- On Literal Translation:Robert Browning and the Agamemnon
May I be permitted to chat a little, by way of recreation, at the end of a somewhat toilsome and perhaps fruitless adventure?"1 So begins the introduction to Robert Browning's "transcription," as he entitles it, of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, in which the principles of literal translation are discussed and defended.2 As one who has recently been on the same adventure as Robert Browning, I wonder whether it is not salutary to review his arguments, for I have come to believe firmly that the path he took was fruitless, or very nearly so. Yet of the many translators, stretching into the most recent times, who have provided us with literal renditions of ancient Greek texts, he at least offered an apology for it, and a better one, in my view, than any I have seen. I want to try, by reviewing Browning's arguments, to shed some light on why his adventure of translation was barren, and in the process state some precautions for the translation of ancient Greek literature. I am not sure whether these precautions apply to the philosophy of translation in general, for the differences between two languages vary greatly with time and place; nevertheless, the review may be of some general help.
Browning takes as the first principle of translation for a great work like the Agamemnon the requirement that the translator "be literal at every cost save that of absolute violence to our language" (Browning, p. v). This is a principle of degree; it depends on a sense of the plasticity of the English language. How much violence will it bear before the [End Page 259] harm is absolute? I think that what is usually called literal translation, which involves the replacement of terms in the object language with terms in the target language with little respect for differences of syntax, involves, for ancient Greek texts, absolute violence to our language in almost every case. In a thoroughly practical vein, I would suggest that a useful test of literary violence might be whether an intelligent, well-read person with a decent vocabulary and habit of poetry can read, say, ten pages of translation without becoming seriously muddled. Let that be a challenge to Browning's readers and readers of other literal translations of ancient Greek. If you take the test and fail it, you might wonder why anyone would ever be attracted to the idea in the first place. But Browning was, and so was I, though I think for very different reasons.
If even a little thought is given to it, I think it will be admitted that the idea of a transcription of an ancient Greek text into the English language is nonsense. We usually mean by "transcription" the writing out of an exact copy of something. Transliteration, of course, is possible, and so is translation by art. There is no in-between. The term "transcription," when used of a translation is a rhetorical device, a pretentious way of describing a more or less literal translation. But even the phrase "literal translation" is a rhetorical device, a term with an air of exactness about it, used in place of a much weaker and vaguer idea, namely "faithfulness to the original." There are many of us who wish to be faithful. But if you speak about faithfulness, everyone at once will admit that there are lots of ways to be faithful, and lots of disputes about which ways are better and which are worse. When you speak of a literal translation, you insinuate that there is just one way, just one rendering of what the original "actually says." This is an attractive but false ideal. I was attracted to it at the start of my adventure. I believed that I should like to see what Aeschylus "actually says" in his Agamemnon, an innocent enough assumption for one whose Greek is rudimentary. But the more one studies that strange, general language, the more it seems possible that no sentence, perhaps not even any phrase, of ancient Greek actually says just one thing. An example: when I visited the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in...