Spanish Translation During the Golden Age

The Golden Age or Siglo de Oro, as it is known in Spanish, is used to refer to the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries when Spain witnessed an artistic flowering of an extraordinary nature. This is the period of writer Miguel de Cervantes, painter Diego de Velázquez and the ascendancy of the Spanish culture in the newly discovered worlds of South America as well as old Europe.

16th and 17th Century

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also witnessed a spate of translation activities in Spain. Spanish translation during the Golden Age served a dual purpose. On the one hand, classical texts written in Latin and Greek as well as Arabic texts became available to the Spanish reader. On the other hand, noteworthy Spanish literary creations were translated into other European languages. The Greek and Latin texts of which Spanish translation during the Golden Age was made usually belonged to the genres of literature and history. The Arabic texts of which Spanish translations were made usually belonged to the genres of science and medicine. This period also witnessed a Hispanization of the English language. The English language borrowed numerous words from Spanish; English lexicographers like John Thorius created lists of Spanish words and Spanish works were translated into English.

The library at the cathedral in Toledo in Spain was a renowned center for translation during the Golden Age. It was huge and contained an abundance of books on every subject, especially in Arabic. The translators, however, gave preference to books on development in science, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy and, to a lesser extent, religious texts, including Jewish teachings from Hebrew, the Koran and other Islamic religious texts. However, the library lost its importance as a center of translation when the Arabs, along with the Jews, were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Arabs in Spain

After 1492, the Arabs were either forced to flee Spain or convert to Christianity. Many of them continued to practice Islam in secret, but they gradually lost the ability to read their holy books, especially the Koran in the original Arabic script. It is at this stage that the Spanish translation of the Koran gained significance. The first Spanish translation of the Koran had been made in 1456, and the Muslim reliance on such translations continued to increase. At one stage, a whole new script known as the Aljamaido was created, which combined Spanish and Arabic: the language was Spanish but the characters were Arabic. A handful of these works have survived the Inquisition and they bear testimony to the labors of the translator.

The work of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written during this time and translated into various languages, summarizes the philosophy behind the process of Spanish translation. According to him, translation during the Golden Age was a challenging task that places many demands on the translator. One of the most important demands is that the translator should strive to keep his work from resembling the reverse side of a Flemish tapestry with its loose ends and ragged edges. The finished product should read beautifully and look beautiful.

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