Treasures of the Tongue: An Excerpt from “Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History”

May 20, 2021   •   By Anna Aslanyan

LARB PRESENTS AN excerpt from Anna Aslanyan’s Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History (Profile Books), available today in hardback in the United Kingdom and as an ebook in the United States.


Born in 1553 in London to an Italian father and English mother, John Florio grew up in Europe and, upon his return to England as a young man, became a teacher of Italian. The language and Italian culture in general were in vogue in Elizabethan England, despite the suspicion with which foreigners were traditionally treated. In the preface to Florio His Firste Fruites, a textbook published in 1578, Florio mentions those “yl manered” Englishmen who neglect languages; still, he was never short of work.

Consisting of a grammar and 44 dialogues, printed in English and Italian side by side, Firste Fruites was not just a phrase book but also a style manual of sorts, featuring proverbs for various occasions, which Florio often rephrased. He loved idioms and used every opportunity to sneak them into his writings. A bill he sent to one of his pupils in 1600 (written in Italian, presumably with pedagogical aims), demanding a fee for lessons, has two: “The priest gets his living from the altar” and “Hunger drives the wolf from the wood.” Freelance translators often have to chase invoices, but I’ve never seen one as colorful as Florio’s. Alas, no record of payment from this pupil survives.

In 1583, Florio was hired by the French embassy in London and spent the next two years teaching the ambassador’s daughter, acting as an interpreter, running errands and, most probably, spying. His duties included taking messages to “Monsieur de Raglay” (to all appearances, Sir Walter Raleigh), bribing officials to get the ambassador’s butler out of trouble, dealing with an angry mob gathered outside the embassy, and settling the ambassador’s debts after his departure from England. During this time, he made friends with the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who appears in his next textbook, Florios Second Frutes. The largest published collection of proverbs at the time, it contains a list of 6,000, many of them woven into dialogues. “I aplie my selfe to all, and am like to a millers sack, and not as some, who sometimes make it a matter of conscience to spitt in the Church, and at another time they will beray the altar.” These words, put in the mouth of a character based on Bruno, were likely intended to defend the philosopher from the charges of atheism and blasphemy which eventually led him to the stake. Frances A. Yates in her life of Florio points out that her subject must have been criticized for his Italian sympathies. In the preface to Second Frutes, Florio mocks his detractors, snatching his own weapon back from them — “Vn Inglese Italianato è vn Diauolo incarnato. Now, who the Diuell taught thee so much Italian?” — before signing for the first time with an adjective that will be for ever associated with his name, “Resolute I. F.”

While working for the French, as well as translating dispatches from Rome, printed to satisfy the high demand for news in Elizabethan England before the emergence of newspapers, Florio was also compiling a “most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English.” A Worlde of Wordes, published in 1598, contains 44,000 entries (its only predecessor had 6,000); its revised editions provided the main reference material for Italian scholarship throughout the 17th century and served as a basis for subsequent dictionaries. The majority of its entries cover a remarkable range of meanings and contexts. To pick a random example, parare has 24 definitions, including “to adorne,” “to make readie,” “to set foorth,” and “to teach a horse to stop and staie orderly.” There are regional Italian words; there is slang, marked as “gibbrish or rogues language”; there are all kinds of English, from formal to vulgar. Florio himself was impressed with his discoveries, which put the two languages on an equal footing: “And for English-gentlemen me thinks it must needs be a pleasure to them, to see so rich a toong outvide by their mother-speech, as by the manie-folde Englishes of manie wordes in this is manifest.”

After finishing his dictionary, Florio put his rich vocabulary to good use when he embarked on a project that brought him lasting fame. The Essayes, translated from Montaigne’s celebrated work first published in France in 1580, was printed in England in 1603. Subtitled Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses, it begins with an address “To the Curteous Reader.” “Shall I apologize translation?” Florio asks, before enunciating what has always been every translator’s predicament: “The sense may keepe forme; the sentence is disfigured; the fineness, fitnesse, featnesse diminished, as much as artes nature is short of natures art, a picture of a body, a shadow of a substance.” This rather fanciful arrangement of metaphors and alliterations sets the style for the main text.

“I desire therein to be delineated in mine owne genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is my selfe I pourtray,” Montaigne says in his preface, and Florio follows him closely, but not for long. “It is somewhat ironical that Montaigne, who was one of the first great writers in a modern tongue to write in a modern manner, […] should have had as his translator one to whom elaborate rhetorical word-pattern was an instinctive necessity and a habit,” Yates remarks. Examples of Florio’s euphuism can be found nearly on every page. He adds flourishes for effect; he doubles and trebles words and phrases; he introduces qualifiers. Under his pen, “nous ne travaillons” grows into “we labour, and toyle, and plod,” and “l’entendement” becomes “understanding and conscience.” Sometimes these changes are made for the sake of alliteration alone (another hobby horse of Florio’s), for instance when “une estude profonde” is rendered as “a deepe study and dumpish.” “Le parler que j’ayme,” Montaigne writes, “c’est un parler simple et naif […] esloigné d’affectation et d’artifice.” “It is a naturall, simple, and unaffected speech that I love,” Florio obliges — and then, in a volte-face, proceeds to embroider the text as he fancies, throwing in “these boistrous billowes” in place of “ces flots” and extending “cette renommée” to read “this transitorie renowne.”

Florio’s interventions predated by nearly a century John Dryden’s reflections on the mode of work “where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases.” Do such liberties characterize Florio as a vain homme de lettres whose compulsive meddling does Montaigne no favors, or as an experienced stylist who understands that for the French thinker to be appreciated in England, by readers conditioned to associate simple speech with a simple mind, he has to be embellished? To quote Dryden again, “a translator is to make his author appear as charming as possibly he can, provided he maintains his character, and makes him not unlike himself.” Reading The Essayes, I was occasionally tempted to dismiss Florio’s floridity as unnecessary (and contagious), but in the end it proved too charming to annoy. In a more practical vein, F. O. Matthiessen, in Translation, an Elizabethan Art, points out that Florio sometimes used synonymic repetition “to naturalise an unusual word by pairing it with one well known.” This is especially true in light of Florio’s experimentation whereby he introduced new words, phrases, and grammatical constructions that he thought the English language might “well beare.” They include “entraine, conscientious, endeare, tarnish, comporte, efface, facilitate, ammusing, debauching, regret, effort, emotion, and such like,” as well as the pronoun “its.”

Can these neologisms “apologize” the inaccuracies? Yates believes so, writing that despite all his affectations and exaggerations, “Florio was genuinely an artist” who “loved words with an aesthetic delight in their strength” and had a “noble sense of rhythm.” T. S. Eliot, too, thought The Essayes a great translation, putting it second only to the King James Bible. It was an important influence on many writers, most famously Shakespeare, whose debt to Florio includes such borrowings as the verbs “rough-hew” and “outstare,” as well as an entire passage used in The Tempest with some modifications. That Shakespeare read The Essayes is beyond doubt: scholars have identified in his works about a hundred close correspondences and another hundred passages showing some similarities with Florio’s work. A copy of its first edition kept in the British Library has “Willm Shakspere” on the flyleaf, although its provenance has been debated. Nevertheless, Yates concludes, Shakespeare owed Florio much, “as indeed do all Englishmen who value the rich treasure of their tongue.”


Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She contributes to The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and other UK-based publications, writing about books and arts. Her popular history of translation, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History, is out with Profile in May.