Richard H. Horne, “Remarks On Translation,” The Classical Museum 1 (1844), pp. 398-403.

Remarks On Translation.

R. H. Horne

Words, and symbols—which latter include sculpture and painting—are the only medium of communication between the generations of mankind. We shall speak chiefly of the first, and most enduring; referring to the latter occasionally in illustration.

The medium of an author’s thoughts must be his words; words are the sole material by which he permanently expresses what has passed in his mind; they are the only form and image his ideas assume in developing a particular train of thought or condition of emotion. The only merit therefore in a translation is that of giving the words of an author in another language, as nearly by equivalents as possible. It is true that there are many words, and innumerable phrases and idioms, which cannot be exactly rendered in any other language; but so far from this being a justification for running wild into paraphrase and conjectural circumlocution, it constitutes a yet stronger reason for following the original words as closely as possible, so that all those which can be accurately rendered, may assist in explaining the intended meaning of those which can not be accurately rendered. Then at all events we know what we have to trust to; without this be done, we have no security for any one thing. No professions of admiration and thorough comprehension on the part of the translator are any excuse for abandoning the words of his author. The instant a man says, ‘I will give the spirit of the author in the words that author would have used had he lived now, and written in this other language,’ it is all over with the original. Translation, in such a case, becomes a mere cover for individual egotism and vanity,— often for presumption—always for something other than it pretends to be. Sometimes it will be necessary to render one idiom by another, as one proverb may often be rendered by another; but the literal words of the original should be given in a note. The same argument is applicable to all obscure or doubtful passages, and a translator might be addressed to this effect:—Let us know what this writer did say in his own words, as closely as they can be rendered by equivalents, and not what you think he meant to say. If you do not consider his meaning clear enough, another reader may find it quite clear; and if the original be really obscure, that is not your fault. Do not venture upon a remedy which would open the door for future licence, and destroy our confidence. Give the world a fair opportunity of judging for itself; and then, out of all these judgments, (instead [p. 399] of your one) the original will have the best chance of being understood. If you find him at times very dull, wrong, or perhaps nonsensical, do not seek to make him right, lively, or inspired; let us have what he said, as he said it. If we had better be spared a certain portion of dulness or prolixity, let the omission be confessed, and a due reference made to the original; but what we are given of his, let it be truly his, as closely as possible, and then all parties will be fairly dealt with—the original author, his translator, and the public. In fine—we want to know as nearly as we can, through the medium of another language, what that man said, not what you can make of his words.

Preposterous and unanswerable are the instances of the abuse and perversion of the true principle of translation in most languages, and in no language are there any worse than in our own. The reproach is far less applicable to the French (except in translating poetry), and hardly applicable at all to the Germans during the last 20 or 25 years; but with us, the specimens of licentious paraphrase or unfaithfulness are conspicuous in almost every branch of literature down to the present time. The English translator of a work of science or theology will continually be found to warp the meaning of the text according to his own particular views; the translator of history polishes, corrects, and omits; and the translator (as he calls himself) of poetry generally substitutes some verses of his own, founded upon the subject of the original—and this, almost invariably, in cases of difficulty. The principal exception to this accusation will probably be found in the translations of late years, which have been made from two or three of the Greek tragedies, and from the same number of German works, which being well-known and a sort of ‘exercise,’ have become a challenge to rivalries, and have therefore had proportionate pains taken with them,—how far successfully or otherwise is left for abler hands to discuss. It is only our purpose at present to speak of the true principle of translation, and to allude cursorily to a few of the most striking examples.

The English language is lamentably deficient in faithful translations of the ancients; indeed, it may be said, that for the literature of this country the whole business of translating the ancients has yet to be done. Those which we most read are, unfortunately, the least like the originals. Of Herodotus, simple, naive, and truthful, I believe the translation that is read most, is one that was made from a French translation. What sort of a translation we have of Plutarch’s Lives, is ably shown in a number of the Journal of Education. A good translation of Plutarch’s Lives would be one of the greatest benefits that can be conferred upon our literature, for there is scarcely any ancient writer who furnishes such a quantity of information, and is at the same time calculated to exercise such a wholesome ethical influence as Plutarch. [p. 400] If a lover of “the oriental” would wish to receive both pleasure and astonishment, let him compare the recent translation of the Arabian Nights with the old one, of which millions of copies must have been sold and read by people of all ages: they are not like the same work. How turgid and mawkish are our versions of Pindar and Theocritus! How, also, has “dear Don Quixote” suffered in his time! We have no faithful translation of Juvenal; still less of Ovid; and Dryden’s Virgil might have been written by him without Virgil. The translations from Horace are scarcely a jot closer to the original than Lord Byron’s songs entitled “Hebrew Melodies” are to the Hebrew. It is not intended by these remarks to impugn the scholarship of any of those translators, but simply to show that their principle was erroneous and “beside the mark.” Perhaps it may be said, that with regard to translating poetry, our tendency to do so in rhyme, is at the root of the evil. There may be much in that, but the evil itself is the false principle; it is the substitution of the translator’s mind for the mind of the man translated. Therefore the blank verse (rarely used) is, for the most part, as unfaithful as the rhyme, whenever any difficult passage occurs, or one of more than ordinary energy and ornament. In the latter case, the translator is hampered by his notion of the laws of metre, and his fears of being thought rugged, or of giving “a school-boy version.” O, that we could once see a good, innocent, truthful, schoolboy-like translation of a great author!—for that would be a right beginning, and constitute a new “school of translation” in this country, where it is so much needed. But nearly all these versifications are rhymed, and polished up on the model of Pope’s dulcet monotony, the metrical system of ten-syllable finger-counting, instead of allowing any guidance of the ear in the “beats of time,” which lead to the energetic freedom of rhythmic harmonies. To that narrow scholastic metre-law, and to the rhymes, anything that appeared obscure or obstinate on the part of the original, has been sacrificed without the slightest hesitation.

Perhaps there is no instance of the licentious spirit of English translations more complete than in those purporting to be from Homer. The name of George Chapman, I mention with reverence and admiration; but his truly-grand version of Homer must nevertheless be declared no translation. Chapman’s version of Homer is a paraphrase by a kindred spirit; that of Pope is a paraphrase in his own spirit. The works might be appropriately contra-distinguished as “Homer’s Chapman,” and “Pope’s Homer.” By his in-door modern life, his drawing-room associations, his mechanical refinements and polished grace, his tasteful timidities and general misgivings, Pope was the natural opposite of Homer, and one of the very last men who should have meddled with his works: but Chapman, by his commanding energies, fulness of faith in his author’s genius, and in his [p. 401] own inspired sympathies, his primitive power, and rough truthfulness of description, was the very man for the purpose, had he not been misled by the common notions of translation. He gives Homer’s narrative as he feels it. Pope produced his own idea of Homer, and in his own (Pope’s) peculiar words, with little reference to the words of the original; and this has been read to an immense extent; destroying the ears of the schoolboys and men, of at least two generations, for any sense of the varied harmonies of rhythm: Chapman produced in his own words, and often in his own images, a glorious adumbration of the effect of Homer upon the energies of his soul. When we consider the subtle influence of poetry upon the rising spirits of the age, it tempts me to hazard the speculation that, if Chapman’s noble paraphrase had been read instead of Pope’s enervating monotony, and as extensively, the present class of general readers would not only have been a more poetical class—as the fountain-head from the rock is above the artificial cascade in a pleasure-ground—but a finer order of human beings, in respect of energy, love of nature at first-hand, and faith in their own impulses and aspirations. If there be any degree of truth in this philosophy, then must the importance of correct translations of the great spirits of antiquity, become the more apparent.

Painting may be said to be translated into various prints; sculpture into various casts; musical compositions into various orchestras, or by various instrumental and vocal performers. How very badly these translations are generally given, need not be remarked; but then, there are some extremely fine engravings, which do ample justice to most of the higher characteristics of a painting; some casts which do justice in all respects to the original; and some instrumental and vocal performers who duly translate into musical sounds the work of the composer. The parallel is not intended as a logical argument, but is only adduced in illustration of our subject. The fine arts, at all events, are not so unhandsomely treated as literature; for while there are some admirable translations or re-productions of their works in other forms and other countries, the very bad versions, continually given, are known and denounced as such; and a wretchedly executed print, cast, or piece of music, is at once treated with contempt, and considered a stigma upon the taste of its possessor or performer. Not so with literature, hitherto; for there are a number of “translations” which few “gentlemen’s libraries are without” which do most seriously impugn their taste, as well as the honesty of English men of letters.

I recently had occasion to compare together a French and an English translation of a German philosophical work. The point at issue was a certain part of the theology of Albertus Magnus. The [p. 402] German author gave the opinions of Albertus just as they stand in his own works; the French translator (Victor Cousin) gave the account as he found it in the German work; and the English translator gave the kind of version which would render it palatable to his own sect. A translator of this class little thinks of the extent to which he may injure his work in a reader’s mind,—for when we have once discovered a single passage dealt with in this manner, it naturally destroys our faith in all the rest. Let me be exonerated from the least wish to cast any odium upon respected names on account of any of the so-called translations which are among us; it was the regular system in their time—has been thought the best ever since—is still practised to a great extent—and all I wish to do is to protest against it, with a view to the promulgation of the true principle, and to call upon competent scholars to give to their nation what has so long been wanted—faithful translations of the ancients.

It is a great pleasure to be able to say that a true principle of translation has appeared among us, some years since, as well as recently; but the instances are very few. I allude to Lord Thurlow’s modernization of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, which is done on the true principle—word for word with the original, wherever it was possible, and (so far as I examined it) without the interpolation of a single line—and is an honour to his memory. Mr. Wordsworth has also adopted the same plan on two or three occasions. The most recent specimens of good translations from the Greek are those of the Cyclops of Euripides, and Frere’s translations of Aristophanes and Theognis. The last instance of an excellent translation from a living language with which I am acquainted, is that of Calderon’s La Vida es Sueño, by Mr. John Oxenford, which is singularly faithful, and line for line with the original wherever that is possible.

Very few instances of pretended translation have been here particularized, because to name a few is to name nearly all; and, besides, every body who has examined our translations is well aware of what they are.

A concluding remark may be offered on the frequently repeated assertion that no language can truly be translated into another language; and that poetry, in especial, will not bear translation, and is, in fact, lost. This is partially true with regard to poetry; for its music, from which, as an art, it is inseparable, is always liable to be perverted or utterly lost. But this applies with little force to any other class of writing. In works of philosophy, we can always have by translation the principles, the deductions, the truths; in science, we can have the facts, the experiments, the practical results; in history, the events, the knowledge; and even in poetry, we can have the design, subject, ruling principle, fable, allegory, the main ideas and images—and sometimes, a [p. 403] form and melody closely answering to the original, though far more commonly the original form and melody will be quite lost. The music of poetry is its art; and although its art is not its sole element, yet is it the only medium whereby a full development can be obtained. Certain forms of expression are peculiar to most languages, and must, so far, influence translations of all kinds of works. A given passage bearing a certain form in one language, will be beautiful, which bearing the same form in another language may be barbarous; in these cases, therefore, the original form is an essential part—not all the essence. The difficulties attending faithful translations are great and manifold, no doubt; but surely this can be no reason why they should be executed in the worst possible way—viz., with special reference to the individualities of the translator, and with no respect for the words of the original author.

R. H. Horne.