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Alessandra Petrina (ed.), Machiavelli in the British Isles: Two Early Modern Translations of The Prince

Farnham / Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009

312 pp., ISBN: 0754666972, £60


Reviewed by Patrick Hart


The two sixteenth-century translations of Machiavelli presented here come from a hitherto unedited, anonymous English manuscript, and from the papers of the Scottish humanist William Fowler, preserved by his nephew, William Drummond, and now in the National Library of Scotland. Petrina argues forcefully that the former translation, currently at Queen’s College, Oxford, is ‘probably the best example among early modern English versions of Machiavelli’s Principe’ (135). The weight of her attention, however, is dedicated to Fowler and to the Hawthornden manuscripts within which his translation appears, a fact that makes this volume especially worthy of the attention of this journal’s readers. Indeed, the scope and perspicuity of Petrina’s research into sixteenth-century Scottish literary culture is such that it would be a shame if Machiavelli in the British Isles were to attract the interest only of those immediately concerned with Il Principe’s reception and transmission.

The volume opens with a wide-ranging introduction to Il Principe’s early appearance, reception and transmission in Elizabethan England and James VI’s Scotland respectively. Some might quibble with the title’s geopolitical terminology: as John Kerrigan argues in Archipelagic English [reviewed by Jonathan Hope in this issue of IJSL], use of the term British ‘tends to imply if not the existence then the inevitability of a state that was only just, unevenly, forming, in the seventeenth century’ (Kerrigan, p. 23). If Machiavelli in England and Scotland might have been a more precise title, though, Petrina’s commentary is perpetually alert to the cultural and political complexities of both inter- and intra-national relations in the North-East Atlantic archipelago (Kerrigan’s preferred collective noun-phrase).

A survey of English manuscript translations is then followed by a detailed life of Fowler. This will prove invaluable to anyone working on the Scottish poet, or, indeed, on any aspect of Scottish Renaissance culture. Situating his literary endeavours in a complex, international web of relations of power, patronage and cultural exchange, Petrina’s biography draws particular attention to Fowler’s double role as not only a courtier but a ‘burgess humanist’ (p. 70). The following section, also dedicated to Fowler, details ‘The State of the Manuscripts’. This supplements a rigorous discussion of the manuscript of Fowler’s translation with a detailed catalogue of the other contents of the Fowler papers contained in MS Hawthornden 2063-2067. This, too, will be a resource of use to a range of scholars well beyond those with an immediate interest in Fowler’s activities as a translator.

A much briefer but no less rigorous examination of the Queen’s College manuscript is then followed by an extended critical commentary on the translations. Here again Fowler is the main focus. Previous studies sought to tie Fowler’s work to the Basilikon Doron, even suggesting that King James himself ordered the translation. Petrina carefully demolishes the supposed evidence for such claims, pointing out that the corrections and variant readings for James’s text found alongside Fowler’s translation in the Hawthornden manuscripts are in a very different hand. Moreover, the Principe translation is dedicated not to the king but to Walter Scott of Buccleuch, ‘who might in fact be numbered among the king’s opponents’ (p. 99). The dedication to Buccleuch is perhaps further evidence of how Scottish writers would avoid putting all their eggs in one basket when it came to seeking patronage, but is most intriguing when considered in the light of Buccleuch’s fluctuating status at court. Petrina, however, plays down the political implications of Fowler’s choice of text to translate, arguing that it was ‘the linguistic challenge Machiavelli presented, rather than his politically controversial theory, that induced him to undertake this project’ (p. 97).

Indeed, as Petrina and others have noted, Machiavelli presents particular challenges for the translator, especially in his use of a tightly restricted vocabulary, whereby recurring terms such as virtù, fortuna and necessità ‘are used in diametrically opposite meanings or adapted to the varying circumstances, sometimes even within the same paragraph’ (p. 121). Fowler’s translation as we have it is an intermediate draft, far from a definitive version; but even allowing for this, his tendency to expand on the original, stacking up synonyms, too often ‘dilut[es] Machiavelli’s concinnitas with sometimes useless amplificatio’ (p. 128). (There is a parallel here with Fowler’s rendering of Petrarch’s Trionfi into clumping fourteeners.) For Petrina, Fowler’s Principe ‘can only be redeemed if it is treated as a linguistic search, part of the Scottish writer’s progress towards the acquisition of a foreign language and its vocabulary of politics and history’ (p. 128). One fascinating aspect of Fowler’s approach to l’épreuve de l’etranger, as Petrina observes, is to be found in Fowler’s ‘constant wavering between Anglicized and Scotticised forms’, as in the translation of Machiavelli’s volpe variously as ‘tod’ and ‘fox’, or the potentially loaded (re)translation of la Chiesa as ‘the roman kirk Churche’ (p. 129).

Yet while Machiavelli’s text does present the would-be translator with an ‘exquisite challenge’ (p. 6), Petrina’s own scholarship unearths reasons to suspect that Fowler’s decision to test what Petrina herself describes as his ‘weak grasp’ of Italian on Il Principe may have had other than purely linguistic motives. This was, after all, still a peculiarly contentious book. The father of the man Petrina conjectures may have introduced Fowler to Machiavelli’s works, Jean de Villiers Hotman, was deeply involved in the anti-Machiavelli controversy, lamenting his ‘detestable’ works, ‘so openly offensive to Moses and Christ’ (p. 82, n.66). It seems improbable that Walsingham’s one-time spy was indifferent, one way or another, to Il Principe’s reputation. If Petrina is right that the translation dates to 1589/90 (and her argument is persuasive), then it coincides with John Stewart of Baldynneis’s translation – or transcreation – of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a text as challenging in its own way for the translator as Machiavelli’s. Might not Fowler have likewise chosen a less obviously politically-charged text on which to practice? At the very least, as Petrina herself indicates, Fowler’s choice reflects a desire for a new kind of political vocabulary.

Petrina’s dating also makes the choice of the notorious reiver Buccleuch as dedicatee even more intriguing. Having appeared before the privy council and then been warded in Edinburgh Castle for his part in border raids in the politically sensitive months following Queen Mary’s execution in 1587, Buccleuch had just returned to favour, and in May 1590 was knighted at the coronation of Queen Anne. As Petrina shows, Fowler was clearly close to Buccleuch; he accompanied him into temporary exile in September 1591, and they probably enrolled together at the University of Padua the following year. While the circumstances leading Fowler to choose Il Principe as his text may be impossible to reconstruct, given Buccleuch’s fluctuating political fortunes and Machiavelli’s reputation it is hard not to imagine that there was more to Fowler’s dedication than his politic admiration for Buccleuch’s ‘mair perfyte and propter’ knowledge of Italian (p. 139).

If Petrina’s scholarship suggests the grounds for a supplement to her own philological emphasis, however, this very much reflects the sophistication of her commentary and the extensiveness of her research. Machiavelli in the British Isles makes a contribution to our understanding of late sixteenth-century Scottish culture that goes well beyond its immediate subject, and promises to provide new foundations for further research not only on Fowler and the reception of Machiavelli, but across the whole rapidly-growing field of Scottish Renaissance studies. Its appearance is to be warmly welcomed.