Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.33

Paul Botley, Latin Translation in the Renaissance. The Theory and Practice of Leonardo Bruni, Giannozzo Manetti and Erasmus.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.  Pp. 207.  ISBN 0-521-83717-0.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Stefano U. Baldassarri, Università di Cassino (
Word count: 1435 words

I wish to state from the start that this book makes, in my opinion, a remarkable contribution to both Renaissance scholarship and translation studies. Botley's well-structured volume can appeal to a wide audience as it touches on such interesting and interdisciplinary topics as rhetoric, linguistics, translation theory and a number of literary genres from historiography to Bible commentaries, biographies, and autobiographies. Because of the book's clear organization and simple style, the three chapters devoted each to a famous humanist translator can prove particularly useful to graduate students, although even older scholars will benefit from them, especially if they are not experts in humanist literature.

Botley's research has several merits. First, it reconstructs in a clear and convincing way the career of three important humanists whose interest in translations was not limited to translating Greek works into Latin but also led to important statements on the art of translating. After a brief introduction, the author discusses the translation method and the main versions of Leonardo Bruni (ca. 1376-1444), starting with his rendering of St. Basil's De studiis secularibus, also known as Epistula ad adulescentes, which he dedicated to his old teacher Coluccio Salutati in 1403. He then moves on to Bruni's earliest translations of Plato's dialogues and his nine versions from Plutarch's lives. Although the political background of Bruni's scholarly activity should have been stressed more forcefully, especially regarding such texts as his Laudatio Florentinae urbis or the Historiae Florentini populi, Botley's survey is very useful in its careful dating of the humanist's many versions and their relationship with his other writings. In this respect, three works usually neglected by modern scholars are given due attention, namely Bruni's De primo bello punico, De bello italico, and Commentarium rerum graecarum, which are heavily indebted to Polybius, Procopius, and Xenophon respectively. In this section of Chapter I, Botley focuses on Bruni's use of his sources and the defense he had to make of such re-elaborations against early fifteenth-century critics. In so doing, Botley quotes long and illuminating excerpts from the humanist's letters, which also shed light on his translation theory. The theory, as is well known, is best expressed in his famous treatise De interpretatione recta, the first modern text entirely devoted to this topic. Botley sums up the main ideas put forth in Bruni's booklet on pp. 41-62. There he also balances the humanist's approach to the art of translating against his own practice on the one hand and the theories and activity of such contemporaries as Ambrogio Traversari and Roberto de' Rossi on the other. Understandably, Botley also includes a short discussion of Bruni's well-known polemic with Alfonso of Cartagena, Bishop of Burgos.

Chapter II is, I believe, the most original section of Botley's volume. There he offers a concise yet informative portrait of Giannozzo Manetti, certainly the least famous member, as it were, of this humanist triad. Until the 1970's, Manetti was mostly studied in relation to his De dignitate et excellentia hominis, a text often compared with Pico's later, and much better known, oration on the same topic. In the last decades, however, scholars like Badaloni, Trinkaus, Droege, and De Petris have contributed fundamental essays on this humanist's many other writings. Manetti was a most prolific writer, authoring works on a wide variety of topics, from biblical and philosophical translations to biographies and historiography. Far from attracting scholars, this vast production seems to have scared them away, but they also may have been deterred by the fact that almost all such writings are still in manuscript. Botley's endeavour, therefore, is all the more praiseworthy, as it offers an orderly overview of Manetti's considerable output. In this chapter Botley reconstructs the chronological order not only of Manetti's numerous works but of his intense political career as well, documenting his move first from Florence to papal Rome and then to Naples, where he died on 27 October 1459. His original texts and translations are thus properly contextualized, while the political/social background to his scholarly activity is given due attention. In this respect, two features of Botley's research prove particularly useful. First, his study of Manetti's partial translation from the Scriptures (precisely, the Psalms and the New Testament) and a comparison of it with Valla's biblical scholarship. Second, a series of synoptic tables in which Botley compares Manetti's version of specific passages with those of famous medieval and humanist translators. On p. 81, for instance, there is a table putting side by side the translation of an excerpt from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II.4 by Grosseteste, Manetti and Bruni, while a similar table on p. 97 contrasts Manetti's rendition of a passage from Mark's Gospel (Ch. VII, verses 32-37) with those of St. Jerome and Valla. Finally, since Manetti followed Bruni (whom he openly acknowledged as his intellectual role model) also in writing a treatise on translation theory (book V of his Apologeticus), Botley ends Chapter II with a short yet enlightening discussion of this work. There he points out (p. 110) what is probably Manetti's most innovative contribution to the humanist approach to the practice and theory of translation: the belief that "interpretatio recta" can be made only from and into one of what he calls the "learned languages", Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. In Manetti's eyes, therefore, vernacular languages are not rich and polished enough to allow completely satisfactory versions.

The last chapter is devoted to no less a figure than Erasmus of Rotterdam, second only to St. Jerome in what could be called the "pantheon of translators". The fame of this humanist and the equally immense bibliography on him induce Botley to limit his analysis to Erasmus' study and translation of the New Testament. Here the author comments at length on the hermeneutical problems faced by the Dutch scholar and the many criticisms he repeatedly had to answer, an effort in which he could rely on the support of such a friend as Thomas More. Here Botley refers once more to Valla's Annotations in order to underscore Erasmus' theory and practice as a translator, while at the same time hinting at the similarities between his search for a "via media", as it were, in the art of translation and Manetti's.

The book ends with a useful chapter titled "Renaissance Translations: Some Categories" (pp. 164-177), followed by an appendix reproducing the hitherto unpublished text of Manetti's preface to his version of the Psalter based on MS. Pal. Lat. 41, fols. 2-3. (pp. 178-181). Coming as it does at the end of such a rich overview, this closing section on humanist translation categories provides a suitable summary of the main ideas discussed in the previous pages. According to Botley, there exist three main kinds of humanist translations: the first could be labelled "equivalent translation". It is the most common type of rendering, the one pursued by Cicero, Boethius and, in the wake of such distinguished predecessors, by most humanists. The second type could be deemed "competitive translation". This is the kind of version advocated by Valla in the famous preface to his Latin rendition of Demosthenes' De corona. Finally, the third kind stands out as a sort of "supplementary translation" as it aims at supplementing a previous version. As examples of this last category, Botley mentions de' Rossi's version of Aristotle's Posterior Analytics and Manetti's Psalter translation.

The volume is also provided with a long bibliographic section (pp. 182-203). As far as I can see, the book's only flaws are to be found precisely in its bibliography. True enough, a vast number of works on translation theory are put forth every year, making it virtually impossible to be completely up-to-date. Nevertheless, Botley's bibliography does not include a number of important studies, some of which have now been circulating for several years. For instance, his discussion of Bruni's idea of commentarium and historia would have certainly profited from Gary Ianziti's essay on this topic in the 1990 issue of Rinascimento. Likewise, Ianziti's article on Bruni's Plutarchan versions in the 1999 issue of I Tatti Studies would have proved useful to support Botley's views. The same is true of several essays on Bruni's De interpretatione recta, mostly dating from the 1990's, which Botley does not take into account. Nor are such oversights limited to scholarly articles, as they also involve critical editions of primary works discussed in this book. A case in point is the anthology of works by Giannozzo Manetti published two years ago in the I Tatti Renaissance Library Series. But the merits of Botley's clear and informative research outweigh these bibliographic omissions, and I wish to conclude by repeating my appreciation and commendation of his work.

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