Elizabeth I – The New Year Translations

This month I decided to read three biographical studies (two familiar and one new) of Henry the Eighth and his court, as much to compare the writers’ approaches to their subject matter and their writing styles as to jog my memory of British history. A decade in Spain had given me a different take on the complex and ever-changing relationships between England and Continental Europe and I wanted to compare a few of the most popular books about Henry’s reign.

I started out with Giles Tremlet’s Catherine of Aragon, published this year by Faber and Faber. Tremlet is  Madrid correspondent for The Guardian and has lived and worked in Spain for the last two decades. He notes in his acknowledgements that he himself undertook the Spanish and Catalan to English translations that appear in his book and gives credit for Latin, Italian and French translations into Spanish (that included the Latin to Spanish translation of a key document originally produced in my hometown Zaragoza) to Ruth Miguel Franco.

My second choice was Antonia Fraser’s amply illustrated The Six Wives of Henry VIII, first published in 2002. Fraser has written numerous books on this period of English history and her approach reflects a woman’s point of view, particularly in matters of health, sanitation and education―crucial factors in the physical, emotional and political survival of the women she depicts. This time I found myself much less interested in the romantic turmoil of the Tudor dynasty and much more fascinated by Fraser’s analysis of each wife’s education and theological tendencies. The first time I read the book I passed over the importance of Anne Boleyn’s interest in religious reform and Catherine Parr’s authorship of books on religious observance. Earlier this year I had read El origen del Estado laico desde la Edad Media, Bernardo Bayona’s excellent study of the evolution of the modern secular state, which heightened my interest in Fraser’s descriptions of how in his desperation to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon Henry VIII unwittingly planted the seed of parliamentary rule in Great Britain and how often the clashes between church conservatives and reformers were centered on the right of common people to read and interpret the scriptures in the vernacular.

Having read over 400 pages dedicated exclusively to Catherine of Aragon and another 526 that gave a good overview of all six of Henry’s wives, I turned to David Starkey’s Elizabeth Apprenticeship.  My brief Tudor Christmas and 2010 were both drawing to a close and January’s commitments were piling up on my desk. I was delighted to rediscover Starkey’s fairly lengthy account of Elizabeth’s 1545 New Year’s  gift to her stepmother Catherine Parr―a translation of Margaret of Angoulême’s religious poem Le mirior de l’âme pécheresse. It was a remarkably sophisticated undertaking for a mere eleven-year-old girl that demonstrated not only young Elizabeth’s linguistic abilities but also her uncanny talent for striking the right note. As Starkey observes:

Elizabeth chose the subject of her book with great care… Margaret [d’ Angoulême], who had become Queen of Navarre by marriage, was the favorite sister of King Francis I. She used this favour to act as the leading patrons of Reform at the French court. She had also, as we have seen, acted as hostess to Elizabeth’s mother when the still-unwed Henry and Anne Boleyn visited Francis I at Boulogne in 1532. So the choice of author sent one message to Catherine, who now found herself emulating Margaret’s role at the English court. But the content of the poem sent another, more important one. Its theme, as Elizabeth summarized it in her prefatory letter addressed to Catherine, was the inadequacy of the human soul…

Starkey goes on to marvel at Elizabeth’s letter: “It manages to reduce the complexities of the doctrine of justification by faith to two clear, simple sentences. This would have been no mean achievement for an adult; for an eleven-year-old girl it is astonishing”.  However, as might be expected of any adolescent undertaking, the project had its logistical problems: “She began writing out her presentation copy neatly, and with good intentions. But, as time ran out, her handwriting declined and the number of mistakes increased. Shamefacedly, the prefatory letter confessed her errors to Catherine and begged her to keep them to herself”.

Undaunted, the following year the princess made up her mind to present her “matchless and most benevolent father” with an even more ambitious gift―a triple translation (Latin, French and Italian) of Catherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations and this time she managed to finish the project on time. Once again, the accompanying letter is impressive. Starkey observes “there is little in the adult sovereign which is not to be found in this [prefatory] letter of the twelve-year-old princess” and goes on to offer a cogent and fascinating emotional motive for Elizabeth’s future commitment to the Church of England: it was part and parcel of the inheritance she received from her father (just as Marian Catholicism was Princess Mary’s inheritance from her mother, Catherine of Aragon).  Although her tradition of offering personal New Year’s translations wavered, in 1552 Elizabeth undertook the translation of Bernardino Ochino’s “Sermon on the Nature of Christ” (Italian to Latin) for her brother, King Edward.

Elizabeth had the good fortune of studying with Roger Ascham, considered to be one of the greatest teachers of his time. Her household at Hatfield was organized much like a modern coeducational university extension college. Ascham believed that a solid education taught moral precepts, strengthened the mind for facing adversity and provided a model for expression. Under his  tutelage Elizabeth read the greater part of Cicero’s and Pliny’s works, the orations of Isocrates and Sophocles’ tragedies, as well as studying  theology, modern languages and music.  Her teacher recorded that she spoke French and Italian as well as she spoke English, was fluent in Latin and acquitted herself passably in Greek.

To improve both their memory and their writing style, he required his students to make inverse translations of passages they had earlier translated from Latin into English. “The method, Ascham claimed, not only taught students grammar and vocabulary; it forced them to enter into the mind of Caesar or Cicero and, as it were, relive their style from the inside.” Elizabeth I never lost her interest in translation. Starkey notes in this biography that much later in life she translated Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.  To those interested in  reading a collection of Elizabeth I’s translations I recommend Elizabeth I: Translations, 1544-1589, edited by Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel and available through the University of Chicago Press as either a two-volume clothbound set or e-book.