Translation from Spanish in the 16th Century


English humanism in the last half of the sixteenth century was polyglottal, in refreshing contrast to the monolingual tendencies of much present Renaissance scholarship; indeed, it is difficult to envisage the remarkable creative outpouring of English literature in the 1590s taking place without this multilingual background.  Of course, some qualification is necessary: when mention is made of the rise of the vernaculars in the 16th century, it is necessary to stress the importance of the Romance vernaculars, namely the three prestigious languages that were descended from camp Latin.  England entered the European mainstream of culture rather late, and therefore enjoyed an advantage; it was in the position not merely to receive a transmitted classical heritage, but to learn from the manner in which the major powers – Italy, France, and Spain – had applied that heritage.[1]


There was periodical English interest in Spanish culture, generally when England had a Spanish Queen (Catherine of Aragon, patroness of Lord Bernersf translations), when the rise of Spain as an imperial power directly threatened England (the Armada), or when a Spanish match looked likely (Charles I and the Infanta María, daughter of Philip III).  Spanish does seem very much the third of the romance vernaculars in this age; there was no continuity of association or contact with English, such as the French language enjoyed,[2] and the learning of Castilian in the early 1590s was a process largely actuated by the political situation: according to Richard Perceval in 1591, Spanish was gthe toonge with which by reason of the troublesome times, thou arte like to haue most acquaintance.h[3]  Following the Armada, there was a marked increase in the number of books translated from Spanish, and more were translated directly from the original.[4]  Even when it is asserted that Spanish will come to be esteemed as highly as French and Italian, the claim in the following clause – that Castilian is more necessary than Italian[5] – posits superiority to a language that was beginning to lose prestige, for it was a language without a nation.[6]  This claim excludes French; even the proponents of Spanish do not award it a leading position.  Spain was a largely unknown land; it received very few visitors, and few of those who made the journey knew the language(s).  The language itself presents no major obstacles: Spanish is, as James Howell remarked, one of the easiest languages for an Englishman to learn.  One of the reasons he gave, more relevant to his time than ours, is its proximity to Latin[7]; indeed, Spanish was usually taught through the Latin medium, and the Hispanist Tudor translators, lexicographers and grammarians relied heavily on the more familiar tongue.[8]  Knowledge of Spanish was a political necessity, and the practical application is made obvious in Percevalfs eEpistle Dedicatorief of his dictionary to the Earl of Essex: having praised Essexfs learning of languages, a study beseeming his rank, the lexicographer continues: gcand remembring that hauing emploied your self so honorablie against the Spanyard in Flanders, Spayne & Portugal; you c might perhaps encounter with them againe vpon like occasionch (A2v).  However, one cannot help wondering if the closeness of Castilian to Latin, in conjunction with the growth of the Spanish empire, may have created unwelcome associations in the English mind and given rise to an unexpressed resistance to learning the Castilian tongue; indeed, borrowing Spanish words and making them English could be regarded as a elinguistic victory.f[9]  In any case, Englandfs attitude to Spain was highly ambivalent, a curious mixture of fear and fascination.[10]  Many of the best-known English translators from Spanish had either toured or lived in Spain,[11] and Bartholomew Yong believed that this experience would immeasurably help the translator[12]; then, as now, it seems that Hispanists formed a dedicated minority.[13]


In France, Spanish influence had attained equality with that of Italian by the first quarter of the 17th century.[14]  Recent studies may demonstrate that Spain provided a model through its empire,[15] yet the feeling persists that the Spanish language was never accorded the same prestige as Italian or French.  Gabriel Harvey wondered why Boscán and Garcilaso had never been translated into English[16]; the author who commented on this omission observed that the Spanish poets should be read in the original: in translation, gthey would haue no grace.h[17]  However, there were few allusions to the egracef of Castilian.  The influence of Spanish literature was notable in the Sidney circle (Fulke Greville, Sir Edward Dyer, and Penelope Devereux), which appreciated Garcilaso, Boscán and Montemayor[18]; outside of this group, however, it did not affect English literature in the way that Petrarca and his imitators, or the Pléiade, had earlier in the century.  There was the belief, even among the defenders of Castilian, that Spain did not possess as many authoritative writers as Italy, France, or Britain: thus James Lea, in a liminary poem to Percyvallfs dictionary, states that, gThough learned pens in Italy and France do florish more,/ And in our happy Britaine, where are learned men such store:/ Yet Spanish speech lists giue no groundch (ll.9-11).[19]


The figure at the heart of the English administration, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520-98), possessed possibly the largest library of Spanish books in England.  Knowledge of Spanish was a political necessity; it has been stated that Burghley (1520-98) managed to combine the statesman and the scholar,[20] but it is difficult, in this instance, to separate the two functions.  Significantly, Cecilfs collection contains not only texts that were popular in Spain and so afforded an insight into the Spanish mentality – Amadís and Celestina – but also Spanish translations of Biblical and classical texts. [21]  The most obvious explanation for this would seem to be that these translations offer another entrance into the Spanish mind; perusal of them would assist in learning the language, and examining how the authors had interpreted the original texts would throw comparative light on their mindset.  This intention is entirely in keeping with the concept of translation that we glimpse in the dedication to Cecil by his kinsman Barnabe Googe of The Prouerbes of the Noble and Woorthy Souldier, Sir Iames Lopez de Mendoza, Marquis of Santillana (1579): he knows that Burghley will be able to judge gcwhether I haue truly and faythfully followed my paterne or noh (*2v-*3r).  Of course, the stated aim of Googefs translation is the transmission of wisdom – the title-page announces that this work contains gwhatsoeuer is necessarie to the leading of an honest and vertuous lifeh[22] – but the point is that, as the translatorfs comments make clear, Cecil expects a translation to be efaithfulf.  Moving outside onefs own language and into an alien, even eenemyf target culture – to translation from Latin into Spanish, for example – does rather complicate the notion of efidelityf, but we may safely assume that the pragmatic Cecil believed the Spanish translators to have aimed at a faithful rendering of their source, whether he agreed with their interpretation or not.


Translations from Spanish literature at this period consisted mainly of chivalric romances[23] – the texts that drove Don Quixote to madness were as popular in mercantile England as they had been in feudal Spain[24] – moral treatises and mystical works, and writings on war, navigation and exploration.[25]  The utilitarian purpose behind these texts is evident from both the dedications and the identity of the translators.  We may take the merchant John Frampton as representative.  In the dedication to Edward Dyer of his Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde (1577), a translation of Nicholas Monardes, Frampton declares that: gthe matter is of good substaunce, and of muche value, and of me truely & faithfully translated into Englisheh (*ii v).  The mantra of translating gtruely & faithfullyh – the very adverbs that Googe had employed to describe his version of Santillana – is the consequence of the nature of the original text; this fact is made more explicit in Framptonfs translation of Martin Fernández de Enciso (d.1525), A briefe description of the portescof the Weast India, where he observes that the Castilian text was written around 1518, gcand after called in aboute twentie yeares past, for that it reuealed secretes that the Spanish nation was loth to haue knowen to the worldeh (Aii r).  Such secrets of navigation were especially pertinent to the dedicatee, Humphrey Gilbert, gcthe firste man of our nation that gaue light to our people for the finding out of the northwest straight,h who is now intending another voyage (Aii r).  Interestingly, Frampton posits a readership of the seamen who will accompany Gilbert on his voyage and who, unlike the dedicatee, have no knowledge of foreign tongues; the work will keep them from idleness (a reason for translation usually given with reference to the translator, not the audience) and encourage them, by way of example, to note down the particulars of their journey, and so help their compatriots to awake from the long sleep of ignorance in which they have lain (Aii v).  On occasion, as in Framptonfs eEpistle Dedicatorief to Dyer in his A discourse of the nauigation which the Portugales doe make to theceast partes of the worlde (1579, from Bernardino de Escalante, at the request of diverse people, including pilots and mariners[26]), the translatorfs transmission of knowledge is suffused with missionary purpose (A2 r-v).  At this period, translation in general reflects the specialisation of knowledge that earlier translations had helped to engender, and the translator sees it as his task to collect the meaning of the original with the aim of redistribution.[27]  One of the roles of translation – which is also one of the roles of poetry, but shifted and made more emphatic – is to attempt to control the surplus of meaning that has resulted from (or given rise to) manfs haphazard linguistic mapping of the world of thought.   We may feel that wide and strong arms are required to embrace polyvalency and the tectonic shift of semantic plates, and wonder whether this diffusion does not react against specialising tendencies, but we are thinking at the level of the word; translators such as Frampton and Baker were working at the level of the text, for their sources were informative rather than literary and they did not place a premium on stylistic qualities.  Moreover, if they did find any eloquence in the original, it was associated with the source language (Latin, Spanish, Italian, or French) and contrasted with the eplain Englishf of the etruef translation.[28]  It is also the case that specialised vocabulary tends to be calqued or be given a direct, one-to-one equivalent – and so degenerates into the cold death of cliché and descends into the hermetic Hell of jargon.  Translation is one of the acts of a busy life, and the translator is expected to be as reliable and upright in his writing as in his actions: thus Baker (1576) names several surgeons who gfaithfully dealeh in their profession (*iii r-*iv v) and Scévole de Sainte-Marthe (1536-1623) describes the physician Duret as gToy c dfHypocrat lfinterprete fidele.h[29]  There is little considered thought given to exactly what the translator is to be faithful to; it is, on the majority of occasions, simply taken from granted that he must display fidelity.







[1] Warren Boutcher, e gWho taught thee rhetoricke to deceive a maid?h: Christopher Marlowefs Hero and Leander, Juan Boscánfs Leandro, and Renaissance vernacular Humanismf – Comp. Lit. 52:1 (2000), pp. 11-52 (12-14).  Walter Raleghfs library contained books in the five languages one would most expect to encounter: English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin. (Details of the library are from Hillgarth, 2000, p. 374).

[2] In the 16th century, most English translations were from Italian, for Italy instigated the Renaissance.   However, as the century progressed, French began to assume a dominant role: the foreign nation with which England had the closest and longest contact gradually became the leading power in Europe, and the combination of these two factors explains the fact, noted by Paul Salzman, that 213 of the 450 new prose works published in England in this century were translations, and 164 of these were from French; 22 from Spanish; and 13 from Italian. –English Prose Fiction 1558-1700. A Critical History.

[3] From Richard Percevalfs (1550-1620) grammar and dictionary, Bibliotheca Hispanica (1591), eTo the Readerf (A3r).  This work was enlarged to form John Minsheufs Dictionarie in Spanish (1599).

[4] Randall (1963), p. 51.

[5] William Stepney, in eThe Epistle to the Readerf in his The Spanish School-master (1591).  Stepney does however add, gcalbeit I would not haue you suppose that I would magnifie the singularitie of the Spanish tongue aboue all other languagesh (Aiv v).  Frances Yates notes: gStepney was apparently an Englishman, an unusual nationality for the author of a modern-language manual.h –John Florio (New York: Octagon Reprint, 1968 [1934]), p. 146.  In his First Fruits (1578), Florio complains of English reluctance to learn foreign languages: gI see certaine Gentlemenc that begyn to learne to spake Italian, French, and Spanish, and when they haue learned two woords of Spanish, three words of French, and foure words of Italian, they thinke they haue yenough, they wyll study no more.h –ibid, q. p.30.

[6] For instance, Sidney, in a letter to his brother Robert, had described France and Spain as powers gneedefulle for us to markeh; Italy was merely a land of silks and wines, where the men were given to gcounterfeit lerning.h –The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat. 4 Vols. (Cambridge University Press, 1962 [1912]), III:126-7, Letter XXXVIII.  He does mention the practical use that Germanyfs gmany Princesh can afford; it is therefore not the multiplicity of Italian states, but rather the weakness of those states, in conjunction with their religious denomination, that explains his low opinion.

[7] In Howellfs (?1594-1666) judgement, Spanish was gcthe easiest of all Languages, by reason of the openesse, and fulnese of pronunciation, the agreement ftwixt the Tongue and the Text, and the freedome from Apostrophes, which are the knots of a Language, as also for the proximity it hath with the Latine, for the Spanish is nought else but mere Latine, take a few Morisco words awaych –Instructions for forreine travell (1642), p. 91.  The 1650 edition of this text qualifies the initial statement: Spanish is gcthe easiest of all Languages to him who hath Latin, by reason ofch (p.50).

[8] Ungerer (1965), p. 179.  Mabbe, in The Rogue, will occasionally translate into Latin and English: for example, ghijo de la tierrah becomes gterrae filius, a son of the earthh (1924; p. xxii).

[9] Richard Carew remarks, in his essay eOn the Excellencie of the English Tonguef, gYea euen wee seeke to make our good of our late Spanish enymye, and feare as little the hurt of his tongue as the dinte of his sworde.h (in G. Gregory Smith, 1937, II:290).  One is reminded of Philemon Hollandfs remark, in the preface to his translation of Pliny (The Historie of the World, 1601), that Britain was conquering Rome by the pen, as Rome had conquered Britain by the sword.  However, where the relationship between language and culture is concerned, it is worth remembering that Roger Ascham gave vent to his moral and doctrinal objections to Italy but also admitted to liking and loving the Italian language above all others save Greek and Latin (Wright ed. 1970, pp. 222-236; p. 223).  Furthermore, Sidney hated Spain – influenced by Bartolomé de las Casasf biased Breuissima relacion de la destruycion de las Indias (1552) – but admired its culture. – Gustav Ungerer, Anglo-Spanish Relations in Tudor England (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1956), pp. 75-76.

[10] Of course, the Spanish empire itself provided a model to emulate. –Frances Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Pimlico, 1993).  The first Emperor, Charles V (1519-1556; abdicated), had a Flemish upbringing and could not speak Spanish.

[11] Lord Berners, Bartholomew Yong, Thomas Shelton, Leonard Digges, James Mabbe, and Sir Richard Fanshawe. –Dale B.J. Randall, The Golden Tapestry. A Critical Survey of Non-chivalric Spanish Fiction in English Translation 1543-1657 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1963), p. 18.  It is interesting that Wyatt, whose time spent in Italy and France proved so formative, did not respond to Spanish poetry.

[12] In his preface, he states that Edward Paston would have been an ideal translator of Diana, because of the time he had spent in Spain, his knowledge of the language, and his general ability. –Kennedy ed. (1968), p. 6.

[13] With Yong, a high regard for Spanish culture can be glimpsed also in his marginal notes in Fiammetta: on p. 192, mention is made of Spaniards first (gA description of Tilt and Giuoco di canne, much used of the Spaniards, Italians and Moors)h; and on p. 213, in a clear addition to the original, there is reference to Italian and Spanish ladies (gThe uppermost attire of Italian and Spanish Ladies and Gentlewomench).  He also drew attention to Naples (p. 14), the Italian city in which Spanish influence was strongest: gc in Naples Spanish influence was pervasive; towards the middle of the sixteenth century, the city seemed, linguistically, half Spanish, and Spain and Spanish ideals were accepted as models.h –Hillgarth (2000), p. 297.  All references to Fiammetta are from the 1926 edition.

[14] This was perhaps the only period in French history when French gentlemen took the trouble to learn Spanish. –Hillgarth (2000), p. 346.  Estrada (1962) lists six editions of French translations of Diana, all including the Spanish text, between 1611 and 1613 (p.xcv).

[15] Such as Yates (1993 [1975]) and Boutcher (2000).

[16] Boutcher (2000), p. 48.

[17] John Eliot, Ortho-epia Gallica Eliots fruits for the French (1593), fol. 31.  The dialogue continues:

gWhy so?  we find them almost all translated into Latine Italian and French.

I beleeue it well, yet haue they more grace in the Castillian, which is the purest Spanish dialect, in which the learned write and speake ordinarily.h

In his A Report and discourse of the affaires and state of Germany (1570), Roger Ascham forbears from rendering an Italian sonnet into English, for it would glose the graceh (Wright ed. 1970, p. 136).  Both scholars demonstrate allegiance to the concepts that some languages are superior to others and that each language has a purest form (if, indeed, this constitutes two concepts rather than being two manifestations of the same one).

[18] Ungerer (1965), p. 182.  He remarks that, gNo English family was more open to Spanish influence than the Sidneysh (1956, p. 67).  Ungererfs claims for knowledge of Spanish language and literature occasionally make the frame exceed the picture: Roger Ascham did know Spanish, but we know this only from one brief reference in his writings to Gonzalo Perezfs translation of gVlissesh (Wright ed. 1970; p. 291); and Surrey also learned the language, but this fact is not evident from his poems.

[19] Lea does not praise Spanish for its egracef; he seems to regard it as a emanlyf language, one that is closer in vigour to English than are Italian and French.  Compared to these last two tongues, it is gcas stately and as sweete, or rather stately more:/ As full of prety prouerbs, and most dainty priuie quips,/ Of graue aduices, bitter taunts, and passing gawling nipsh (ll.6-8).

[20] Ungerer (1956), pp. 48-55.

[21] It is listed in Gustav Ungerer, eThe Printing of Spanish Books in Elizabethan England,f The Library, 5th Series, 20:3 (1965), pp. 177-229 (222-228; Appendix II).  Items include Amadís de Gaula (No. 4), Celestina (9), Amadís de Grecia (21), the poems of Juan de Mena (32) and Spanish translations of Biblical texts (6, 7), Cicero (2, 37), Lucian (33), Girolamo Garimberto (40) and Seneca (42, 51).

[22] The didactic intent is also apparent in the exemplary eLifef of the Marquis that introduces the proverbs, the choice of broken fourteeners as verse-form, and the translation of the pitilessly long paraphrases of gD. Peter Diaz de Toledo.h

[23] Allison (1974) lists 11 Spanish Romances of Chivalry translated in the 16th century.  The number is small; the volume of material is considerable.  There existed a large audience who eagerly consumed native adventures in this genre, romances such as Maloryfs Morte dfArthur, and William of Palerne, Huon of Bordeaux, Bevis of Hampton, Sir Eglamour, Guy of Warwick, Sir Isumbras, Sir Triamour, constituting the favoured literature for the reading public for a century after the establishment of printing in England. –Kinghorn (1971), p. 146.

[24] Margaret Schlauch, Antecedents of the English Novel. 1400-1600 (London: Oxford University Press, 1963) pp. 165-166.  She describes them as gstilted translations of stilted originalsh (p. 168).  I write ghad beenh because the second half of the 16th century witnessed an evolution in Spanish taste from the chivalric romances to the pastoral. –T. Anthony Perry, eIdeal Love and Human Reality in Montemayorfs La Dianaf in PMLA 84 (1969), pp. 227-234 (230).

[25] Underhill (1899), p. 51.  He indulges in the tendency to associate a genre with one name, that of chivalric romances being the exception: mystical treatises – Luis de Granada; court life – Antonio de Guevara; pastoral – Montemayor; and the picaresque – Mendoza (putative author of Lazarillo de Tormes).

[26] Frampton decided to translate The arte of nauigation (1581), also dedicated to Dyer, from Pedro de Medina (?1493-?1567), gforced by friendshippe, and also mouued by persuasion of certaine pylottes, and Masters of shippesh (÷2r).

[27] The image of collecting is taken from the chirurgeon George Bakerfs (1540-1600) The Composition or making of the moste excellent and pretious Oil called Oleum Magistrale (1574).  The title-page declares that this text has been gFaithfully gathered and translated into English.h

[28] For example, in Framptonfs The most noble and famous trauels of Marco Polo (1579), he refers those who delight in eloquence to the original, composed in Latin, Spanish, and Italian, while readers with only English, and who gseeke oneleye for substaunce of matter,h are directed gto my playne translationh (aii r-v).

[29] At l.61, fol. 94r, of his French translation of his own eDiscours de la medecine en vers Latins,f from his Les premières œuvres of 1569 (the French title is given for the original, as for all works, in the Table of Contents; in the actual text, fol. 91r, it is eCalexio Svof; in the text, the translation is not titled, simply bearing the rubric eAv Seignevr de Belestat, Medecin Lovdvnoisf fol. 93r), in which French doctors are praised through classical comparison.