The Ultimate Price for Translation Work

February 12th, 2013

How safe are you in your job? (And I don’t mean safe from the economy or being made redundant.)

the ultimate price for translation work

Three Executions

It’s good to keep in mind, however, how lucky we are to have been born in a modern and reformed world. Translation was not always such a cosy and secure career. In fact, a few hundred years ago it was entirely possible to be killed because of translation services you had performed – though, to be fair, there generally was some amount of political or religious agitation involved as well. In the sixteenth century, though, three highly respected and influential translators were executed in at least part due to translation work they had performed, and it’s useful, I think, for we modern translators to keep them in mind, if only to remind ourselves how lucky we are.

Étienne Dolet

Étienne Dolet was born in 1509 and spent his life getting into trouble. He spent time in prison, made a reputation as a scholar and thinker, and then doomed himself when he translated a Greek passage and added three words that implied, clearly, that after death you simply cease to exist – that the soul, in other words, was not immortal. Dolet was accused as an atheist, which in 1536 was a grave crime, and he was strangled and burned as a heretic in large part because he added his own beliefs to a translation.

William Tyndale

In the sixteenth century it was considered blasphemy – and often a capital crime – to translate the bible into another language. Martin Luther made waves when he translated the bible into German, and William Tyndale was inspired by this example and sought to do the same. Pursued into Germany by English authorities, he managed to print his translated bible and smuggle some into England. When he was captured in Belgium in 1536, King Henry VIII (once named Defender of the Faith by the Pope) had him executed for this.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was not murdered or executed; he died of natural (though miserable) causes at the age of 62. But he was certainly a hated and hunted man at the time of his death. As mentioned above, he had translated the bible into German, and while he had not been punished for it in then-liberal Germany, this was regarded as a terrible sacrilege in many parts of the world. While his death may have been natural, there is little doubt it was celebrated by some.

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