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Dialoguing with a Satirist: Lucian, Thomas More, and the Visibility of the Translator

Anna Peterson

Pennsylvania State University

In 1506, Thomas More undertook with Erasmus to translate selected works of Lucian into Latin. Although More was likely more widely known in his lifetime as a translator of Lucian than as the author of Utopia (Branham 1985), his translations of Lucian’s Cynic, Menippus, Lover of Lies, and Tyrant-Killer remain understudied. Yet, seen in the full context of his corpus, including, a body of personal letters and the Lucianic Utopia, More’s translations warrant the kind of attention paid to more free-standing literary productions. Moving beyond linguistic concerns (Pawlowski 2010) to broader questions of cultural transposition (Burke and Hsia 2007), this paper explores how More simultaneously utilizes strategies of domestication and foreignization (Venutti 1998, 2008, 2010) in his treatment of Lucian, bringing into relief how translations can engage in dialogue with and even rival the original texts.

Although lost to the medieval Europe, Lucian’s works reemerged in Italy in the first quarter of the fifteenth century; by 1500 a significant number of Latin translations were already circulating (Marsh 1998; Rummel 1998). This paper begins by examining More’s translations in light of this cultural context. More’s choice of Latin as the language of translation, while conventional, contributes to his efforts to retain Lucian’s ancient identity while positioning him within an early modern cultural context. It consequently imbues the translations with various agonistic tensions —between the contrary poles of Greece and Rome, modernity and antiquity, and even between himself and his co-translator, Erasmus. These tensions are also on display in the dedicatory letter to Thomas Ruthall. There, More connects Lucian not only to other pagan authors, including Lucretius, and Horace, but also, strikingly, to Christian writers, specifically Augustine and John Chrysostom.

More’s translations also underscore how work characterized by an ambiguous authorial presence can complicate the effects of translation. Following the model of Plato, Lucian’s dialogues often involve characters whose names (e.g., Lycinus) are teasingly suggestive of but ultimately not himself (Ní Mheallaigh 2005 and 2010). More translates Lycinus in the Cynic as Lucianus, a choice which erases any ambiguity and highlights the voice of the author and, by extension, that of the translator. Lucian thus emerges as a conduit for More to create his own version of a Lucianic dialogue, bringing into relief how translation can become a form the literary ventriloquism, one which both informs and deforms the original text.

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Translation and Transmission: Mediating Classical Texts in the Early Modern World

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