‘Taught it to talke our tongue’: Montaigne English’d

I would first knowe mine owne tongue perfectly, then my neighbours with whom I have most commerce. I must needes acknowledge, that the Greeke and Latine tongues, are great ornaments in a gentleman, but they are purchased at over-high a rate. (Essais I.26, ‘Of the education of children’, trans. Florio)

The only translation of the Essais to appear in Montaigne’s lifetime was the abridged Italian edition of 1590. Montaigne died in 1592, at the age of fifty-nine. His influence on writing in English was immediate and profound, penetrating all manner of subjects from the essays of Francis Bacon to the Anatomy of melancholy of Robert Burton. In 1603, John Florio published his influential English translation, famous in its own right for the beauty of its language. It went through two further editions before being overtaken by that of Charles Cotton in 1685. Two early abridged translations were also published: in 1701, from the French Pensées de Montaigne, and in 1800, by an anonymous female translator—who can be identified as Emilia Henrietta Coxe—who rendered Montaigne ‘proper for the perusal of my own sex’.

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