Who’s your translator?

Because Tacitus was done by Elizabeth I. That’s right, the stern monarch shrink-wrapped in brocade with the giant forehead and frilled dinosaur fringe around her neck who would probably stalk you carefully through the jungles of Costa Rica before spitting acidic poison in your face and gorging on your intestines. Cool. Wait. Where was I? Oh, right: Lizzy was a translator.

As well as composing an impressive range of original works in verse and prose, Elizabeth I was an enthusiastic translator. Whether engaging foreign visitors in multilingual conversation or delivering withering ripostes in Latin to impertinent ambassadors, Elizabeth was celebrated for her linguistic abilities even in her own lifetime. Particularly strong in French, Italian, and Latin, she was also proficient in Spanish and Greek, whose alphabet would eventually pepper her everyday handwriting (in later years, she used “φ” for “ph”). She undertook translations of Jean Calvin, Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca, Horace and Boethius, all of which survive today. Elizabeth’s perennial favourite, Henry Savile, produced a translation of Tacitus in 1591, which he dedicated to the queen, drawing particular attention to her “most rare and excellent translations of Histories”. John Clapham, another of Elizabeth’s contemporaries, refers to her translation of “some part of Tacitus’ Annals” in his history of the queen’s reign, which he composed with the help of the courtier Robert Cecil. Clapham mentions Elizabeth’s Tacitus first and foremost among the queen’s translations, which “she herself turned into English for her private exercise”. Though the other translations which Clapham mentions have since been accounted for, the Tacitus translation has thus far remained elusive.

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