Throughout the seventeenth-century Atlantic world, imaginative writers and imperial apologists analyzed European empires in Africa and the Americas through the terms of movement and translation; Jesuit priests in South America, like José de Acosta (1540-1600), and Puritan governors in Massachusetts Bay, like John Winthrop (1588-1649), analogized the westward progression of the sun to the westward translations of empire (translation imperii) and civilization (translation studii). This appeal to a natural model of conquest depended upon the role of translation as physical process and revealed the ways in which language was – and still is – central to the power of imperial movement. As Antonio Nebrija put it in the opening lines of his Grammar of 1492, “que siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio; y de tal manera lo siguió, que juntamente començaron, crecieron y florecieron, y después junta fue la caida de entrambos.” [Language was always the companion of empire, and followed it in such a way that together they began, grew, and flourished, and then together was the fall of both.]
If it is true that language often accompanies empire, it is also true that language pushes back against imperial power – a move we can appreciate in the translation of texts as diverse as the Spanish-language account of Quechua speaker Titu Cusi Yupanqui (1570) and the English-language autobiography of Arabic and Fula speaker Omar ibn Said (1831). With this idea, the students enrolled in Colonial Translations: The Movement of Power through Language in the Early Americas (English 371/American Studies 350/Hispanic Studies 388), at the College of William and Mary are conducting original research, gaining experience in literary translation and editing, learning to work collaboratively, and exploring emerging opportunities in digital publishing. After analyzing representations of interpreters in scenes of colonial encounter (La Malinche in Díaz del Castillo and Pocahontas in John Smith), foreign language citations in imperial polemics (de las Casas, Hakluyt), missionary linguistics (Elliot, Ximénez), and the translation of nineteenth-century slave narratives into an Atlantic world (ibn Said, Manzano), students work in teams to translate a portion of a rare book from the College’s Special Collections for publication on the Early Americas Digital Archive.
Emma C. Merrill is translating a portion of Tomás Ramón’s priestly polemic on the role of women in society, Nueva prematica de reformación (Zaragoza: 1635), and Sarah J. Schuster is rendering into English a selection of Joseph-François Lafitau’s rewriting of Portuguese colonialism in Africa and the Americas from a French perspective, Histoire des découvertes et conquestes des Portugais (Paris: 1733). Andreea Cleopatra Washburn, Ashleigh Ramos, and Vanessa Macias are working with a widely-circulated eighteenth-century natural history of North America that was compiled from French-language sources, translated into Spanish by José de Olmeda y León, and published under the psedonym of Francisco Álvarez as Noticia del establecimiento y población de las colonias inglesas en la América Septentrional (Madrid: 1788), which includes a retelling of the meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith. Lee Hassig brings 30 years of editorial experience from Time-Life Books and German/English translation to his critical review of the Álvarez edition.
These projects have allowed for productive collaborations with research librarians and archivists in Swem Library as well as rich conversations with the scholarly community of early Americanists in eastern Virginia. Our class attended the conference held at Norfolk State, 1619 and the Making of America, and our discussions continue to incorporate key concepts from the conference – including race, gender, and religion in the early Americas, and the ways in which the colonial past bears upon the present. We hope that our work will contribute to an ongoing scholarly conversation and make possible a broader public dialogue about the importance of the colonial Americas in our own time.
Allison Margaret Bigelow is Institute/NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.
Photo 1 (l-r): Sarah J. Schuster, Ashleigh K. Ramos, Andreea Cleopatra Washburn, Amy Schindler of Special Collections, Swem Library, Vanessa M. Macias, Emma C. Merrill
Photo 2: Ashleigh K. Ramos '13, Hispanic Studies and Sociology
Photo Credit Steve Salpukas