Critical Introduction to Philemon Holland’s Preface
The historie of the world
Article published on 28 July 2014 by Chantal Schutz
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By Sophie Chiari (LERMA, Aix-Marseille Université)

Philemon Holland was born at Chelmsford, Essex, in 1552. His father, John Holland, was a fierce supporter of the English Church. Under the reign of Mary Tudor, as Philemon was only a few years old, John left the country to live in exile on the Continent before he could return to England in 1559 shortly after Elizabeth’s accession. His son then attended the Chelmsford grammar school and, from 1568 onwards, he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1579, he married Anne Bott (1555-1627) who gave him no less than ten children. [1]

After graduating from Oxford and Cambridge, he started working as a physician in 1597 while teaching at Coventry’s free school. Just before the turn of the century, he embarked on an ambitious enterprise, namely the unabridged translation of Livy’s History of Rome. The book appeared in 1600, when Holland was already 48., He presumably worked quite hard and at a sustained pace as, one year later, he managed to translate the thirty-seven volumes of Pliny the Elder’s seminal Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedia which is replete with scientific observations themselves interwoven with legendary narratives. Having access to the source-text was relatively easy as Pliny’s editions flourished at the time. Holland may have used Delacampius’s, but this, unfortunately, is impossible to verify.

Philemon was a man of his time—he accumulates synonyms and keeps improving and rewriting his sources—but his works are sufficiently accurate to be considered as landmarks in the history of translation. As a consequence, one had to wait 250 years before another translation of Pliny’s writings was published. [2] The two folios of The historie of the world Commonly called, the natural historie of C. Plinius Secundus was regarded as a major achievement in Holland’s lifetime. A second edition came out the same year, and two more editions were issued in 1634 and 1635, which testifies to the enduring success of Holland’s enterprise. This can be explained not only by the attention which most early modern readers paid to the encyclopedic culture of the Ancients, but also by the most convenient Index compiled by Holland which, as a matter of fact, contributed to make the translation easily searchable and, as such, quite accessible. [3]

Nothing seemed to resist him. After Livy and Pliny, he set out to translate Plutarch’s Moralia directly from the Greek in 1603. With untiring zeal, he then proceeded with Suetonius’s Historie of Twelve Caesars (1605), Ammianus Marcellinus’s Roman History (1609) and William Camden’s Britannia (1610). He even translated John Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine into Latin under the title Theatrum imperii Magnae Britanniae (1616). Five years later, he worked on Xenophon and published his Life of Cyrus. He never stopped until his death and his translation of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (1632) was to be one of his last major achievements. Holland died in Coventry, on February 9th, 1637, but his translations survived, as they were used and quoted as references by many great men of letters well into the 18th century. [4]

His preface to The historie of the world Commonly called, the natural historie of C. Plinius Secundus shows us the level of thinking and analysis which characterized one of the first quasi-professional English translators. At a time when most writers tried to make both ends meet by practicing translation as a complementary activity—thereby taking advantage of a commercial market where editors like John Wolfe specialized in the circulation of translated literature [5]—Holland, as to him, gave precedence to translating over writing and never cared to publish any ‘original’ work of his own.

Interestingly enough, he saw the translative act as an hermeneutical practice in the wake of the Protestant scholar Laurence Humphrey who, in his Interpretatio linguarum (1559), [6] had explained that the word interpretatio (i.e. hermēneia in Greek) was much more preferable to that of translatio, given that for him, translating consisted first and foremost in elucidating the sense of a given text. [7] Holland’s thoughts were thus influenced by those of his predecessors, and they go along with a strong political sense, as the translator never lost an opportunity to pay a tribute to the Queen, “a peerelesse Princesse” to whom he had previously dedicated his Romane Historie, as well as to her “prudent, politique, and learned Counsell”, even though this implied slight distortions of the truth. For instance, at the beginning of his preface, Holland refers to Elizabeth’s peaceful reign [8], whereas by the end of the 16th century, England had to cope both with the Spanish and the English threats. But in dedicating his Pliny to Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, he had no other choice than flatter the powers that be.

It should thus come as no surprise that Holland regarded his work as the “fruit” [9] of the Queen’s efforts to promote culture and literature. And the fact is that translation entered a kind of golden age in the 1580s. Gradually, great Roman writers became accessible in the vernacular language, and Holland simply had to follow in the steps of the Oxford scholar Henry Savile—to whom he pays an implicit homage in his preface—who completed his translation of Tacitus’s Annals in 1591. Translation was an activity encouraged by the authorities because it was likely to fulfill a political function, and Holland knew it well. Today, he appears to us as a patriotic translator who does not merely work, as he writes in his preface, to improve his education [10] and make Pliny more widely accessible [11] (those are relatively common features in early modern translators’ prefaces), but also to defend and enhance the vernacular. Indeed, Holland firmly believed that the English language was particularly apt to convey the richness of the Latin: “[…] the tongue in an English mans head is framed so flexible and obsequent, that it can pronounce naturally any other language [ …].” His stroke of genius thus consists in incorporating the subtleties of the Latin tongue into the target-text while sticking to an easily readable style. In his first great translation, that of Livy, he already observed: “I framed my pen, not to any affected phrase, but a mean and popular stile […] let it be attributed to the love of my country language.” [12] Devoid of pedantry and affectation, Holland’s writing also turns out to be very rhythmical. As a result, his translations are pleasant to read, easy to grasp and above all, they can be quickly memorized. Unsurprisingly, his English version of Pliny’s compendium of knowledge became an endless source of inspiration for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, be they playwrights, poets, naturalists or, more broadly speaking, “natural philosophers.” [13]

If Holland’s preface is remarkable for its rhetorical qualities, but we should also note the various anxieties reflected in the text which are specifically linked to the early modern conception of translation. Neil Rhodes summarizes them as follows:

[Anxieties about rank and status] may have a straightforwardly social dimension […], but in the course of the sixteenth century these anxieties also cover textual degradation, the unwelcome popularization of professional ‘secrets’, the vulgarization or simplification of learning (‘dumbing down’) and the lowly role of the translator himself […] in relation to the original invention of the author [14].

Significantly, the main bones of contention mentioned by Rhodes are present in Holland’s preface. The English translator insists on the importance of avoiding the adulteration of classical texts in the process and he tries hard to comment on his translative practice without revealing his professional secrets. He wants to reach a vast number of readers without betraying the nobility of the original and, last but not least, he implicitly confesses the difficulty and the tediousness of his task, thereby focusing on his “lowly role.” Indeed, one finds repeated allusions to the ongoing efforts he must make to translate Pliny (“A painfull and tedious travaile I confesse it is”).

Paradoxically, he also suggests that the translator’s task is far more eminent than it appears at first sight since it serves his country’s interests. Even more importantly, as Holland defends himself against his hypothetical opponents, he comes to deal with one of the major anxieties of his time, caused by the increased circulation and vulgarization of scientific treatises: “And yet some there be so grosse as to give out, That these and such like books ought not to be published in the vulgar tongue. It is a shame (quoth one) that Livie speaketh English as hee doth: Latinists onely are to bee acquainted with him.” For the followers of the Catholic faith, knowledge should not be divulged to the lower classes of society and by implicitly positioning himself against them, Holland skillfully affirms himself as a Protestant translator. Firmly denying any elitism in his enterprise, he thus works according to the principles promoted by the English Church and regards translation as a panacea of sorts allowing all readers to discover and understand essential truths. In other words, translating, for Holland, is no more, no less, than an act of Christian charity.

Besides this powerful association with the religious habits of his time, one of Holland’s main strengths is to ignore the common practices of early modern translators who often translated classical works through an intermediary translation in French or in Italian. Refusing to write his own versions through the proxy of French renderings, like Thomas North, Holland is sufficiently educated to go straight to his source. Equally admirable is his refusal of omission or summary. In the letter closing his preface, he thus puts in the mouth of one of his faithful supporters, “one grave and learned preacher,” the following remark: “Yea, though some of them (as namely Plinie) have spoken dishonourably of the only true God and of his providence, because they knew him not;