restricted access The Tudor Translators
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[ 625 The Tudor Translators1 The Listener, 1 (12 July 1929) 833-34 In talking about some of the great prose writers of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, I do not mean to follow the method of history books. What I want to do is to give a kind of cross section of English prose at one time, say in the later years of Queen Elizabeth;2 and by putting one after other examples of very different kinds of writing, to illustrate the great richness and variety of that prose. To me, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have always seemed the most exciting period of English literature, both in prose and verse. It was a time of many inventions, of very rapid development of every kind. In studying its prose, even more clearly than in studying its verse, we can watch the English mind learning to think and to speak: we see many people learning to think in English where before only a few people had thought in Latin, and preparing a language in which anything could be thought and spoken. I am not going to examine a process, but merely to try to show a few of the kinds of prose writing of the time, without which we should not have our literature or our language of to-day. [And I do not intend simply to pick out the most beautiful and impressive specimens of Elizabethan prose. If you enjoy food, you like to know the recipe by which it was cooked; and if you care for modern English prose, you will enjoy it more by knowing some of the ingredients out of which it is made. A good deal more goes to an omelette than the eggs: but with prose style, the ingredients are as good eating as the modern dish. My six types of Tudor prose are six ways in which the English mind developed during that age.] You may wonder at my beginning with translators; for translation does not seem to most people nowadays a particularly important part of literature . But the men who translated a famous Latin or Greek or French or Italian book into English were doing a different work, with different aims and standards, from the learned scholars who translate the classics nowadays . Their public was very different from the people who now read modern translations of Virgil or Tacitus in the Loeb Translation Series. Many of their readers were more like the novel-reading subscriber to a library when he takes home a novel translated from German or Scandinavian. He wants 1929 626 ] a good novel, and does not care much whether it be English, American, or a translation: except that in the latter he enjoys (or not) the local colour and foreign scenes. The Elizabethan reader of translations might or might not have heard of the author before he picked up the translation; but he read the book in the same spirit in which he would have read a book originally written in English. Obviously, the first task of the modern translator of a classical work is accuracy: if he mistranslates, or shows in any way that he is not a perfect master of the original language, the reviewer will find him out and denounce him directly. But if he translates into flat stale style, that is a minor fault; and scrupulous accuracy does not always allow a high vivid style. That is inevitable, and it is right that a modern translation should first of all be scholarly. But the Elizabethan translator had first of all to make a book that would interest readers of books. Sometimes, like Florio, who translated Montaigne, he happened to be so well qualified that we usually prefer to read him still in preference to modern translations; sometimes , like Adlington, who translated the Golden Ass of Apuleius (even the title is a translator’s variation), the translation is so shameless as to be almost a different book.3 The differences between the King James Authorised Bible and the modern Revised Bible only matter when some theological distinction is at issue; but Adlington’s Apuleius is very different from Apuleius in Latin.4 It is quite certain that Adlington’s knowledge of Latin was very poor, and that he depended upon a French translation, as he makes all the mistakes that the French translation made.5 It is natural that a popular thriller like the story of Apuleius, a genial tale of witchcraft and adventurecomparabletoDracula ,shouldbeseizeduponbyarogueofatranslator who...


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