elizabeth’s beliefs on these subjects: for example, there are lines here to support the theory that she governed England as a monarchical republic – ‘He who is wise listens to counsels’ (vol.1, 370) – and others that confirm that she was no democrat – ‘There is no sound counsel in the common people’ (vol.1, 374). These assertions are by no means irreconcilable, but all the same such a range of positions are struck in the Sententiae that it may be more fruitful to read them as debating points rather than a personal manifesto.

[7]  However, Mueller and Scodel provide introductions to each work which persuasively connect them with topical contexts, and there are many ingredients here, from Elizabeth’s choice of works to translate to the local details of translation, which surely offer insights into her preoccupations and character. A recurrent theme is her belief in the monarch as God’s agent: during her brother Edward’s reign she presents him with a gift-book and addresses him as ‘you who learn of Christ daily, and have the next place and dignity, after Him, on earth’ (vol.1,303). For herself, the evidence here as well as in the Collected Works suggests that this belief in a sacred vocation led to humility rather than arrogance, and to a patient submission to God’s will. Indeed stoicism is a persistent attitude and tone, underpinning the Boethius, the Seneca translation, and most of the works here in one way or another. Also very evident is Elizabeth’s devout Protestantism: one of her early translations, aged 12, was of Calvin’s Institution de la Religion Chrestienne, while in her copy of a book by Cranmer she wrote in Latin of ‘the error of transubstantiation, which now for many ages has seized control to such an extent that virtually the whole of Christendom is defiled in this manner with the stain’ (vol.1, 402). It is striking, therefore, that her Biblical quotations and allusions reveal a reliance on the Vulgate Bible (vol.1, 337).

[8]  Elizabeth’s sense of herself as a female ruler comes to the fore in several ways. Mueller and Scodel find that one of her favourite words is ‘care’, in the senses of both anxiety and nurture, and both her care for her subjects and their care for her (vol.1, 426). They further suggest that she thought of herself as particularly gifted in clemency because of her gender (vol.2, 6). Certainly the Sententiae and Cicero’s Pro M. Marcello address the difficulties of balancing justice and mercy in ways which bear intriguingly on Spenser’s depiction of Elizabeth as Mercilla in The Faerie Queene. ‘It is permitted to the common people’, writes Elizabeth, ‘but not to a good king, to weep’ (vol.1, 356) – Mercilla, of course, faced with the trial of Duessa / Mary Queen of Scots, does weep, more than she should. Elsewhere the Virgin Queen distances herself from sexuality: for instance, in De Curiositate, cancer of the uterus in Plutarch’s Greek becomes cancer in a woman’s genitals in Erasmus’s Latin, and then ‘whether a wife a cancer hath in secret, hidden place’ in Elizabeth’s English (vol.2, 414-15). Fascinatingly, however, the editors find that another of her favourite words is ‘breed’, an ironic preference for a notoriously childless queen (vol.1, 426). Yet it is pleasing to imagine that she smiled wryly to herself as she translated Boethius’s passage on the unkindness of children, with its conclusion, ‘Which makes me allow Euripides’ opinion, who said he was happy in mishap that lacked offspring’ (vol.2, 203).

[9]  This leads us irresistibly towards psychological speculation, and the translation which is most provocative of this is the first, The Glass of the Sinful Soul. As scholars have observed before, its striking images of marriage and parenthood can surely not have been encountered with emotional neutrality by the eleven-year-old Elizabeth, however intellectually remarkable and old for her years she may have been, and however estranged from our own notions was an upbringing in the Tudor court. Writing for her fourth stepmother, and very much under the eyes of the father who declared her illegitimate and sent her mother to the executioner’s block, Elizabeth ventriloquises Marguerite de Navarre’s eroticised supplication to a father-God:

Thou dost handle my soul (if so I durst say) as a mother, daughter, sister, and wife … I never saw it, or else it was kept wondrous secret, that any husband would forgive his wife after that she had offended and did return unto him. There be enough of them which, for to avenge their wrong, did cause the judges to condemn them to die. (vol.1, 57, 77-9.)

Did Elizabeth choose the text herself? If so, with what thoughts and feelings? Or was it chosen for her by her tutors? If so, what on earth were they thinking? This of course takes us far beyond scholarship to novelistic hypothesis, but, for this reader at least, this extraordinary work renders this irresistible.

[10]  Elizabeth’s last work in this edition is a passage of De Arte Poetica, translated in 1598. Though primarily a versified work of literary theory, this too reverberates strikingly with the Queen’s personal and political circumstances, in this case towards the latter end of her reign and her life. Parts of the fragment concern the role of poetry in recording the deeds of rulers, and dwell on the ephemerality of both actions and words. ‘All mortal deed shall end’, writes Elizabeth, and ‘Cumbers, many a one, besiege the agèd man’ (vol.2, 469, 481). As her trusted advisers one by one died of old age, as her favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, thirty-two years her junior, grew ever more fractious and impatient, and as ambitious young men gathered in a disgruntled faction around him, Horace led Elizabeth to dwell on the weaknesses of the old man (or, presumably, woman), who is ‘crabbed; whining; the praiser of past time’ (vol.2, 483). She concludes, ‘Lest, therefore, agèd part be giv’n unto the young, / And man’s estate bequeathèd to the boy, / Let us abide in such as best agree, and in their time’ (ibid.). Here she breaks off, leaving the work unfinished. Could it be that it was simply too pertinent for comfort?

[11]  Such questions must continue to hang in mid-air unanswered, but it is exciting that this edition equips us to ask new questions of Elizabeth, and to revisit old questions with new insights. For Elizabeth, her translations were evidently a place where she not only honed her impressive linguistic and literary skills but also thought through political issues. Exploring the voices and ideas of others was also perhaps a way of thinking about herself. For us, this important publication will enable significant re-assessment of a Queen whom we thought we already knew so well.

University College London, September 2009

Next Post

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

© 2023 Journal of the Northern Renaissance

Theme by Anders Norén