Fear of Hammered Money.

I’m finally getting around to reading the copy of Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (Heritage Press, 1944) which I got as a perk of working at the Occidental College Library circa 1970 — this must be a new record for length of time between acquisition and perusal — and I was struck by this passage in Dryden’s introduction:

I am also bound to tell your Lordship, in my own defense, that, from the beginning of the First Georgic to the end of the last Æneid, I found the difficulty of translation growing on me in every succeeding book: for Virgil, above all poets, had a stock, which I may call almost inexhaustible, of figurative, elegant, and sounding words: I, who inherit but a small portion of his genius, and write in a language so much inferior to the Latin, have found it very painful to vary phrases, when the same sense returns upon me. Even he himself, whether out of necessity or choice, has often express’d the same thing in the same words, and often repeated two or three whole verses which he had us’d before. Words are not so easily coin’d as money; and yet we see that the credit not only of banks but of exchequers, cracks, when little comes in and much goes out. Virgil call’d upon me in every line for some new word, and I paid so long, that I was almost bankrupt; so that the latter end must needs be more burdensome than the beginning or the middle; and, consequently, the Twelfth Æneid cost me double the time of the First and Second. What had become of me, if Virgil had tax’d me with another book? I had certainly been reduc’d to pay the public in hammer’d money, for want of mill’d; that is, in the same old words which I had us’d before; and the receivers must have been forc’d to have taken anything, where there was so little to be had.

The ritual modesty (“I, who inherit but a small portion of his genius”) is par for the course, but I was taken aback by the description of English as “so much inferior” to Latin in terms of vocabulary — of course Latin was seen as the language par excellence, but Dryden was writing in the seventeenth century, when the English vocabulary was exploding and writers were exuberantly coining words right and left. Even odder to me was the assumption that using words again was inherently wrong, that the more you wrote the more new words you had to find. It’s a frame of mind I find hard to enter into, like the idea that an entire drama had to take place within twenty-four hours (a prejudice, inherited from Aristotle, that Dryden also discusses). At any rate, I will soon be enjoying the poetry that has inspired so many in the past three centuries (including Melville, on whose behalf I am finally undertaking the reading).

Comments

  1. Isn’t the claimed inferiority to justify his own Latinate coinages?

    If sounding words are not of our growth and manufacture, who shall hinder me to import them from a foreign country?

  2. Bathrobe says:

    While Dryden readily admits that he has only a small portion of Virgil’s genius, and that English is much inferior to Latin, his reproach is a serious one: “[Virgil] has often express’d the same thing in the same words, and often repeated two or three whole verses which he had us’d before”. To Dryden this must have appeared as a grave defect, which could only be excused by a half-hearted appeal to “necessity or choice”. At any rate, what worked for the Romans wouldn’t wash with the 17th century English, and while Dryden may just have been being facetious, he certainly felt a need to defend his own translation to the modern reader. The burden of coming up with new words to express the ones that Virgil recycled again and again must have become unbearable.

    While this concept that you should vary your vocabulary for stylistic reasons may have lost some of its force, I’m think it’s still very much with us, if in attenuated form. It’s a practice that can confound learners of English, who don’t immediately realise that the use of a different word does not signify the introduction of a new concept, merely an elegant variation on the old one. The practice survives in debased form in modern journalism, where ‘variation for variation’s sake’ is exploited as a tool for supplying additional information to the ignorant reader — for instance, “Japan‘s contracting economy is impacting heavily on the Asian nation‘s social fabric”, where the naive foreign learner could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is having an adverse impact on the society of another Asian nation or nations.

  3. Don’t know much about hammered money, but I heard that my hammered alley is cashews’ clay.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Even odder to me was the assumption that using words again was inherently wrong, that the more you wrote the more new words you had to find.

    Well, that’s about the first thing I was taught about writing more than one sentence. Wortwiederholung is The Worst, and will be marked in red ink, no matter if the second occurrence is two pages later than the first.

    Bad journalists actually believe this. Read enough crap in German, and soon you’ll know of every single athlete which otherwise unknown village they come from, because people’s very names must not be repeated. It’s a bit like Homer telling you the names of everyone’s otherwise irrelevant fathers…

  5. John Cowan, you deserve recognition for that one.

    Hammered coinage was made by placing a pre-cut slug – gold, silver, or copper – between two dies and hitting it with a heavy hammer. A hammered coin has a slightly irregular edge, so it is subject to “clipping” – the cutting of slivers off the edges and passing if off for full value. Coins made with improved methods, using different kinds of presses, and called milled coins, are perfectly round and have grooved edges, so they cannot be clipped. When both were in circulation, hammered coins tended to trade at a discount to milled coins, if milled coins were available at all (see Gresham’s law).

    The compulsion to find another word to say the same thing is called “elegant variation,” so named by Fowler, who says, “There are few literary faults so widely prevalent.”

  6. languagehat says: Even odder to me was the assumption that using words again was inherently wrong, that the more you wrote the more new words you had to find.

    Like David M, I too was taught (in Europe) that elegant variation must be done in composition and that repeating the same words will result in monotonous prose. It’s only when I came to Australia that I felt the effect of Fowler’s influence at school.

  7. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    I think there’s something else going on here. The repetition taboo avoided by Elegant Variation is proximity based (well, with a frequency weighting – a word like “animadversion” should be used once per literary career if at all, and you can tell Pingo Amis I said so), and surely wouldn’t normally be expected to reach from the First Book of the Æneid to the Twelfth Volume of the noted Latin epic.

  8. “Even he himself, whether out of necessity or choice, has often express’d the same thing in the same words, and often repeated two or three whole verses which he had us’d before.”

    It seems odd that Dryden apparently didn’t see this habit of Virgil’s as a deliberate imitation of Homeric style. Was Homer not widely read at the time? How long did it take for Virgil’s stylistic imitations of Homer to become common knowledge?

  9. Bloix: The custom of my people in such cases is defenestration, but I’ll take the praise instead; of course, the line is not original with me. Thanks also for the explanation of hammered money.

  10. “A hammered coin has a slightly irregular edge, so it is subject to “clipping” – the cutting of slivers off the edges and passing if off for full value.”

    But don’t worry. They had to come up with new words to describe it, but people slightly modified their practices.

    Instead of clipping, people who dealt with a large volume of coins could pass the top of each over a file once or twice, then hit them with a hammer through a coushin of leather.

    This is basically why all old silver and gold coins look so smooth, and why no country uses coins made of valuable metals. (That isn’t the main reason, but one of the reasons).

  11. I think there’s something else going on here. The repetition taboo avoided by Elegant Variation is proximity based (well, with a frequency weighting – a word like “animadversion” should be used once per literary career if at all, and you can tell Pingo Amis I said so), and surely wouldn’t normally be expected to reach from the First Book of the Æneid to the Twelfth Volume of the noted Latin epic.

    Exactly! I deplore the Elegant Variation taboo (I kvetched about one form of it here), but it surely doesn’t apply over thousands of verses. This is a more stringent, and much odder, concept.

  12. Milled coins were introduced into England under Cromwell who employed a clever Frenchman Pierre Blondeau whose machine could produce text on the edges of a coin. Come the Restoration, new Dutch minters were appointed to mind the royal mind. Local engraver and friend of Samuel Pepys thought he was better suited to the job and to prove it, in 1663, produced the Petition Crown, on the edge of which was a challenge to the king to judge Simon’s coins to all others. (“THOMAS SIMON MOST HVMBLY PRAYS YOVR MAJESTY TO COMPARE THIS HIS TRYALL PIECE WITH THE DVTCH AND IF MORE TRVLY DRAWN & EMBOSS’D MORE GRACE; FVLLY ORDER’D AND MORE ACCURATELY ENGRAVEN TO RELIEVE HIM”) The coin did not impress, and Simon, alas, died in 1663. In 1695 (five years before Dryden’s death) so too did hammered coins, declared by statute to be no longer legal tender. Clipping was thus thwarted, but along with Rick’s abrading, the industrious resorted to sweating, the vigorous shaking of coins inside a leather bag to scrape off silver or gold dust.

    Re: Virgil’s repetition – he was following Homer; don’t know what Dryden has to say on that subject. In any event, the Aeneid we have was not the final copy Virgil had in mind. On his death bed, he wanted to torch the thing as not being up to his own standards.

    Which may or may not have addressed repetition. Modern scholarship, in any event, is pretty confident that repetition was a feature, not a bug.

  13. In my French composition class we were exhorted to vary elegantly; I don’t know what fraction of the reason was to conform to the style of L1 writers and what fraction to flaunt for the examiner the breadth of our vocabulary; but then again maybe L1 French writers like to flaunt the breadth of their vocabulary.

  14. Dryden did intend to proceed to translating Homer after Virgil. Fables has a go at the first book of the Iliad.

    Pope explicitly tasked the translator with correcting Homeric repetition, as unsuited for English and/or modern times.

  15. J. W. Brewer says:

    It seems like the title of this post ought to be a recognized psychological condition. Unfortunately the best google translate suggests for “hammered money” is σφυρήλατο νομίσματα (which may or may not be idiomatic), and that seems like rather a lot of syllables to prefix to -phobia for a newly-coined (as it were) English word, even a technical one.

  16. Jim (another one) says:

    “when the English vocabulary was exploding and writers were exuberantly coining words right and left.”

    Maybe that’s what he thought made it inferior since he was a classicist.

  17. I think that Dryden makes clear what he thinks inferior later in the essay,

    Poetry requires ornament; and that is not to be had from our old Teuton monosyllables: therefore, if I find any elegant word in a classic author, I propose it to be naturaliz’d, by using it and, if the public approves of it, the bill passes. But every man cannot distinguish betwixt pedantry and poetry: every man, therefore, is not fit to innovate.

    And similarly in his Juvenal, where he began this metaphor of coinage for new words,

    Obsolete Words may then be laudably reviv’d, when either they are more Sounding, or more Significant, than those in practice; and when their Obscurity is taken away, by joining other Words to them, which clear the Sense; according to the rule of Horace, for the admission of new Words. But in both cases a Moderation is to be observ’d in the use of them: for unnecessary Coynage, as well as unnecessary Revival, runs into Affectation; a fault to be avoided on either hand.

    He does not object to coining words, when done by competent writers, which is to say, by him.

  18. I dunno. Repetition can really stand out even if there are many pages in between. I recently read David Brin’s Sundiver, and was jarred by a sentence on page 160 that more-or-less repeated one from page 24 (page 24: “Jacob had read a number of LaRoque’s articles and enjoyed the style, if not the content”; page 160: “Jacob had read several of his articles and enjoyed the flowing prose, while perhaps laughing at the man’s conclusions”). A few years ago, I was similarly jarred by a sentence in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance that repeated elements of one from her earlier Barrayar (Barrayar: “Such self-control in one so young seemed sinister to Cordelia”; Mirror Dance: “So much self-control in one so secretly strained was almost disturbing”).

    The books are good anyway, but these repetitions are distractions, and I assume that Brin and Bujold did not intend them.

    I don’t know what kind of repetitions Dryden was bothered by, but it seems very plausible to me that they were truly not suited to Modern English literature. (As a philosophy of translation, of course, it’s debatable whether Dryden should have changed the work to remove no-longer-fashionable repetition, even if the change in fashion is justified. But that’s a separate question.)

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