Étienne Dolet’s Five Essential Translation Principles

Étienne Dolet (1509-1546) was a French scholar, translator and printer, considered an influential but controversial figure. His thoughts on essential translation principles eventually cost him his life.

In this article, we tell the story of the rendering that sentenced him to death on charges of heresy by the Inquisition, and present his theoretical legacy to the translation field. 

Étienne Dolet – Heresy and death

Dolet studied Law in Toulouse and was arrested at the time, although he also won the patronage of King Francis I of France. The satires he published sent him back to prison in Lyon, between 1542 and 1544, from which he was later released with the help of the Bishop of Tulle. Dolet then travelled across Italy, but was arrested again upon returning to Lyon.

At the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne, it was argued that translation should be literal, which delayed the development of French as a national language. As a result, the ideas he put forward in a treaty about translation were the last straw:

“While translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word (…) Concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed.”

In 1546, Dolet was sentenced due to a translation from Greek into French of an excerpt of a Socratic dialogue attributed to Plato, titled Axiochus. Dolet made a small addition to this dialogue on death: “rien du tout”.

“Since it is certain that death is not at all among the living: and as for the dead, they no longer are: therefore, death touches them even less. And hence death can do nothing to you, for you are not yet ready to die, and when you have died, death will also not be able to do anything, since you will no longer be anything at all.”

This emphatic addition was considered heretic, as it denied the immortality of the soul. Consequently, Dolet was accused of heresy and sentenced to death by hanging and burning at the stake at the age of 37. 

Legend has it that, on his way to death, he still had the courage to exploit the fact that his surname was a declension of the Latin verb dolre (“to hurt”). And so, he punned:

“Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet.”

Meaning, “Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves”.

In 1889, a bronze statue was erected on Place Maubert in Paris as a tribute to the translator, but was later removed and melted during the German occupation of the city in 1942.

Étienne Dolet – Essential translation principles As previously mentioned, Dolet distanced himself from translating texts literally, a technique advocated by St. Jerome, for instance. According to him, religious texts should be translated literally and as accurately as possible, given that “even the order of the words is a mystery”.

In this regard, Dolet resembled Luther, who was also an advocate for fluid, colloquial language, proximity to the spirit of the time and natural style. Luther’s German translation of the bible was utterly important to the consolidation of the German literary language.

In 1540, Dolet published La manière de bien traduire d’une langue en autre, where he presented his thoughts on translation, as well as five essential translation principles: 

  1. understand the content of the source text;
  2. be proficient in both the source and target language;
  3. avoid translating “word for word”;
  4. use common, everyday language;
  5. produce the target text in an eloquent and harmonious style.

Dolet’s ideas, especially the last one, which stressed the importance of focusing on the style of the target text, was not in line with common practice and was heavily criticised. Yet, Dolet’s dissent from the literal translation method was also the defence of the development of national languages (as opposed to Latin), which the literal translation method hindered. 

At Letrário, we adhere to these essential translation principles advocated by Étienne Dolet. If you need professional help with the translation of any text or document, please do not hesitate to contact us.