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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation

A Translator's Defense

Giannozzo Manetti

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To purchase A Translator's Defense

Title: A Translator's Defense
Author: Giannozzo Manetti
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: ca. 1457 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 293 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: A Translator's Defense - US
A Translator's Defense - UK
A Translator's Defense - Canada
Apologeticus - España
  • Latin title: Apologeticus
  • Full title: Five Apologetic Books against the Critics of His New Translation of the Psalter
  • Full Latin title: In V libros adversus sue nove Psalterii traductionis obtrectatores apologeticos
  • Translated by Mark Young
  • Edited by Myron McShane
  • This I Tatti Renaissance Library volume is a bilingual edition, with the Latin original facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very well presented arguments and some fascinating history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Renaissance Quarterly 70:4 (Winter 2017) William J. Connell

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The complete review's Review:

       This 'apology', A Translator's Defense, consists of, as it was originally titled, Five Apologetic Books against the Critics of His New Translation of the Psalter, as fifteenth century Florentine humanist Giannozzo Manetti translated both the entire New Testament (from Greek into Latin) and the Book of Psalms (from Hebrew into Latin) -- though only the latter apparently required such a substantial defense.
       As noted in the Introduction, for all the humanist learning of the age and that locale, Manetti was very much the exception in making the effort to learn Hebrew:

To do such a thing in Italy was nearly unprecedented. Throughout the Middle Ages, not one of the very few who learned Hebrew was Italian.
       Prior to Jerome (4th and 5th century), the Septuagint -- the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into ancient Greek, by seventy (or seventy-two) scholars -- had been the basis for later Latin translations; Jerome initially relied on it for his Latin version as well, but then, recognizing it as inadequate, went straight to the source and translated from the Hebrew, with this version the basis of the still in use Vulgate. However, as Manetti notes, even many centuries later: "the Roman Church in its private and public discourse seems to prefer the Septuagint translation of the Psalter in its daily and universal use to the other translation of the Psalter by Jerome, one based on the original Hebrew".
       Manetti only translated that one book from the Old Testament (though he maintains the Psalter is made up of five books -- in contrast to Jerome, who indeed: "thinks that there was just one book") -- but even that alone was a presumptuous undertaking, a challenge to what were considered the well-established, definitive versions of the Bible. Apparently many believed that, after Jerome, any other attempts at translation were: "unnecessary and therefore arrogant" -- all the more so presumably if it didn't rely on the Septuagint (which was accessible to at least some readers of the time) and instead returned to the source (which, as noted, was essentially a closed book to even the intellectuals of the day, who had no Hebrew).
       So this volume is where Manetti explains himself, and justifies his undertaking against his critics. (As noted in the Introduction, none of this supposed criticism actually survives, and so it's unclear whether Manetti is actually responding to specific charges or, in fact, offers something of preëmptive strike, "making the entire work function rhetorically as a proleptic exercise to ward off future criticism of his translation".)
       Two of the five books -- III and IV -- focus on strictly textual issues, Manetti listing errors in Jerome's two translations (based on the Septuagint, and on the Hebrew original): additions that aren't in the original, omissions, and 'unsuitable translations' (i.e. outright mistranslations), as well as 'variant titles of the Psalms'. This is of some interest, but so text-specific (and with so little discussion of the errors -- Manetti simply citing the translation, and noting what is wrong or missing) that it is not really 'readable' per se; to be of much use, one would presumably want to consult these sections side by side with the Psalter.
       The other three sections of the Mantti's defense are, however, considerably more interesting. He offers a good summing up of his book as he gets to the fifth section:
     In the first book of this my Apologeticus I briefly discussed the different detractors of all authors and about life the life and character of all the old sacred writers; in the second book I discussed the different translators of the sacred Scriptures; in the third and the fourth I fully examined the differences and divergences between the well-known rendering of the Psalter by the Seventy Elders and the true, original text in Hebrew; it remains in the fifth and the final book to offer some comments about correct translation that are worth saying.
       Manetti begins by noting the inevitability of criticism for his translation-undertaking, pointing to historical examples of renowned scholars and the abuse they got for their work -- not least, Augustine's criticism of Jerome's biblical translation (Augustine and Rufinus: "did not hesitate to condemn his entire translation of the Old Testament (as much as they could) to everlasting infamy as unnecessary, redundant, and useless"). Manetti suggests: "I could in no way avoid or escape this fate unless I had written nothing at all" -- and goes on to justify his undertaking. Among his arguments are the apparent debates about some of the basics of the collection, issues which he thinks are quite clear-cut: that it consists of five rather than just one book; that the psalms were composed in verse, not prose; and that they number 150, "neither more nor less" -- though of course it's the more substantial textual inaccuracies that are the crux of the matter.
       The second book of his Apologeticus goes over early biblical translation, specifically the Septuagint (though nicely introducing Ptolemy Philadelphus' library (of Alexandria) project first -- "libraries that he planned to cram full of Greek texts from all over. An extraordinary proposal !"). Manetti quotes at length here from other sources, notably Eusebius. As he also notes, there were numerous translators (from Hebrew to Greek), but the Septuagint was: "so dearly honored and esteemed that within a few years it pervaded almost all of Greece" -- in no small part also: "because it had been created so solemnly" (hence Manetti's focus on its origins-story). Indeed, its creation-story is particularly significant, as Manetti argues that that is one reason why it has kept its status, despite what he points out are its fairly obvious textual inadequacies.
       Manetti then moves on to Jerome, and his path to his translations -- specifically, his experience with the various translations then available and how: "each and every one of them was greatly at variance with the Hebrew original", leading him to do it himself. Manetti repeatedly notes that one motivation for translating the Old Testament again was because those truly familiar with the original -- Hebrew-speaking Jews -- "taunted Christians with the manifest unreliability of the divine Scriptures because there were so many and such diverging translations". Then, though recognizing Jerome's impressive achievement, Manetti nevertheless argues that even his was not an entirely adequate rendering (and that: "Hebrews do not cease to bark at and scoff daily at the Christians on grounds of the spuriousness of our Scriptures") -- a case he then buttresses with the many examples given in books three and four of his work.
       The final book is a more general consideration of translation, and though much here is also not new, Manetti does provide a good, cohesive overview; indeed, as noted in the Introduction, this Apologeticus was, at the time: "the longest treatise on translation ever written". Manetti suggests various sensible virtues required of translators, such as that a translator: "must come to know the idioms and figures of speech which the best authors use frequently", or:
the every effective translator have subtle and finely attuned ears so that he does not by chance destroy and confound what has been elegantly and artfully crafted.
       He emphasizes that: "a word-for-word translation cannot be a correct translation", as also:
Even if so many similar and appropriate words could be found in the target language and even if they fundamentally meant the same thing (which cannot ever be completely true), still the tropes and metaphors and figures of speech would be left over, which completely resist literal translation
       Manetti's closing attack on the Septuagint, where he wonders why, despite the obvious textual errors it contains, it continues to be the go-to version (when, in fact, obviously the Hebrew original should be the point of reference), was no doubt rather daring in its time, but he makes a strong argument for the need for a translation from the actual source-material and original language.
       This Apologeticus is a well-presented argument and examination of biblical translation, Manetti not so focused on his own translation (a text that feels almost curiously absent in this work, as one gets very little sense of it) but rather on historical examples and the evolution of biblical translation, to his time. Mark Young's quite smooth translation -- of, it must be said, Manetti's also clear and accessible Latin -- makes this a volume that reads very well today, and though there are sections where Manetti quotes at considerable length (i.e. sections that are the work and language of others), he makes great effort to present his arguments straightforwardly and clearly: there's little scholarly or theological mumbo-jumbo here -- a clarity which also helps support Manetti's case. Books three and four of this volume are, of course, something entirely different, and more or less unreadable (at least in any straightforward manner -- they are useful for textual comparison, but presumably few readers will go through that trouble), but it's good they are included; they can safely be quickly leafed through (or, in fact, just skipped over ...).
       A Translator's Defense is a quite fascinating historical document, and while translation-studies have obviously exploded in the time since, and especially recently, it already addresses many of the significant issues and questions to do with translation, and holds up very well regarding these. Even if much of the material, including the historical overview, is familiar, Manetti's presentation is accessible and intersting, making this a worthwhile read even now.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 March 2019

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A Translator's Defense: Reviews: Other books by Giannozzo Manetti under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Florentine scholar Giannozzo Manetti lived 1396 to 1459.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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