METM09 panel discussion

Translating historical texts: issues and approaches

Mary Ellen Kerans, coordinator, — Spain

Texts from earlier times -” whether they were originally intended as literary, scholarly, popular or private communication -” pose interesting problems for translators who are used to working with living authors and languages as they are currently written in the communities we know. These texts may come to us complete, as commissions for first translations or new editions, or they may appear as fragments within other texts we are working on.

Few translators are fully dedicated to historical work from a single period or field and we may need to acquire new skills and attitudes to assure success -” entering a learning process that can be rewarding as we broaden our notions of how to read and write in new ways. Even the reasons for translating a work may not be immediately obvious to us and must be discovered. Past as well as future readers must be imagined as we make decisions about how to render the English text.

This panel explores both challenges and solutions in a variety of fields, from medicine to poetry. The source languages we have worked from are Spanish and Catalan, but the principles we extract are generalizable.

  • On the dangers of reinterpreting scientific perceptions, categories and metaphors in the translation of historical medical text
    Jon Arrizabalaga is Senior Researcher in the History of Science and vice director of the Institució Milà I Fontanals (IMF) — the humanities arm of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), in Barcelona. He has published widely in Spanish and English on the topics of illness and health care in Spain and Europe before the advent of the germ theory of disease. He is also involved in interuniversity postgraduate programs in the history of science (Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona-Universitat de Barcelona) and in medical anthropology (coordinated by the Universitat Rovira i Virgili) as well as in the Erasmus Mundus Master titled Dynamics of Health and Welfare.


  • Finding a modern -œnarrative poetry- voice in English for a nineteenth-century Catalan classic: Verdaguer's Canigó
    Ronald Puppo is head of the Foreign Languages Department of the translation school at the University of Vic, where he has taught since 1994. His translations include works by Saint John of the Cross, Joan Salvat-Papasseit, Josep Carner and Jacint Verdaguer. His Selected Poems of Jacint Verdaguer: A Bilingual Edition was published in 2007.


  • Corpus analysis to create a voice for an eighteenth-century physician
    Mary Ellen Kerans is a freelance translator and author's editor of medical texts for live authors most weeks of most years. But her real love is history, so a 2007 commission to work on Joseph Masdevall's Account of the Epidemics of Putrid, Malignant Fevers was welcomed.


  • Finding a publisher for a historical work: the translator as agent and promoter
    Catherine Mark is a scientific editor and translator at the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología (CNB/CSIC) in Madrid. Her interest in the early history of smallpox vaccination led to the -œrediscovery- of Gonzalo Díaz de Yraola's work on the Balmis expedition and to the CSIC-published translation: The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition: The round-the-world voyage of the smallpox vaccine, 1803-1810.