3. Ossian and the State of Translation in the Scottish Enlightenment
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39 CHAPTER THREE Ossian and the State of Translation in the Scottish Enlightenment Gauti Kristmannsson The Poems of Ossian are probably the most commonly used example in modern translation studies to illustrate the concept of pseudotranslation . In his seminal Descriptive Translation Studies and beyond Gideon Toury defines pseudotranslations thus: ‘texts which have been presented as translations with no corresponding source texts in other languages ever having existed – hence no factual “transfer operations” and translation relationships – that go under the name of pseudotrans-lations, or fictitious translations’.1 Such a concept did not exist in the eighteenth century, even if the idea may have, in practice. An example used by Toury is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which was purportedly translated by one William Marshal of Gent. It is often considered the first Gothic novel, and as such an example of the innovative tendencies of pseudotranslation as they are used as a mechanism for introducing ‘novelties while tying them to a hypothetical alien tradition’.2 It is not certain that it is the pseudotranslations themselves that introduce the novelties, but rather translations which have appeared before and therefore serve as a model for the pseudotranslation, possibly because the literary system is not yet ready for such novelties from the hands of native authors.3 Toury’s insistence on Ossian as the major example of pseudotranslation (and indeed André Lefevere’s in Constructing Cultures) flies in the face of his own definition, since there existed certainly ‘corresponding source texts’ for The Poems of Ossian even if they were not ‘directly’ translated. This is apparent from Macpherson’s own paratexts and significant subsequent scholarly endeavour, all of which had been published prior to the critical interventions by the translation scholars.4 So it should have been at least clear that the matter was not black and white, as had actually been known from the beginning, even to Samuel Johnson, whose word appears to weigh more on the current debate than it deserves.5 40 Toury seems to be under Johnsonian influence, feeling compelled to add a footnote with a qualification to his previous definition later in his discussion: To be sure, to the extent that the source of a pseudotranslation can be pointed to, it would normally consist in a group of texts, even the model underlying that group, rather than any individual text. For instance, it is clear that the author of the Book of Mormon took advantage of a [certain part of] the tradition of Bible translation into English. In a similar vein, one possible way of settling the long dispute over the authenticity of Macpherson’s Ossianic poetry as a translation is precisely to maintain that it is various elements of a tradition of oral poetry in Gaelic rather than a finite number of actual texts which underlie this body of texts. (The possibility that there may have been one source text for any one of his target texts has long been ruled out.)6 This might be said about the Bible and many other ancient and medieval texts too, texts that have been gathered from manifold sources and traditions, collated, and often translated into one text, sometimes even attributed to a single individual. It is just the caveat in the parenthesis that reads a little like Johnson’s insistence, ‘Where are the manuscripts?’7 Johnson’s rhetorical question, in view of what he actually knew very well about the Poems of Ossian, expresses in a nutshell the demands made to this one text, beyond many others of similar ilk, from both a textual critical perspective and the moral one.8 It is a remarkable phenomenon that a text, published more than two hundred and fifty years ago, is still being discussed controversially due to doubts about its provenance. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that some modern scholars would only be satisfied by the existence of a Gaelic original of the Poems of Ossian, printed and published as one text with an ISBN number in the year ad 300. There are probably several reasons why the Poems of Ossian can still make some scholars foam at the mouth from fury and indignation. One is the ‘Johnsonian factor’; admirers of Samuel Johnson see his personal dispute with James Macpherson as emblematic for the ‘sturdy moralist’ and have therefore taken ‘his side’ in the argument, even if there is evidence that he was himself not averse to some questionable methods of forgery and ghostwriting.9 Another is the...


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