Stories of translators: Etienne Dolet

Etienne Dolet, a printer during the Renaissance, was burned by the Inquisition in the sixteenth century for the services he provided as a translator…

Being a printer nowadays is not that easy: paper is no longer in fashion. But being a printer during the Renaissance, that was another story. Etienne Dolet could have confirmed that; he was burned by the Inquisition in the sixteenth century for providing politically incorrect language services as a translator…

The Dangers of a Strong Literary Background

But let’s start with the beginning: Etienne Dolet was born in 1509 into a wealthy family from Orleans. He received a very thorough literary education: he studied rhetoric under Nicolas Beraud in Paris; followed the teachings of the Hellenist Musurus and humanist Simon Villanovanus in Padua; was instructed in eloquence by Giovanni Baptista Egnazio in Venice; and finally, studied jurisprudence in Toulouse.

The Dangers of Being a Free Thinker

This is when he was first noticed, since he was arrested and imprisoned for having incited students to revolt. Expelled from Toulouse, he left for Lyon. There he squabbled with a painter named Compaing and, oops, killed him. He obtained pardon from Franis I, but he was nevertheless sent to jail upon his return to Lyon. In 1538 he won the privilege of being a printer for ten years. He then started to print a series of politically controversial books, including Rabelais’ Gargantua and the works of Marot, a collection of epigrams written against the monks, together with various books convicted of heresy.

The Dangers of Translation

Yet it wasn’t his polemical activity as a writer, nor as a printer, whether Calvinist or atheist, that eventually defeated him: it was his services as a translator. It wasn’t a financial translation, or a commercial translation; just four little words added to a speech by Socrates, in which he said: “And if you died, [death] wouldn’t be anything more to you, since you wouldn’t exist.” Dolet added, “as anything at all”. This, to the Inquisition, obviously represented a blasphemous denial of the immortality of the soul.

The Dangers of the Inquisition

Dolet was arrested and imprisoned in 1542 by General Inquisitor Mathieu Orry, and later pardoned. His printing competitors didn’t forgive him, however and they sent two large packages to Paris marked with his name and containing books which he printed, together with heretical books printed in Geneva. Dolet was imprisoned again, but managed to escape and fled to Piedmont. In 1544 he made the foolish mistake of returning to France; he was immediately arrested and put behind bars at the Conciergerie.

The Dangers of the Pyre

After a two-year procedure, he was convicted of blasphemy, sedition, and of exhibiting prohibited and damned books; he was sentenced to death by burning, which was carried out on August 3, 1546. And to finish off with an epitaph, this is what Nicéron wrote about him:

He was outraged at everything, extremely loved by some, very much hated by others: filling some with praise, ripping others without mercy, always attacking, always attacked, a scientist beyond his age, working relentlessly, very proud, scornful, vindictive and worried. 

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This article has been written by Mathieu

Mathieu was born in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. After studying Literature and Linguistic Research, he moved to Argentina where he is currently a translator and a web editor.