Alternative Translations.

Stuart Gillespie, author of the forthcoming Classical Presences: Newly Recovered English Classical Translations, 1600–1800, summarizes some of his research for OUPblog:

Thanks to increasing scholarly interest, we understand the history of literary translation in English better today than we did only a couple of decades ago. Bibliographical tools have appeared, historical narratives have been published (the weightiest of them the five-volume Oxford History of Literary Translation in English), and critical studies are no longer restricted to a small number of high-profile writers. But the record of printed translation on which this understanding is based reflects only part of the historical phenomenon, and not necessarily a representative part. Translations that never reached a printer may hold as much interest for us as those which were widely read in their own day, and in some cases more. One example recently printed for the first time is the English translation of the Latin epic poem of Lucretius, De rerum natura, by the civil war period writer Lucy Hutchinson. This shows us very clearly how someone quite different from any published translator of Lucretius responded to his epic. Hutchinson may well be its very earliest English translator. Hutchinson was a Puritan, Lucretius was renowned as an atheist. Like all Lucretius’s other translators, Hutchinson was a capable Latinist; but unlike them, she was a woman. […]

Translating a Greek or Latin verse text was an exercise in which a surprising number of people indulged. Some of them are anonymous. Some belong to social groups previously not much in evidence in the record. Writings by more familiar figures can be recovered too. The private diaries of Warren Hastings, the eighteenth-century statesman, contain remarkable translations of Catullus which Hastings never published. An impressive English version of part of a Horatian epistle appearing in two contemporary manuscripts is likely to have been written by Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright contemporary with Shakespeare.

Plenty of schoolroom translation exercises are certainly extant, but so is much sophisticated work by adults – their translations are often not the amateurish productions we might expect. They are frequently responses to the professional printed translations with which they are familiar, but these responses can be questioning or testing, undercutting, subversive, hostile. They tend to be in some way alternative because, after all, a reader entirely happy with existing translations would have no reason to devote time to creating another. Thus different Catulluses, different Juvenals, different Horaces emerge here from those we know in the familiar or classic English versions. One reason for this must be that innovation, experiment, playfulness, and risk-taking are much more likely to happen among translators who do not have to satisfy a publisher who commissioned their work, and have no public to avoid offending.

By the eighteenth century, English-speaking readers acquired the habit of seeing the world in terms of the ancient works with which they had become so familiar. This familiarity came about partly through a heavily Latin-based education. But it also came about through the burgeoning production of English classical translation, by now at the very forefront of literary endeavour and prestige. What we have not understood until now is how energetically, and with what creativity and sophistication, these readers participated in that production themselves.

I approve of this kind of democratizing research.


  1. I picked up this Penguin book called “Homer in English” a few years ago (from a bin outside a Malaysian department store, of all places) and loved it. Each translation is such a window into the life of each translator. It’s like if you tried to collect every cover version of a particular song… some would be by great artists, some would be by amateurs, they’d vary musically (and lyrically in some cases) in so many different ways – but all would be interesting & all would tell a story.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    War Music immediately springs to mind after that. Not so much a translation as a sort of in-line commentary: it did make me think again about things that I’d let just flow over me.

    Teenage Athene? What? Oh, parthenos … yes, I see what he’s driving at …

  3. john v burke says:

    One of the illustrations in The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse is a drawing by Max Beerbohm, captioned
    “Statesman of Olden Time, Making Without Wish for Emolument a Flat but Faithful Version of the Georgics, in English Hexameters.”

  4. Bathrobe says:

    There was once a CD (from Australia) consisting solely of covers of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

  5. AJP Crown says:

    the civil war period writer Lucy Hutchinson

    He really should have said which civil war. Anyway, here’s a depiction of Mrs [sic] Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681), poet and biographer, holding a chicken, that was made in the mid-19th C. (but why then?)

    I just want to say it’s a strange, front legs of a horse pose. Above the waist she appears to be standing but look down and you see the bent knees and that she’s seated.

    Though Macauley wrote something, and a couple of others, the American science writer Jeremy Bernstein seems to have written the most recent biography of poor old Warren Hastings, called Dawning of the Raj: The Life and Trials of Warren Hastings. It’s supposed to be ok and ‘very readable’ but it’s too bad there isn’t more. We did his 7-year trial, at school. That was fifty years ago.

  6. AJP Crown says:

    A translation article in today’s Grudbucket: it is only in the UK that foreign literature is corralled into a separate compartment from that originally written in English. “In France, where a fifth of all books are published in translations, you’ll find Balzac and Bolzano, Calvino and Carrère on the same shelf in bookshops. It’s only in the Anglosphere that it gets set apart.”

  7. In Poland “literatura obca” (foreign) is usually shelved separately from Polish fiction. In America bookstores do not generally segregate literature by origin as far as I can recall. Mailer is shelved next to Thomas Mann, who is next to Hilary Mantel.

  8. January First-of-May says:

    Russian bookshops do tend to have separate shelves for Russian vs. foreign, but the areas are separated by genre first, and then by Russian/foreign.
    So you basically get Russian detectives, foreign detectives, Russian sci-fi, foreign sci-fi, Russian nonfiction, foreign nonfiction… they’re separate, but there’s no compartment for “foreign literature” (discounting the one for literature in other languages, which includes translations of Russian texts).

    That said, now that I think of it, even that only applies to recent texts (basically, recent enough to be meaningfully separated by genre like that; this usually means 1940s or later for foreign works, and 1960s or later for Russian ones). Balzac would typically be on the same shelf as Shakespeare and Pushkin.
    Also, I think children’s literature is combined as well (though I’m not especially sure of that one).

  9. SFReader says:

    Surely the only thing which can realistically be done in a bookshop is to sort books by publisher’s series.

    If the series includes both domestic and translated titles, no one is going to bother with sorting the wheat from the chaff.

  10. AJP Crown says:

    In Norway too there’s Norwegian Fiction and then Foreign (English lang. plus a few French & German mostly krims) in the largest bookstore chain.

  11. d. syrovy says:

    “In France, where a fifth of all books are published in translations, you’ll find Balzac and Bolzano, Calvino and Carrère on the same shelf in bookshops.”

    This is simply untrue for a large number of bookshops. There even used to be a strict distinction between French and Francophone literature.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    Is translation still taken seriously as an intellectual exercise? I was under the impression that it is now infra dig for a true intellectual (unless they are specialising in translation theory).

  13. Kate Bunting says:

    Mrs Lucy Hutchinson is correct; she was the wife of the Parliamentarian, Colonel John Hutchinson, of whom she wrote a famous biography. I expect AJP Crown’s picture was a later engraving of a 17th century painting.

  14. AJP Crown says:

    It seems to be a faithful rendering of Robert Walker’s contemporary portrait. R. Walker’s work is in the style of Van Dyck, just not half as good.

    Germaine Greer reviewed a work of Lucy Hutchinson’s in the LRB.
    It’s more interesting than the Wiki or DNB biographical pieces, but it’s followed by a letter:

    Germaine Greer’s remark in her essay on Lucy Hutchinson (LRB, 21 June 2001) that to ‘attempt to render Lucretius’ difficult Latin in English was daring enough; to do it in elegant and coherent rhyming couplets was an achievement unattempted by anyone before and unachieved by anyone since, including Thomas Creech in 1682’ reads like a calculated insult to John Dryden, of whose translations from Lucretius in his poems from Sylvae of 1685 she can hardly be unaware.

    Alistair Watson

  15. AJP Crown says:

    – I meant to say thank you, Kate Bunting! You led me to some interesting googling.

  16. I was recently thinking it might be fun to translate some Latin into English, but I realized that my Latin is not good enough to do a proper job. I could work on my Latin and bring it up to what is required, but the time that would take is time I would rather allocate to some other use.

    We have so many distractions in our lives, many of which I am very grateful to have available, that the simple pleasures of Latin translation tend to get lost.

    I do have some dual language books, so I may content myself with puzzling out the Latin from the translation.

    Omnia mutantur nos et mutamur in illis, sed olim meminisse iuvabit.

  17. John Cowan says:

    … as I said (well, the first half) to the man sitting next to me on the bus ranting about how kids didn’t learn Latin any more (I was still a kid myself at the time). I doubt he understood it, but it shut him up.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    it shut him up

    Monumentum aere perennius regalique situ pyramidum altius!

Speak Your Mind