The Merits of Translation

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson:

After wandering about in a kind of pleasing distraction for some time, I got into a corner, with Johnson, Garrick, and Harris.

GARRICK: (to Harris.) ‘Pray, Sir, have you read Potter’s Aeschylus?’

HARRIS. ‘Yes; and think it pretty.’

GARRICK. (to Johnson.) ‘And what think you, Sir, of it?’

JOHNSON. ‘I thought what I read of it verbiage: but upon Mr. Harris’s recommendation, I will read a play. (To Mr. Harris.) Don’t prescribe two.’

Mr. Harris suggested one, I do not remember which.

JOHNSON. ‘We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation. Translations are, in general, for people who cannot read the original.’

I mentioned the vulgar saying, that Pope’s Homer was not a good representation of the original.

JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is the greatest work of the kind that has ever been produced.’

BOSWELL. ‘The truth is, it is impossible perfectly to translate poetry. In a different language it may be the same tune, but it has not the same tone. Homer plays it on a bassoon; Pope on a flagelet.’

HARRIS. ‘I think Heroick poetry is best in blank verse; yet it appears that rhyme is essential to English poetry, from our deficiency in metrical quantities. In my opinion, the chief excellence of our language is numerous prose.’

JOHNSON. ‘Sir William Temple was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose. Before his time they were careless of arrangement, and did not mind whether a sentence ended with an important word or an insignificant word, or with what part of speech it was concluded.’

Mr. Langton, who now had joined us, commended Clarendon.

JOHNSON. ‘He is objected to for his parentheses, his involved clauses, and his want of harmony. But he is supported by his matter. It is, indeed, owing to a plethory of matter that his style is so faulty. Every substance, (smiling to Mr. Harris,) has so many accidents.—To be distinct, we must talk analytically. If we analyse language, we must speak of it grammatically; if we analyse argument, we must speak of it logically.’

GARRICK. ‘Of all the translations that ever were attempted, I think Elphinston’s Martial the most extraordinary. He consulted me upon it, who am a little of an epigrammatist myself, you know. I told him freely, “You don’t seem to have that turn.” I asked him if he was serious; and finding he was, I advised him against publishing. Why, his translation is more difficult to understand than the original. I thought him a man of some talents; but he seems crazy in this.’

JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you have done what I had not courage to do. But he did not ask my advice, and I did not force it upon him, to make him angry with me.’

GARRICK. ‘But as a friend, Sir—’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, such a friend as I am with him—no.’

GARRICK. ‘But if you see a friend going to tumble over a precipice?’

JOHNSON. ‘That is an extravagant case, Sir. You are sure a friend will thank you for hindering him from tumbling over a precipice; but, in the other case, I should hurt his vanity, and do him no good. He would not take my advice. His brother-in-law, Strahan, sent him a subscription of fifty pounds, and said he would send him fifty more, if he would not publish.’

GARRICK. ‘What! Is Strahan a good judge of an Epigram? Is not he rather an obtuse man, eh?’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, he may not be a judge of an Epigram: but you see he is a judge of what is not an Epigram.’

Image result for boswell johnson garrick

2 thoughts on “The Merits of Translation

Leave a Reply