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The New World, in Romanian

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

As the Wallachians and Moldovans of the18th century and the first decades of the 19th century lived under Greek cultural influence, it was only natural that their first extensive information in their very own Romanian language had been taken mostly from Greek works, themselves translations of Western sources.

These first accounts identify rather precisely the place of the two Americas on the world’s map, narrate an overall correct history of the New World and offer a collection of plausible portraits of the main protagonists of this epoch-making discovery like Columbus, Cortez, Pizzaro, Vespucci, and the rest. They also show a lot of compassion towards the natives and the Black slaves, both subjected to horrendous treatment, and express a great deal of interest in the plants brought to Europe from across the Ocean, which had also become important in the economies of the two Principalities. Most of these books does not yet distinguish between North and South America and their interest is still focused on the colonial times even decades after the creation of the United States.

The first works in circulation are manuscripts and their public is formed by squires and small nobility, clerics, schoolteachers, and merchants. The first translation in Romanian is On the discoveries of many kingdoms and places which have been found by the Portuguese, made sometime in the 1750s, in which the indigenous Americans and the Black slaves are described with great sympathy, as populations destined to destruction and sufferance. This is followed by The Cosmography or the making of the world (1774), translated by archdeacon Anatolie of the Râmnic Bishopric, on the southern slopes of the Carpathians; and by The New Geography, translated by the schoolteacher Alexandru Athanasiu in 1786. We owe to the erudite scholar Gherasim Clipa, later Bishop of Roman (Moldavia), the translation between 1795-1800 of the detailed History of America by French abbot Joseph de La Porte.

The first printed book in Romanian where America is mentioned is The General Geography, a translation of the influential treatise of the Jesuit professor Claude Buffier made by Amfilohie of Hotin and printed in Iași in 1795. The fascination for the New World and its wonders is full of ingenuity, which may belong more to the translator than the author himself. The American tobacco is ”the good one, chosen for its delightful smell from Virginian plantations,” Florida is ”a beautiful place, full of vineyards,” while California is ”an island… a good and beautiful place… where one can find the best and most beautiful cocoa (from which chocolate is made).”

Very successful proves The Discovery of America, published in Hungary’s capital Buda in 1816 by the rich merchant from Brașov (Transylvania), Nicola Nicolau, who translates and shortens a Columbus biography by German educator Joachim Heinrich Campe. No less popular is William Robertson’s History of America, published in Iași by Constantin Sucevan between 1818 and 1820.

This rich and generally accurate information about the various geographical, historical, cultural and anthropological aspects of the New World, which may have given the Romanian reader of the time a pretty pertinent image of the Americas, must be complemented with a growing body of agronomical knowledge. In the European economies that were learning very quickly how to rely on them, the amazing plants brought from the New World – corn, potato, tobacco, bean, sunflower – became almost as famous as those who discovered them.

In the photo: The title page of Istoria Americăi (History of America) by Joseph de La Porte, 2nd vol., translated by Gherasim Clipa, Iași, 1795

Reference book: Cernovodeanu, Paul, and Stanciu, Ion, Imaginea Lumii Noi în Țările Române și primele lor relații cu Statele Unite ale Americii până în 1859, Romanian Academy Publishing House, Bucharest, 1977

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