The Spirit of Translation

Article excerpt

The greatest service we can render literature is to transport the masterpieces of the human intellect from one language to another. So few truly great works exist, and genius of any kind whatsoever is so rare a phenomenon that each modern nation would always remain impoverished if it were reduced to its own treasures. Besides, more than any other form of exchange, the circulation of ideas is the one most likely to prove advantageous.

During the Renaissance, scholars and even poets had thought to write in the same language, Latin, so that they would not need to be translated to be understood. This could have been advantageous for the sciences, whose development does not depend upon the charms of style. But the result was that many of Italy's scientific riches were lost upon the Italians themselves, for the majority of Italian readers understood only their native idiom. It is moreover necessary for authors to invent words that do not exist in ancient literature when they write about science and philosophy. The learned who wrote in Latin availed themselves of a language that was at once dead and artificial, while the poets stuck to purely classical expressions. Renaissance Italy, where Latin still echoed on the banks of the Tiber, possessed writers--including Fracastoro, Poliziano, and Sannazaro--who were close to Horace and Virgil in style. (1) But if their reputations endure, their works find no readers today outside of erudite circles. The literary glory based on imitation is, after all, a sad one. These Latin poets of the Middle Ages were translated into Italian by their countrymen, for it is much more natural to prefer a language that refers to the emotions of real life rather than one that can only be recreated through study!

I admit that the best way to avoid translation would be to know all those languages in which the works of the great poets were composed: Greek, Latin, Italian, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. But such work would require a great deal of time and assistance, and we can never flatter ourselves into believing that erudition this difficult to attain can be universal. If we wish to benefit humankind, however, it is toward the universal that we must aspire. I would add that even if one were to understand the foreign languages, one might still experience a more familiar and intimate pleasure thanks to a fine translation done in one's own language. These naturalized beauties imbue a national literary style with new turns of phrase and original expressions. More efficiently than anything else, translations of foreign poets can protect a nation's literature from those banal modes of expression that are the most obvious signs of its decline.

In order to gain the most from this practice, however, we must not follow the French and impose our national style upon all that we translate. Even if, in so doing, we were to change all that we touch into gold, the ensuing results would provide little nourishment. Translating in the French manner would not produce new food for thought; it would only allow us to see the same face decorated with slightly different adornment. This rebuke, justly merited by the French, has its origins in all the manner of obstacles in their language in the art of writing verse. The rarity of rhyme, the uniformity of the verse, and the difficulty of the inversions trap the poet in a kind of circle, which necessarily brings back--if not the same thoughts--at least the same hemistiches and all kinds of poetic monotony that genius escapes when it reaches high, but that it cannot avoid in the transition, developments, and in sum all that prepares and reunites the great effects.

With the exception of the Abbe Delille's translation of the Georgics, one would be hard pressed to find a good verse translation in French literature. (2) The literary works of France contain some beautiful imitations and conquests that will always be confused with the nation's treasures. …