Stupid Translation Advice

Thomas Arnold, The Use of the Classics:

Another point may be mentioned, in which the translation of the Greek and Roman writers is most useful in improving a boy’s knowledge of his own language. In the choice of his words, and in the style of his sentences, he should be taught to follow the analogy required by the age and character of the writer whom he is translating. For instance, in translating Homer, hardly any words should be employed except Saxon, and the oldest and simplest of those which are of French origin; and the language should consist of a series of simple propositions connected with one another only by the most inartificial conjunctions.

In translating the tragedians, the words should be principally Saxon, but mixed with many of French or foreign origin, like the language of Shakspeare, and the other dramatists of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. The term “words of French origin” is used purposely to denote that large portion of our language which, although of Latin derivation, came to us immediately from the French of our Norman conquerors, and thus became a part of the natural spoken language of that mixed people, which grew out of the melting of the Saxon and Norman races into one another. But these are carefully to be distinguished from another class of words equally of Latin derivation, but which have been introduced by learned men at a much later period, directly from Latin books, and have never, properly speaking, formed any part of the genuine national language. These truly foreign words which Johnson used so largely, are carefully to be shunned in the translation of poetry, as being unnatural, and associated only with the most unpoetical period of our literature, the middle of the eighteenth century.

So also, in translating the prose writers of Greece and Rome, Herodotus should be rendered in the style and language of the chroniclers ; Thucydides in that of Bacon or Hooker, while Demosthenes, Cicero, Caesar and Tacitus, require a style completely modern — the perfection of the English language, such as we now speak and write it, varied only to suit the individual differences of the different writers, but in its range of words, and in its idioms, substantially the same.


4 thoughts on “Stupid Translation Advice

  1. One of the translators in the Loeb Classical Library seems to have followed that advice. He translated Lucian’s De Dea Syria into 15th-century English. Not a good idea, I think.

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