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Translation of Simocatta Letters

It is not known for certain when exactly Copernicus started translating Simocattas Letters. It seems, however, it was during the years spent at the court of his uncle Lucas Watzenrode in Lidzbark Warmiski that he could quietly get to grips with the work of this ancient Greek man-of-letters.

The content of the 85 fictitious letters was satirical, sententious and lacked originality but, because of their almost classical style, the texts were suitable for teaching Greek and epistolography. Light and witty, they were manuals on how to behave in different situations and how to compose letters. Humanist scholars in Kraków also felt they needed to teach this art which, according to the ancients, should be presented in the form of a dialogue. In 1504 a selection of such letters appeared written by the outstanding Greek rhetorician Libanios (314- ca 393) and translated by the Kraków professor Aesticampianus (Johannes Sommerfeld) the Elder (d. 1501). Therefore, it is not unlikely that it was Copernicus idea from the start to publish his translation there and that it could have been commissioned by the publisher Johann Haller himself (1467-1525).

What is certain, however, is that the Letters, whose translation Copernicus completed in the spring of 1508, were meant to be a kind of farewell to his uncle Lucas Watzenrode, to whom the canon owed his career. His letter of dedication introducing the book, addressed to the Bishop of Warmia, read after all, each effort of this kind and the fruit of my modest skills should be rightly regarded as your property. Copernicus also attached a versed preface, Farewell to Prussia, written by a friend, the Silesian humanist Laurentius Corvinus (Laurentius Rabe, d. 1527), which praised the homeland of this learned man, expert in astronomy, and his distinguished uncle, comparing their relationship to the loyalty of Achates to Aeneas. It is quite possible that Corvinus himself handed over the manuscript of Letters to Johann Haller, although Copernicus might have met the Kraków printer and publisher himself in the spring of 1509.

The first printing of Theophilacti scolastici Simocatti epistolae morales, rurales et amatoriae. Nicolao Copernico interpretatione latina ran to 500 copies. It was published in late 1509, had twenty-two pages and its decorative title page featured the coats-of-arms of the Polish Kingdom, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kraków, and Hallers publishing colophon. Simocattas letters could have served Kraków scholars as model texts for epistolographic studies, however there is no conclusive evidence to support this. Unlike the translation of Libanioss work, which was certainly in use until the 18th c., it seems Copernicus translation of Simocattas Letters was soon forgotten.

The translation of Letters was full of scholasticisms. The dedication, however, although overloaded with Ciceronian rhetoric, demonstrates a certain stylistic elegance which testifies to Copernicus enthusiasm for, and high level of skill in, foreign languages. The Latin translation of Simocattas Letters is an important document in the history of Polish humanism and Copernicus is regarded as the first writer from beyond the Alps to study in depth and translate a piece of writing representing the ancient humanist tradition.

Teresa Borawska
Nicolaus Copernicus University
Copernicus interest in Greek literature   An outline history of cartography until the 16th c.
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Mikołaj Kopernik
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