Romantic Theories of Translation

By Burwick, Fredrick | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Romantic Theories of Translation


Burwick, Fredrick, Wordsworth Circle


Awareness of the constraints and fallibilities of language, a major concern among post-modernist critics, is rooted in Romanticism. In the Romantic period, too, the theory and practice of translation underwent radical change. The prevailing aim of translations in the first half of the 18th century was not simply to adapt the original to the target language, but also to meet the cultural expectations of stylistic form and aesthetic appeal. The French referred to this kind of translation as "les belles infideles"--the unfaithful beauties. The change was promoted by Alexander Fraser Tytler in his Essays on the Principles of Translation (1790). (1) He described a "good translation" to be "that, in which the merit of the original work is so completely transfused into another language, as to be as distinctly apprehended, and as strongly felt, by a native of the country to which that language belongs, as it is by those who speak the language of the original work." Fried-rich Schleiermacher in On the Different Methods of Translation (1813) defined translation as a hermeneutic action: "We have to translate even our own discourses after some time, if we want to make them our own again." (2) Schleiermacher is harkening back to the Athenian endeavors to regain literary possession of the Iliad and the Odyssey. (3) Philologians of the Romantic era encountered a parallel set of problems with the effort to reclaim the language of Beowulf, or the more recent language of the Canterbury Tales. There was also a recognition that even the language of Shakespeare was drifting away from modern usage. William Wordsworth's task in translating Chaucer and Virgil was very different than John Dryden's.

In 1683, Dryden produced an edition of Plutarchs Lives Translated From the Greek by Several Hands, and he maintained a high literary standard with his poetic translations, all crafted in his distinctive heroic couplets. Dryden translated works by Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucretius, and Theocritus. Then, in 1694, he began translating The Works of Virgil (1697). In his English rendition of Virgil's Aeneid, he was more concerned with sustaining the narrative verve in well wrought heroic couplets than in echoing the auditory effects of the original. Virgil mimics the sound of galloping horses in the line:

Quadripedante putrem sonitu qualit ungula campum. (VIII:596)

In Dryden's translation:

The neighing coursers answer to the sound, And shake with horny hoofs the solid ground

The couplet is well wrought but bereft of the "galloping anapests" that give tonal verve to Lord Byron's "Destruction of the Sennacherib." A more pronounced onomatopoetic gallop is achieved in the hexameter line: "Then struck the hoofs of the steeds on the ground with a four-footed trampling." Dryden's Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700) contained translations of the First Book of Homer's Iliad, eight selections from Ovid's Metamorphoses, three of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

A century later, the translator served new audiences, each with a different set of expectations. (4) The new audiences were shaped by the rising middle-class and the rapidly expanding literacy. Translations from the Greek and Latin were sill familiar exercises in the schools, but the translator no longer served an audience trained in those exercises. The translation may once have been for many readers a supplement to their reading in the original. Now it was relied upon by a broader reading public as their sole access to an unknown language and culture. What was expected of a translation depended on what was translated and for whom. A vast and lucrative enterprise was sustained by Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and Haymarket as the plays of Kotzebue and Pixericourt were promptly translated, adapted, and performed. The English rendering of Kotzebue's Kind der Liebe in Elizabeth Inchbald's Lover's Vows (1798) or Kotzebue's Die Spanier in Peru in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro (1799) were not held to the same standard of fidelity as John Black's translation of August Wilhelm Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1815) or John Gibson Lockhart's translation of Friedrich Schlegel's Lectures on the History of Literature (1818). …

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