Trying to establish specific, definite time periods in history is a subject that is almost always up for debate. But when defining the early modern period, most scholars would agree that it falls roughly between 1500 and 1800. And although the beginning and ending years of early modern times overlap somewhat, it is generally considered to be the time period between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. The reason for the title is simple: it is during the early modern era that the world begins to take shape as the world we know today. That includes not only for formation of nations, but the evolution of language as well.
This was a time period that included a great deal of expansion in virtually all arenas, including math, science, exploration, transportation and — most notably for our purposes here – language. Countries in Europe were trading with Asia on a regular basis and establishing colonies in Africa. In Asia, the Mughal Empire began in 1526, bringing not only a more structured government, but also prosperity and intense interest in science and math among the people of that region. The Middle East was ruled primarily by the Ottoman and Persian empires. And, last but certainly not least, America was founded and colonized by Great Britain.
The language arts also flourished during the early modern period. Two opposing views of translation were formed at that time by English translators/poets John Dryden and Alexander Pope, with Dryden believing that it was acceptable for translators to take some literary license with their translations and Pope contending that translations should remain absolutely true to the original text. The victor in this disagreement is hard to determine, although it should be noted that Dryden – England’s first Poet Laureate and a well-known translator, playwright and literary critic of the day – for the most part dominated the literary circles of his day, and that time period (the latter half of the 17th century) came to be known as the “Age of Dryden.” And although the winner of the debate between these two scholars is in itself debatable, modern translation practices fall somewhere between these two extreme views – translators of today make every effort to stay true to the style and flavor of the original text, while still making it understandable and relatable to the target audience.
But Dryden and Pope were hardly the only linguists to make significant contributions during the early modern period. During the mid-1600s, French translator Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt (1606-1664) focused his efforts on the Latin and Greek classics; English playwright Aphra Behn, one of the first women to actually earn a living from her writing, was also an accomplished translator – not only from French to English, but from English to French as well; Antoine Galland, who excelled as an archaeologist and an accomplished translator from Arabic to French, translated (among other things) the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales entitled “One Thousand and One Nights” and the “Arabian Nights”; and Johann Gottfried Herder, language theorist and translator from Latin to German, published his “Treatise on the Origin of Language” in 1772, and promoted the principle made centuries earlier by Martin Luther that a translator should only translate works into (not from) his/her native language.
Considering the relatively short period of time encompassed by the early modern era, the growth of the language arts during this time period is impressive. In fact, we’ve only scratched the surface in this article. And this is just a small indicator of what was to come in the years that followed. We’ll examine those contributions in our last and final article in this series, where we’ll review the history of language in the Industrial Revolution and the Modern Era.