The Mistranslation of the Mystical Nostradamus

Published on November 09, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Michel de Nostredame
(Latinized as Nostradamus)

14 or 21 December 1503 (depending on the source)  – 2 July 1566

“Indeed, the hereditary gift of prophecy will go to the grave with me.”
- Nostradamus

Nostradamus was a widely disputed French physician, astrologer, scholar, sorcerer, and fraud. Growing up wealthy and honored in the French court of Henry II, Nostradamus was said to be in service of queen Catherine de Medici. Best known contemporarily for his book Les Propheties, which supposedly predicts future events, Nostradamus’s credibility has been widely debated for centuries. His book is credited by a large number of supporters and the popular press with having accurately predicted many world events. However, with the many languages his predictions are read in today, what truth is to be taken seriously and what was lost in translation

  • Documented accounts and suspicions of deliberate misinterpretations and mistranslations of Nostradamus’s work have caused sources to reject the claim that Nostradamus had any prophetic abilities at all. Academics write Nostradamus’s writings as “characteristically vague” and useless for determining the validity of any claim that Nostradamus had supernatural powers. Specifically, the English versions of his quatrains are not high quality translations. Due to a lack of knowledge of sixteenth-century French by modern authors and translators, the quatrains are often deliberately mistranslated to aid in the mystical quality and style of Nostradamus’s writings. It is rare to find an English translation of Nostradamus that is based on his original edition.

  • Nostradamus used this Latinizing of his first name for the first time in an almanac published in 1550. The publication was so widely successful that Nostradamus decided to write a version annually. As a collection, these almanacs contain at least 6,338 prophecies and 11 annual calendars. In response to the popularity of these almanacs, nobility and far away leaders became interested in Nostradamus, and employed him for horoscopes and other “psychic” advice from the mystic.

  • Dabbling in the healing arts as well, Nostradamus wrote two books on medical science;
    Paraphrase de C. GALIEN, sus l'Exhortation de Menodote aux estudes des bonnes Artz, mesmement Medicine, and Traité des fardemens. Included in these medical texts are descriptons for methods used to treat the plague, and the preparation of cosmetics.

  • To address the version of French in which Nostradamus wrote, some say he used “Old French”, when in reality he wrote in “Middle French”, used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, rather than in the ninth to fourteenth; Modern French has only been used from the 17th century onward. Whatever Nostradamus originally wrote is rarely ever used. With the very popular translation tactic of translating first Old French into Modern French, then Modern French into the target language, it is very unlikely that these translations were of the high-quality needed to retain Nostradamus’s original prophetic meaning. 

There isn’t much to confirm by way of facts with Nostradamus. With all the mistranslation, mysticism and thought-provoking prophecy, the Middle French astrologer seems to be nothing more than a poetic phenomenon who has shocked the world with the ability to predict coincidence. Nostradamus proves to be interesting when considering high-quality translation, and is, yet another, victim of the opposite.

Nostradamus in numbers:

Nostradamus is said to have predicted his own death, in the year 1567. Legend has it that Nostradamus was buried in his grave standing upright. Most extraordinarily, when his body was dug up to be moved during the French Revolution, he is said to have been wearing a medallion engraved with that day’s exact date. There is no historical evidence to support these claims.


The number of lines in a quatrain. Les Propheties was written almost entirely using this poetic device, and he used these to write in a kind of code to hide his prophecies from the Church at the time.


The age that Mario Reading, a prominent translator of Nostradamus, died on January 29th, 2017. He was a student of medieval French, and has published translations of all the surviving verses of Nostradamus from 1503-66.


The number of poetic quatrains collected in Le Propheties. First published in 1555, the book has not been out of print since Nostradamus’s death.


For the complete works of Nostradamus, click here.
For a merged French and English version of the prophecies of Nostradamus, click here.
For a list of 9 predictions by Nostradamus that some say foresaw the future, click here.

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About This Article
Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

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Citations: SkeptoidCSILiveScienceTelegraph