Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

History in Translation

In recent weeks I’ve been forced to think about how well ideas, especially historians’ ideas, can be transposed from one language into another. A year ago, my book about a 15C Polish cardinal was translated into Polish by my colleague Tomasz Gromelski. I am now responding point by point to a tranche of questions and queries raised by the Cracow-based publisher. (For the book in English, see Church, State & Dynasty). I’ve been aware for over a decade now that British and Polish academic culture, and ways of doing history, are profoundly different. But it’s only since working on the Polish edition of the book that I have realised that those differences go even deeper than I had realised; that different countries’ very use of language, in discussing the past, can vary profoundly.

The courteous, meticulous Cracow copy-editor has pointed out, for example, that a number of basic nouns which recur throughout the book are problematic in Polish. These are words like ‘minister’ (minister) and ‘government’ (rząd), which English-speaking historians use routinely to describe late medieval politics. To a Polish-speaking reader, however, ‘minister’ and ‘government’ sound like very modern political terms, which are reserved for the use of those discussing modern government. (In English, I think these words are much more neutral: we would be happy to accept that ancient Rome, e.g., had something we would call a government). Other philological difficulties cut right to the heart of the book and its arguments: it is a study of a royal cardinal. In English, this phrase implies (I think) a cardinal related to, or intimately connected with, a king (in this case, a cardinal who was the biological son of the monarch). In Polish, that meaning can’t be rendered, because the literal translation, ‘królewski kardynał’, means a cardinal who in some absolute sense is the king’s property or material possession, a cardinal owned by the king. The closest you can get to ‘royal cardinal’ is ‘królewicz kardynał’, meaning a prince who is a cardinal. But that won’t do, because in Poland’s elective monarchy Fryderyk was not a ‘prince’ in any legal sense at all. The basic phenomenon explored in the book, the Renaissance royal cardinal, appears to be surprisingly untranslatable.

So it's been sobering to see how certain concepts and terminologies simply do not translate into other European languages. I still stand by the optimistic sentiments expressed in my preface to the Polish edition: that this book was written in part to forge a bridge between two different national traditions, and their divergent ways of thinking about the late 15C church and state/government. But now it seems that many of those differences, and consequent misunderstandings, seem to be deeply hardwired into the very languages themselves.


  1. Hi, which mindset of historians is superior, do you think - Polish or English? It doesn't matter if one is superior, but it would be interesting to hear from someone who has experience of both cultures of historiography.

    Thank you very much for your entertaining and highly interesting blog - I look forward to each post!

  2. Thank you very much for writing a comment - in Oxford, colleagues and students often make really interesting comments on the blog to me in person, but seem a bit shy about writing them down...

    'Superior' is a word I'd hesitate to use in this context. I think the differences spring from the fact that history (and historians) have a very different social function in Poland and the UK. In Britain, it's not really the role of historian to act as a public custodian and defender of the national past in quiet the same way as it seems to be in Poland. It's something I think about a lot, so I will probably write a blog on it at some point!