Tickels first book does not want its merit; but I was disappointed in my expectation of a translation nicely true to the original; whereas in those parts where the greatest exactness seems to be demanded he has been the least careful.
I agree with your Lordship that a translation perfectly close is impossible, because time has sunk the original strict import of a thousand phrases, and we have no means of recovering it. But if we cannot be unimpeachably faithful, that is no reason why we should not be as faithful as we can; and if blank verse affords the fairest chance, then it claims the preference.
William Cowper: To Lord-Chancellor Thurlow on Cowpers Translation of Homer.
Poetry is of so subtle a spirit that in the pouring out of one language into another it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion there will remain nothing but a caput mortuum.
Thus it appears necessary that a man should be a nice critic in his mother-tongue before he attempts to translate in a foreign language. Neither is it sufficient that he be able to judge of words and style, but he must be a master of them too: he must perfectly understand his authors tongue, and absolutely command his own: so that to be a thorough translator he must be a thorough poet. Neither is it enough to give his authors sense in good English, in poetical expressions, and in musical numbers; for, though all these are exceedingly difficult to perform, yet there remains a harder task; and it is a secret of which few translators have sufficiently thought. I have already hinted a word or two concerning it: that is, the maintaining the character of an author which distinguishes him from all others, and makes him appear that individual poet whom you would interpret.
A translator is to make his author appear as charming as he can, provided he maintains his character, and makes him not unlike himself. Translation is a kind of drawing after the life, where there is a double sort of likeness, a good one and a bad one.
In paraphrase, or translation with latitude, the authors words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that too amplified, but not altered: such is Mr. Wallers translation of Virgils fourth Æneid.
The most literal translation of the Scriptures, in the most natural signification of the word, is generally the best, and the same punctualness which debaseth other writings preserveth the spirit and majesty of the sacred text.
Pope desirous of [Bentleys] opinion of the translation addressed him thus: Dr. Bentley, I ordered my bookseller to send you your books; I hope you received them. Bentley, who had purposely avoided saying anything about Homer, pretended not to understand him, and asked, Books! books! what books? My Homer, replied Pope, which you did me the honour to subscribe for. Oh, said Bentley; ay, now I recollect your translation: it is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope; but you must not call it Homer. [The verses are good verses, exclaimed Bentley: but the work is not Homer: it is Spondanus. Ay, like enough, replied Bentley, when told that Pope had abused him. I spoke against his Homer, and the portentous cub never forgives.]
The great pest of speech is frequency of translation. No book was ever turned from one language into another without imparting something of its native idiom: this is the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation; single words may enter by thousands, and the fabrick of the tongue continue the same; but new phraseology changes much at once; it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the columns. If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our style, which I, who can never wish to see dependence multiplied, hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy, let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavour, with all their influence, to stop the license of translators, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language.
The affluence and comprehension of our language is very illustriously displayed in our poetical translations of ancient writers; a work which the French seem to relinquish in despair, and which we were long unable to perform with dexterity. Ben Jonson thought it necessary to copy Horace almost word by word; Feltham, his contemporary and adversary, considers it as indispensably requisite in translation to give line for line. It is said that Sandys, whom Dryden calls the best versifier of the last age, has struggled hard to comprise every book in the English Metamorphoses in the same number of verses with the original. Holyday had nothing in view but to show that he understood his author, with so little regard to the grandeur of his diction, or the volubility of his numbers, that his metres can hardly be called verses; they cannot be read without reluctance, nor will the labour always be rewarded by understanding them. Cowley saw that such copiers were a servile race; he asserted his liberty, and spread his wings so boldly that he left his authors. It was reserved for Dryden to fix the limits of poetical liberty, and give us just rules and examples for translation.
When languages are formed upon different principles it is impossible that the same modes of expression should be always elegant in both. While they run on together, the closest translation may be considered as the best; but when they divaricate, each must take its natural course. Where correspondence cannot be obtained, it is necessary to be content with something equivalent. Translation, therefore, says Dryden, is not so loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase. All polished languages have different styles; the concise, the diffuse, the lofty, and the humble. In the proper choice of style consists the resemblance which Dryden principally exacts from the translator. He is to exhibit his authors thoughts in such a dress of diction as the author would have given them had his language been English: rugged magnificence is not to be softened; hyperbolical ostentation is not to be repressed; nor sententious affectation to have its point blunted. A translator is to be like his author; it is not his business to excel him.
This is to translate, and not to define, when we change two words of the same signification one for another; which, when one is better understood than the other, may serve to discover what idea the unknown stands for, but is very far from a definition.
It is impossible to obtain the same sense from a dead language and an ancient author, which those of his own time and country conceived: words and phrases contract from time and use such strong shades of difference from their original import. In a living language, with the familiarity of a whole life, it is not easy to conceive truly the actual sense of current expressions, much less of older authors. No two languages furnish equipollent words: their phrases differ, their syntax and their idioms still more widely. But a translation, strictly so called, requires an exact conformity in all those particulars, and also in numbers: therefore it is impossible. I really think at present, notwithstanding the opinion expressed in your preface [to Cowpers Translation of Homer], that a translator asks himself a good question,How would my author have expressed the sentence I am turning into English? for every idea conveyed in the original should be expressed in English as literally and fully as the genius and use and character of the language will admit of. You must not translate literally:
Old daddy Phnix, a God-send for us to maintain.
Lord-Chancellor Thurlow: To Cowper, on his Translation of Homer.