Researching Early Modern Self-Translation: An Interview with the "Writing Bilingually" Project Team

In 2023, Dr Sara Miglietti, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Intellectual History, received a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust for "Writing Bilingually, 1465-1700", a three-year project on bilingualism and self-translation in early modern Italy and France.

In this blog, we caught up with Sara and her collaborators, Marco Spreafico and Eugenia Sisto, to learn more about their in-progress database and the role of self-translations in early modern culture.

Could you tell us a little bit about each of your backgrounds and research interests? 

Sara: I initially trained as a historian of philosophy, but during my studies in Pisa, Paris and Warwick I developed a strong interest in textual criticism and book history. I then moved to the USA to teach French Renaissance Literature and Culture at Johns Hopkins University, eventually landing at the Warburg in 2018. Here I found a congenial interdisciplinary environment to pursue my interests: I would now define myself as a historian of early modern intellectual culture, equally interested in the contents of Renaissance thought as in the vehicles through which that thought was transmitted – including, especially, the printed book. 

Marco: I have a background in Romance Philology, and in medieval and Renaissance intellectual history: I did both my MA and my PhD at the Warburg Institute. Before joining the “Writing Bilingually” project in 2023, I lectured for three years at Kingston University while also working at the Warburg Institute Library and at the library of the Institute of Historical Research. As a researcher, I work at the intersection between cultural and intellectual history and the historical sociolinguistics of late medieval and early modern Italy.

Eugenia: My studies have been broadly concerned with classical languages, Greek and Latin, but also Neo-Latin and its reception and evolution over time. Before starting my PhD at the Warburg Institute and joining Sara’s project team, I completed my master's degree in Philology, Literature, and History of Antiquity in Italy. Alongside my studies, I taught a course on Latin grammar at the University of Turin and delivered some webinars for the University of London. As a researcher, I am particularly interested in exploring how the Latin language underwent significant changes in form and meaning by looking closely at the texts.

The team presents an early version of the project database at the RSA in Chicago, March 2024. Left to right: Eugenia Sisto, Marco Spreafico, Sara Miglietti, and panel chair Marie-Alice Belle

How did the project, Writing Bilingually,1465-1700, materialise? What are the project’s aims?

Title page of Jean Bodin’s De republica libri sex (1586), self-translated from his earlier Six Livres de la République (1576). The subtitle reads: “Translated into Latin by the author and much augmented”.

Sara: Writing Bilingually aims to produce new research tools for the study of early modern “self-translation”. Self-translation occurs when an author writes a work in one language and then translates it into another: it is a practice that thrives in multilingual contexts, and early modern Europe was of course multilingual par excellence, with Latin still serving as the lingua franca of international communication while regional and national vernaculars were increasingly being used for both literary and scholarly pursuits. My first encounter with this topic was in 2012, when the late Mario Turchetti invited me to work with him on a bilingual critical edition of Jean Bodin’s République (1576), a treatise first written in French and later self-translated into Latin. Working on Bodin’s bilingual text led me to discover many other authors who translated their own works in the early modern period. I also realised how understudied this phenomenon was: among other things we still lack a census of early modern self-translations, which is necessary to get a good overview of this production. Our project seeks to fill this gap for Italy and France, and we then hope to follow up for other areas as well! 

 What is your role on the project? 

Marco: Sara and I are working on a catalogue of prose self-translations produced in historical “Italy” and “France” between 1465 and 1700. Sara oversees the French section of our corpus while my main task is to curate the Italian section. I’ve also tried to analyse some specific cases in more depth: I presented on the case of Girolamo Savonarola in Tübingen (2023), on self-translations of medical texts at the RSA in Chicago (2024) and on pseudo-(or “fake”) self-translations at Oxford (2024). The first and the last of these talks will be published soon in the conferences’ proceedings.

Eugenia: Within the project, my role is to study the interplay between self-translation and the language debates (questione della lingua) in sixteenth-century Italy. A national language did not exist at the time due to the absence of a unified political State, which caused linguistic fragmentation. The sixteenth century saw increased discussion around the search for a common vernacular, with many different options on the table: from the literary Tuscan of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio to the eclectic language spoken at the Roman court. What is not often noted is that some of the people involved in these debates also self-translated, usually across Latin and their chosen vernacular: through textual and contextual investigation of their works, I aim to shed light on the role of self-translation in the search for a national language in early modern Italy. I have already presented on the important case of Pietro Bembo in Leuven (2023) and at the RSA in Chicago (2024).

Who self-translated, and why is it important to our study of early modern texts?

Marco: After a year of research, we’ve reached the conclusion that self-translation was almost ubiquitous: people from many different backgrounds self-translated – from university professors to courtiers and clerics – and they did so in a surprising variety of genres and fields. This is also why self-translation is so important as an object of study: it is not only an interesting (and relatively unexplored) subject in itself; it’s also an excellent tool to think about other important aspects of the early modern textual, intellectual and social world – such as, for example, multilingualism and the relationship between languages, authorship, the formation of a plurality of “reading publics”, print culture and so on. There does seem to be an exception to what I just said: not many women self-translated in early modern Italy and France, at least not in the realm of prose (on which we focus in our project). Though obviously disappointing from our perspective, this might be historically significant. That said, women were often on the receiving end of self-translation, as patrons or dedicatees; one interesting trend was the offering of Latin versions to male dedicatees and of vernacular versions to female dedicatees, as in the cases of Francesco Piccolomini and Pietro Calefati.

Pietro Calefati addressed his Latin Speculum verae politicae nobilitatis (left) to his sons, and his Italian Specchio de degnità, nobilità et honore (right) to his daughters. Both versions were printed in Lucca in 1564

Sara: Yes, Marco is right: we were struck by how relatively common self-translation was. I think there is still a tendency to think of the self-translator as an oddity, a sort of brilliant outlier – possibly because so many great authors of the early modern Western “canon” did self-translate (just think of Leon Battista Alberti, Marsilio Ficino, John Calvin, Thomas Hobbes). But it was not just prominent literary figures who translated their own works: “ordinary” writers did so as well, and had strong incentives for doing so, for producing one’s own work in more than one language allowed one to reach a much larger public – particularly important in the early stages of one’s career. Besides, self-translators did not operate in isolation but were often grouped together in “clusters”, formed around specific relationships (e.g., sons learning from their fathers, students from their teachers) or milieus. Religious orders and the universities were especially important sites for self-translation, but printshops also did much to promote this phenomenon – indeed, such was the commercial incentive to print “authorial” translations that printers sometimes lied about it, marketing as self-translations works that had a more complex and largely non-authorial genesis. So overall our project is uncovering how self-translation (or the pretence thereof) was not an exception to a monolingual norm, but very much a central dimension of early modern textual production. 

Eugenia: In addition to what Marco and Sara have said, it is important to note that self-translation often implied revision: the two language versions of the same work are usually not identical to each other, and they should be studied together to understand the work as a whole. Close analysis of their differences can prove fundamental in many ways: changes in structure, content, and style can reveal specific authorial intentions regarding readership and reception, but they also allow us to make broader observations on the directionality of the translation and the interplay between Latin and the vernaculars in the bilingual scenario of the 16th century.

After a year of research, we’ve reached the conclusion that self-translation was almost ubiquitous: people from many different backgrounds self-translated – from university professors to courtiers and clerics – and they did so in a surprising variety of genres and fields. 

You have just launched your database of prose self-translations produced in early modern Italy and France. How have you selected the self-translations to include in your repository?

A famous example of semi-self-translation: René Descartes’ Principia philosophiae (originally published in 1644) were translated into French by the Abbé Picot, with Descartes’ explicit consent. Descartes also contributed a new preface that contains an important outline of his philosophy

Sara: Our in-progress database is now freely accessible on our project website and we cannot wait for people to use it! We want our catalogue to be as inclusive as possible, so that it can serve different purposes. For instance, we include both works that were genuinely translated by the original authors (as we can sometimes establish from manuscript evidence) and works that were marketed and/or perceived as self-translations, regardless of whether that was true or not. These are tagged differently in our catalogue to avoid confusion. Users can then decide for themselves whether they care more about the “genetic truth” of a work or its “sociocultural status”: philologists and literary scholars may be more interested in the former, but the latter can be of great value for historians of the book and cultural historians more broadly.

We also include translations that were produced by close collaborators of the author (usually students or family members), either under the author’s direct supervision or with his explicit blessing. Neither entirely authorial nor entirely allographic, these “semi-self-translations" (as translation theorist Xosé Dasilva calls them) should be studied alongside self-translations proper, not least because it is not always possibly to neatly distinguish between the two. Collaboration was such an integral part of early modern textual production that even “pure” self-translations may have featured some degree of unacknowledged allographic help, if only in the form of dictation.

Collaboration was such an integral part of early modern textual production that even “pure” self-translations may have featured some degree of unacknowledged allographic help, if only in the form of dictation.

Have you encountered any challenges during the project?

Marco: So many! The first challenge I might call “too much to know”: while at the beginning of the project we worried that we might not find enough material, we ended up having the opposite problem – there are too many cases, so our catalogue cannot be exhaustive. The pervasiveness of self-translation across subjects and disciplines also means that you must quickly familiarise yourself with many different fields; but while hard, this is also extremely rewarding. Another challenge is methodological: the term “self-translation” did not exist in the period we are studying, and as a research topic it has been developed mostly by scholars of post-19th century literature. This entails a constant re-negotiation of our ideas, assumptions and categories to adapt them to the evidence coming from historical texts. On a more personal note, this was my first time building a computerised database and approaching research within a quantitative paradigm – which has required a certain degree of self-improvement and adaptation. One last challenge has been the inaccessibility of the British Library: differently from the other challenges I just mentioned, I can’t really say I’ve gained much from this one!

Eugenia: I think the first big challenge for me was entering a new field of research. My previous studies mainly focused on ancient literature and classical languages, so my first step when I joined the project was filling the bibliographical gaps of my knowledge of the Renaissance. It turned out to be a long process of improvement that I am still carrying out with the precious guidance of Sara and Marco. Second, the abundance of the materials and topics to touch upon. Producing the first monographic study about self-translation and language debates is an ambitious goal, as there is a long chronological arc to cover and several fields and authors to deal with. Selecting the case studies to include is not always straightforward and takes meticulous investigation. Finally, I sometimes have to deal with lost works or texts that may be missing for other reasons: in these cases the absence of textual evidence is a difficult obstacle to overcome, especially when the aim is to offer a close linguistic analysis of these texts. 

What have you enjoyed most about the project so far?

Sara: I think I speak for the whole team when I say that we are completely in love with this material. It never gets boring: every case is different, but then studying them alongside each other reveals unexpected patterns and brings up new questions that we hadn’t thought of initially. It is work that feels both meaningful and fun, so it is a pleasure to show up for it every day. 

Marco: I completely agree with Sara. The sheer variety of texts one has to engage with; the amount of critical inventiveness and resourcefulness required by working with a relatively new subject (we have changed the descriptive fields in our catalogue countless times!); and finally, the peculiarity (and at times total weirdness) of many findings – these, I believe, are essential ingredients of the endless fascination and fun of this research.

Eugenia: Just to add to what Sara and Marco have said, working with such an excellent team is extremely stimulating and enriching. While independently conducting my PhD thesis, the project meetings with Sara and Marco are always a source of new ideas and inspiration for me. Each of us has a specific role within the project, but, even if we focus on different topics, we all work together towards the same objective: to shed light on the fascinating phenomenon of early-modern self-translation.

... we are completely in love with this material. It never gets boring: every case is different.

What are you planning for the coming months, and how can we keep up to date with your findings?

Sara: We’ve got so much planned! You can check out the “News and events” page on our project website to know what we’re up to – and if you get to use our database, please do get in touch and let us know your thoughts! In the coming months we will keep adding to the database, but we will also be working towards an open-access printed repertory that will collect our data in a more permanent form. We will also be developing other outputs, including an anthology of primary sources that can shed light on how early modern self-translators saw their own work and presented it to others. It is important to get to hear their perspective, in their own voice, particularly as much of the language used today to explore this phenomenon (including the very term “self-translation”, as Marco mentioned) did not exist in the early modern period – so we need to tread carefully to avoid anachronism. 

We have a few major events planned for 2025 – in March we will fly to Boston for the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America and in July we will present at the International Association of Neo-Latin Studies conference in Aix-en-Provence. We are also planning a big end-of-project conference for the Autumn of 2025, so stay tuned for that! 

> Browse the Writing Bilingually database and learn more about the team’s activities on the project website.

Watch a recording of the database launch: