Sometimes translation is a thankless job. The vast majority of us prefer to hide behind the scenes and help our clients stand out by not hogging the spotlight. But on rare occasions some translators become famous. Their work may be controversial, influential, or prolific. Here are five of the most famous translators of all time from around the world.
St. Jerome (347-420 AD)
St. Jerome was a Christian priest, theologian, historian, and translator. He is best known for translating most of the Bible fromGreek and Hebrew into Latin. Called the Vulgate, his translations became the official Catholic version of the Bible. Incredibly, his would be the only translation of the Bible used for one thousand years.
His mistakes, too were just as influential. Jerome translated the Hebrew “keren” as “grew horns” instead of “radiated light.” As a result, there are countless pictures of Moses with horns on his head!
Fun fact: St. Jerome is the patron saint of translators.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
An Argentine short story writer, poet, essayist, and translator, Borges was a key figure in Spanish language literature. He translated literature in English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. Borges lectured and wrote extensively on the art of translation and brought many famous works of world literature to a Spanish-speaking audience. He believed that a translation didn’t need to stick too strictly to the source text to be desirable.
Fun fact: Borges got his start early. He translated Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince for a newspaper in Buenos Aires when he was just 9 years old!
Constance Garnett (1861-1946)
Garnett was a prolific and famous translator of Russian literature. She is most known for her translations of Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. During her life, she translated 71 volumes of literature from various Russian authors before retirement in 1934. However widely read it was, her work was not perfect. In fact, it was controversial even during her lifetime. If she didn’t understand a word or phrase, she would simply leave it out. Whatever you think of her translations, her work introduced Russian authors to the English-speaking public and even influenced famous writers like Hemingway.
Fun fact: Conrad and Tolstoy loved her, but Nabokov despised her. He even called her translation of Gogol “dry sh*t.”
Edward Seidensticker (1921-2007)
Seidensticker was one of the world’s most highly regarded Japanese translators. He brought works by Japanese authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki to scores of English readers. His most famous work was his translation of “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th century epic of love and intrigue by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese lady-in-waiting at the imperial court.
Fun fact: Just how important is a translator’s work? According to the New York Times, Mr. Seidensticker’s translations of Yasunari Kawabata’s work are “generally credited with helping Kawabata secure the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, the first Japanese writer to receive the award.”
Sacagawea was a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. She was the only woman in the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-06 into the American West. The two explorers hired her to interpret and guide them thanks to her command of the Shoshone language and her knowledge of the local land.
Eventually, Sacagawea traveled thousands of miles with the expedition from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean. She interpreted during negotiations between the explorers and native populations, establishing cultural contacts with Native Americans.
Fun fact: The National American Woman Suffrage Association of the early 20th century adopted her as a symbol of women’s worth and independence. They erected several statues and plaques in her memory. Sacagawea is also memorialized on American money and probably the first interpreter all American children learn about in school.
Who will become the next famous translators?
We think it’ll probably be the translators that work on Game of Thrones! As a fun bonus, here’s an article about how the Game of Thrones creators solved the problem of translating “Hodor” into other languages.