Women Translators in Early Modern Europe

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More women were active as translators during the Renaissance and Reformation than at any previous time in history. This article offers a summary of the vibrant and ever-expanding body of research on women translators in Europe in the period c. 1500-1700. Most research has focused on women in England but the article also takes account of work on women in countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands. The article provides a chronological overview of key trends in the scholarship, briefly discussing early twentieth-century criticism but concentrating in the main on work produced from the 1980s onwards. It discusses in detail the first influential studies of early modern women translators from the 1980s and early 1990s which were inspired by the literary project associated with Second Wave feminism. Early feminist studies typically took a ‘gynocritical’ approach, i.e. they emphasised the social and historical conditions of women’s literary endeavours and women’s difference. Feminist critics tended to argue that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries translation offered the fair sex a ‘safe’ way of participating in intellectual life, provided they restricted themselves to the appropriately feminine subject of religion. We read that women occasionally chose surprising source texts or subverted their source texts to assert their own agency; and that a few transgressed the boundaries usually imposed on their sex to produce non-religious translations which convey unorthodox ideas about gender roles, the much-discussed example being the Englishwoman Margaret Tyler. Scholars still pursue gynocriticism but the article goes on to consider the revisionist work which is beginning to show early modern woman translators in a different light. This work is underpinned by efforts to interrogate notions of gender, i.e. to move away from assumptions about women’s difference and to adopt a more contextualising approach. Critics are increasingly acknowledging that translation (including religious translation) was a prestigious, high-stakes and primarily masculine activity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and they have started to suggest that women produced translations as part of a nexus of patrons, colleagues and printers, becoming active agents in the religious and political upheavals of the time, just like their male counterparts. Revisionist research is offering more nuanced perspectives on women translators in early modern Europe and has implications for how we approach the study of women translators in history more generally.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Translation, Feminism and Gender
EditorsLuise von Flotow, Hala Kamal
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2020