Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Homer Revisited: Anne le Fevre Dacier's Preface to Her Prose Translation of the Iliad in Early Eighteenth-Century France

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Homer Revisited: Anne le Fevre Dacier's Preface to Her Prose Translation of the Iliad in Early Eighteenth-Century France

Article excerpt

ANCIENTS VS. MODERNS

In his Parallele des Anciens et des Modernes (1688-1697), Charles Perrault stages a dialogue between "le President," a learned defender of antiquity, and two advocates of the superiority of the Moderns, "le chevalier" (a nobleman) and an abbot. After an examination of art and eloquence in the first three dialogues, the debate turns to poetry and demonstrates the following: "si les Poetes Anciens sont excellens, comme on ne peut pas en disconvenir, les Modernes ne leur cedent en rien, & les surpassent mesme en bien des choses" ("if ancient poets are excellent, as one cannot disagree, the Moderns hold their own and even surpass them in many respects"; 195).(1) Seconded by the chevalier, the abbot appraises Homer's poetry, criticizing its weak subject matter, indecent morals, and rough diction. The President, in turn, defends each item with erudite references to authorities (204-28). The abbot then announces to his companions that he has a better means of evaluating Homer's poetry: translating into prose three purple passages (the descriptions of the Greek army, of Achilles's shield, and of Alcinous's gardens) and comparing them with a prose rendering of celebrated modern epic poems (227-8). There is no further mention of this comparative analysis until Perrault's preface to the next: volume of his Parallele, in which he admits abandoning the comparison "pour l'amour de la Paix" ("for the love of Peace"; 282). Nevertheless, the reader still gets an idea of the project as the three characters resume their quarrel and the abbot reads aloud his literal prose translation of the beginning of the Iliad to prove Homer's lack of harmony (287). To the incensed President, this demonstration is but a proof of the abbot's ignorance and lack of taste. The mundane chevalier retorts that "un amant ne trouve jamais le portrait de sa Maitresse assez beau ny assez ressemblant" ("a lover will never find the portrait of his mistress to be beautiful or resembling enough"; 287-8). The metaphor exposes the nature of a translator's relationship with his original text as a love affair, in which the translator is not only frustrated in his efforts to capture the features of the beloved original but is also often blind to its imperfections. For the rationalist Moderns, the translator should be free of passion and retain a critical attitude toward the original in order better to amend it. Thus ends the discussion on Homer's poetry, the participants abruptly turning toward science, which easily draws a consensus in favor of the Moderns' superiority.

As is well known, Perrault's provocative Parallele drew defensive responses from Boileau, Racine, Pierre-Daniel Huet, and Andre Dacier (later to become Anne Le Fevre's husband), who laid blame on faulty translations for perpetuating misunderstandings of the ancients. When Boileau died in 1711, the concern for accurate translations of the classics long had been swept away by the Moderns' tireless promotion of contemporary literature. The same year, however, Anne Le Fevre Dacier published a prose translation of the Iliad, professing to offer the most faithful translation to date and thereby finally to reveal the essence of Homeric poetry to all French readers who did not know Greek. Instead, the result was a fiery revival of the quarrel:(2) as she provided them with the means of reading the Iliad at long last, the Moderns could examine it more closely and could carry on their offensive with renewed vigor.(3)

Dacier's contemporaries embraced the translation of the poem with few reservations, and thirteen editions appeared between 1712 and 1826 (Hepp 659-60).(4) Yet her preface and critical commentaries exasperated her detractors. The preface implicitly refuted Perrault's disparagement of Homer's poetry, as well as his misleading word-by-word prose translation, which sought to mimic the purported crudeness of the content. Dacier's theory of translation, like Perrault's, evolved from her interpretation of Homer, but her views contradicted Perrault's: in her opinion, the sacred nature of the poet and his sublime style should dictate an inspired translation. …

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