10 Lost Ladies of Literary Translation: A Tribute

Presented here are ten trailblazing women translators whose work proved groundbreaking, from the 16th to 20th centuries.

After being entirely forgotten or reduced to half a line in their husbands’ entries in many encyclopedias, women translators are now starting to be recognized in their own right. Shown at right, translator Matilda Mary Hays (standing) and a love interest, actress Charlotte Cushman, 1858.

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Margaret Tyler:
From Religious Text to Fiction

Margaret Tyler - Mirror of Princely Deeds

After being anonymous or hidden behind a male pseudonym, women translators began to sign their translations with their real names in the 16th century. It was a time when women were only supposed to translate religious texts to promote piety among other women.

Margaret Tyler (1540-1590) instead chose to translate a Spanish romance by Diego Ortúñez de Calahorra into English under the title The Mirrour of Princely Deeds and Knighthood (printed in 1578).

In her Letter to the reader, Tyler protested against the fact that profane content was deemed inappropriate for a woman, insisted on the seriousness and importance of literary work for women, and expressed the wish for women and men to be treated as equal rational beings.

While little is known about her, the letter of dedication introducing her translation was addressed to Lord Thomas Howard, so she might have been a servant in his aristocratic Catholic family.

The source of her knowledge of Spanish is unknown. We only know that to speak Spanish was valued by English merchants because of their economic ties to Spain, and that some merchants’ daughters and servants learned the language for this purpose.

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Giuseppa Barbapiccola:
Advocate for Women’s Education

Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola

Giuseppa Eleanora Barbapiccola (1702 – 1740) was an Italian philosopher who translated Principles of Philosophy by French philosopher René Descartes. Her goal was not only to convey Descartes’ philosophy to an Italian audience but also to show that Descartes praised the female intellect and, in doing so, to inspire women to educate and empower themselves.

In the preface to her translation (1722), she also expressed her own ideas, writing that “Women should not be excluded from the study of the sciences, since their spirits are more elevated and they are not inferior to men in terms of the greatest virtues.”

Giuseppa defended the right to education for all women and also tried to persuade women to take the matter into their own hands and to educate themselves.

She asserted that the inherent nature of women – and the perception of them as the weaker sex – was not the cause of their ignorance. The cause of their ignorance was the lack of education or poor education because women have always had the capacity to learn. To this end, her translation included a history of women’s education and a history of philosophy.

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Anne Dacier:
Translating the Ancient Greeks

Madame Anne le Fevre Dacier

A French scholar, Anne le Fever Dacier (1654 – 1720) was taught Latin and Greek at a young age by her father Tanneguy Le Fèvre when they lived in Saumur, a town in central France. After her father’s death in 1672, she moved to Paris and worked with Pierre-Daniel Huet, a friend of her father who was in charge of a comprehensive edition of Latin classics named the Delphin Classics.

She produced new Latin editions of poets Publius Annius Florus, and historians Dictys Cretensis, Sextus Aurelius Victor and Eutropius. She also translated into French several works by Greek poets Anacreon and Sappho, and by Roman playwrights Plautus, Aristophanes and Terence.

Her major work was the prose translation of Greek epic poet Homer’s Iliad (completed in 1699) and Odyssey (completed in 1708). Her translations were praised by her contemporaries, including English poet Alexander Pope, who then translated Homer’s epic poems from French into English, with the English editions published in 1715-20 for Iliad and in 1725-26 for Odyssey. (To translate works from an existing translation instead of the original work was common at the time.)

Anne Dacier wrote an essay on Pope’s translation of Odyssey, which gained her some fame in England as well. 


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Elizabeth Ashurst & Matilda Hays:
Translating George Sand

Eliza Ashurst, translator

In the mid-19th century, Elizabeth Ann Ashurst (1813 – 1850, also known as Eliza Ann Bardonneu) an English radical activist, and Matilda Mary Hays (1820 – 1850), an English feminist novelist, immersed themselves in the novels of famed French novelist George Sand.

Fascinated by Sand’s independent lifestyle, her vision of free love and the political and social issues addressed in her books, they translated some of her novels into English for them to reach a wider audience.

Ashurst belonged to a family of radical activists who supported causes ranging from women’s suffrage to Risorgimento (Italian unification). She attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 in London, with her father William Ashurst and her sister Matilda Ashurst, but was not allowed to speak since women were not considered full delegates.

Hays had already translated The Last Aldini by George Sand. She then met and befriended Ashurst. Together they translated Spiridion, Letters of a Traveller, The Master Mosaic-Workers and André.

Hays translated Fadette alone after the death of Elizabeth Ashurst in childbirth. The translations were mainly published in 1847, except for the translation of Spiridion, published in 1842, and the translation of Fadette, published in 1851.

Like George Sand, Matilda Hays was determined to use her writings to improve the condition of women. In her novel Helen Stanley (1846), she wrote that women couldn’t secure their financial and social future until “They teach their daughters to respect themselves to work for their daily bread, rather than prostitute their persons and hearts” by getting married.

She also co-founded the monthly English Woman’s Journal and was its editor from 1858 to 1864.

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Louise Swanton Belloc:
English literary classics into French

Louise Swanton Belloc

Louise Swanton Belloc (1796 – 1881), a French writer, translated English-language literary works into French. Born in La Rochelle, a seaport in western France, she received an education with a focus on English language and culture.

She advocated for women’s education, and contributed to the creation of the first circulating libraries. Her writings and translations introduced English literary works to a French audience. She wrote articles for the French journal Revue encyclopédique under the supervision of its founder and editor Marc-Antoine Jullien.

She befriended French writers Victor Hugo, Emile Souvestre and Alphonse de Lamartine. She also befriended English writer Charles Dickens, Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth, and American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. She translated some of their works into French, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

She also translated Lord Byron’s memoirs, as well as books by Scottish writers Elizabeth Gaskell and Walter Scott, and Irish writers Oliver Goldsmith and Thomas Moore.


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Mary Howitt:
German, Swedish, and Danish to English

Mary Howitt, writer and translator

Mary Howitt (1799 – 1888), an English poet and writer, translated German, Swedish, and Danish literary works into English. Born in a Quaker family living in Gloucestershire, a county in southwestern England, she began writing verses at an early age, long before writing her famous poem The Spider and The Fly (1828).

She married fellow Quaker writer William Howitt in 1821, and began a lifelong career of joint authorship and travels with him, except during his Australian journey in 1851-54 when he tried to make a fortune there. They befriended many English literary figures such as novelists Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, and poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, and Dorothy Wordsworth

When living in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1840, Howitt became acquainted with Scandinavian literature, and learned Swedish and Danish. She translated Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer’s novels, and her 18-volume translation (1842 – 63) helped introduce Bremer to English readers, including her ideas as a feminist reformer.

She translated Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales from 1845 to 1847. She received a Silver Medal from the Literary Academy of Stockholm for conveying Scandinavian literature through translation.

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Anna Swanwick:
Translating Goethe, Schiller & more

Anna Swanwick

Anna Swanwick (1813 – 1899), an English feminist writer, translated German and Greek literary works into English. Born in Liverpool, England, she moved to Berlin, Germany, in 1839 to study German, Greek and Hebrew.

Back in England in 1843, she translated some works by German luminaries Goethe and Schiller, and published them as Selections from the Dramas of Goethe and Schiller (1843). She produced blank-verse translations of other works by Goethe in 1850, with a second edition in 1878. Her translation of Goethe’s Faust was highly praised, and republished several times.

Anna Swanwick also produced a blank-verse translation of Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ Trilogy (1865), followed by a translation of all his plays (1873). She was interested in many social issues of her day, especially the education of women and the working classes.


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Therese Albertine Luise Robinson:
Multi-Lingual Translator

Therese Albertine Luise Robinson

Therese Albertine Luise Robinson (1797 – 1870), a German-American writer and linguist, translated English and Serbian poetry and folk songs into German. Born in Germany, she first translated two novels by Scottish writer Walter Scott (Old Mortality and The Black Dwarf) in 1822 under the pseudonym Ernst Berthold.

She published a series of literary criticisms without signing them. She was reluctant to use her own name to publish her poetry and short stories, so she invented the pen name Talvj, formed with the initials of her birth name (Therese Albertine Louise von Jacob), to sign her collection of short stories Psyche (1825) and other works.

Her poems were later included in The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), a famous anthology of translated poems edited by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

She learned Serbian after reading German philologist Jacob Grimm’s translations and comments on Serbian folk songs. She translated Serbian folk songs herself with the support and encouragement of the famous Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Published in 1826, her translation Volkslieder der Serben (Folk Songs of the Serbs) was praised by Goethe and the German literary world. After marrying American theologian Edward Robinson in 1828, she moved with him to Massachusetts in 1830.

She studied Native American languages, wrote a handbook, and translated into German the seminal article On Indian languages of North America written by American linguist John Pickering and published in Encyclopedia Americana in 1830-31. She also wrote a history of Slavic languages with her husband, published in 1834, with a second edition in 1850. 


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Zenobia Camprubí:
Translator of Rabindranath Tagore 

Zenobia Camprubi

Zenobia Camprubí (1887– 1956), a Spanish feminist writer, translated English-language literary works into Spanish. Born in Malgrat de Mar, Spain, she met Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez in 1913, and married him in 1916.

She moved to the United States, studied English literature at Columbia University, and lived in Cuba during the Spanish Civil War. She became a professor of Spanish literature at the University of Maryland, and spent her later years in Puerto Rico. She is considered a pioneer of Spanish feminism for actively promoting women in society.

Camprubí became the first translator of famed Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore into Spanish, and translated 22 works (collections of poems, essays and plays) over the years. Tagore’s play The Post Office (translated by her) was performed in Spain in 1920, and his play The Elder Sister was performed the following year.

In addition to early works, Camprubí wrote several books, including the couple’s biography Juan Ramón y yo (1954), and Diario, her three-volume diary about her life in Cuba (1937-39), in the United States (1939-50) and in Puerto Rico (1951-56).

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Charlotte H. Bruner:
Translator of Francophone African Women 

African Women's Writing, ed. by Charlotte H. Bruner

Charlotte H. Bruner (1917 – 1999), an American scholar, translated French-language literary works into English. Born in Urbana, Illinois, she received a Bachelor of Art from the University of Illinois in 1938, and a Master of Art from Colombia University in 1939. She was a professor of French at Iowa State College for three decades (1954-87).

She wrote extensively about African French-language women writers, and translated their works from French to English. She was a pioneer in both African studies and world literature at a time when American universities mainly taught European classics.

In the early 1970s, Bruner and her husband David Kincaid Bruner, spent one year in Africa interviewing these writers. Back home they aired their interviews in the series Talking Sticks. Charlotte Bruner then co-hosted First Person Feminine (1980-86), a weekly series in which she read and discussed world literature authored by women.

Charlotte Bruner was one of the editors of The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (1990). She edited two volumes of short stories by African women writers, The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Writings (1993) and Unwinding Threads (1994). She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1997.

Source: A history of translation in 150 portraits

Contributed by Marie Lebert. Reprinted by permission. Marie is a bilingual French-English translator. She has worked as a translator and/or librarian for international organizations and has written ebooks, articles and essays about translation and translators, ebooks, libraries and librarians, and medieval art. She holds a doctorate of linguistics (digital publishing) from the Sorbonne University, Paris, and a master of social science (society and culture) from the University of Caen, Normandy. Find more about women translators of the past at Marie Lebert.


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Helen Tracy Lowe Porter

See also
Imagining Helen:  The Life of Translator Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter

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