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Translating popular or otherwise important historical studies was nothing extraordinary during the nineteenth century. John Richard Green’s A Short History of the English People (1874) was a publishing phenomenon and it is not surprising that it was soon available also in different translations including French, Italian, and German. The Italian version, issued by the Florentine publisher Barbèra in 1884, is a schoolbook example of how a translation was prepared and an illustration of the principles that guided this process: it was done by a woman and both the text and its paratexts were adjusted to meet the needs of the local literary marketplace. In terms of its paratexts, it contained a wide range of new paratextual elements as well as lacked some that had appeared in the original version. The localization of the edition went so far that, according to the title page, the author was no longer John Richard Green, but Giovanni Riccardo Green.

Breve storia

In general, readers expected to find these alterations in translations and The English Historical Review noted with pleasure in April 1888, that because of the modifications in the recently issued French translation of the Short History, it “has a substantial value as a new edition of the original work.” Translated histories were not simple reproductions of the source language, nor did they aim to be that. The nineteenth-century paratexts designed for translated histories suggest how the different cultural and scholarly ideals plus ideological and political notions influenced the way historical texts were presented to readers in different national settings. The explanations about a text’s value, meaning, and weakness were very much culturally conditioned and the paratexts assisted this by offering a perfect means for reinterpreting national histories outside of their original national context.

The Italian translation was done by Sofia Portini-Santarelli, who, according to the publisher’s preface, was an experienced translator of English texts. Before the Short History she had worked with texts by Spencer, Symonds, and many other English authors. A woman translating historical texts was nothing exceptional. Quite the contrary, translating was considered a fitting pursuit for women whose nature made them suitable for work that required meticulousness, but did not demand higher intellectual capacities that were needed for conducting scholarly research. Although translations gave women access to scientific texts, women were perceived only as assistants of the male scholarly community. The Breve Storia confirms this gendered division of tasks. While Portini-Santarelli was responsible for the translation, the preface assured readers that the commenting of the text was left to a real expert, an anonymous male scholar, a “studioso” and “amico” of the publisher (vii).

The Breve Storia was furnished with a publisher’s preface which first quoted in compressed form the original preface where Green explained the subject matter and his unique approach to English history. Italian readers hence learned that Green had not written an ordinary history of kings, conquests, battles, or political and diplomatic intrigues. Instead, as the title stated, he offered a history of English people and their national spirit as these were the real historical forces that had enabled the development of England and its constitution.  The preface then endeavored to explain the significance the book held for the Italian audience. First, Green’s narrative offered a valuable lesson in the history of English institutions and served as a reminder of the importance of people in the development of a nation. The relevance of these English examples for the young Italian nation was obvious. Second, the book was also an important model in the art of history writing. The preface lamented the fact that Italians were not able to bolster a similar concise national history. Perhaps the Sommario of Balbo was grander in its philosophical unity than the Breve Storia, but in clarity and impartiality it was far inferior to it. Even with the unfortunately inaccurate details, Green’s history was exceptional in its grasp, method, and colorful narrative that read like a novel. The publisher, then, hoped that the book of this quality will bring pleasure to its’ Italian readers, both scholars and amateurs.

The original version of the Short History did not have footnotes because Green deemed them inappropriate for a book that was aimed for a general audience. The Italian publisher, however, wished to have some notes added to it to explain to readers certain English intricacies and to correct the author’s misconceptions about Italian history. This task was given to the aforementioned anonymous scholar-editor. The editor was sparse with his comments: only seventeen out of more than 800 pages of the book has notes. Indeed, the intervention of the Italian editor was rather modest. His more substantial contribution was the several pages’ long overview of themost recent history. Green’s extremely brief treatment of contemporary history had been conceived unanimously insufficient and the Italian publisher responded to the criticism by putting a “Sommario degli Avvenimenti Notevoli dal 1873 al 1884” in to the new edition.

The editor used the footnotes for example to clarify the meaning of terms such as “hockey” or “Master of Temple” and to add some details and references to passages where Green discussed Dante and Petrarch (134-35, 472, 474). More interesting, though, is the note that betrayes his irritation about Green’s national conceitedness that spoiled his account about North America and the American Revolutionary War (800). Recalling first the cultural, intellectual, religious, and technical innovations that humanism and renaissance had brought along in the continental Europe, the editor then argues that without all these accomplishments Columbus could not have discovered the route to America, the colonies could not have been established there, and the seeds of English liberty planted on the North American soil. The seemingly irritated editor concludes by pointing out that, in fact, the United States Constitution owed more to the philosophical and social doctrines of eighteenth-century France, than to the traditions of the “madre patria.” Indeed, Green was not quite as impartial as the preface had claimed him to be, and the editor saw it his duty to correct the distorted judgments that were caused by Green’s English arrogance.

A good translation provided readers with enough contextual information to grasp the text, and the paratexts in the Breve Storia aimed exactly at this. A good translation was also expected to conform to the stylistic ideals of the target language. The English reviewers were highly critical whenever a German history was translated into English without clearing it off from the heavy German style; the English saw themselves superior to the Germans in questions about style and narrative eloquence, and the translated texts were expected to reflect this pre-eminence as well.

In accordance with this same principle, Portini-Santarelli made textual and linguistic concession in order to render the text legible for the local audience. The preface informed that in spite of the necessary changes to the source text, the translator nevertheless had strived to put the text into a pretty Italian dress without never altering the thoughts of the venerable author.

Honoring the thoughts of an author meant that translations could introduce to an entirely new audience also the underpinning ideological notions that guided historical writing. In an ideologically heated up late-nineteenth-century Europe this was not an insignificant matter. Translators and editors considered it their duty to comment these hidden nationalistic biases. Gabriel Monod wrote a long introductory preface to the French translation of the Short History where he compared in detail the differences and similarities of France and England – their histories, institutions, and culture – because for him Green’s narrative had too much the flavor of the narrow English interpretation about the entangled history of these two nations. The paratexts in the  translations of Green’s history all indicate how important it was to localize the text as well as its’ concealed nationalistic assumptions when national histories were converted from one language to another.