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NO "DIALECT OF FRANCE"; SAMUEL JOHNSON'S TRANSLATIONS FROM THE FRENCH JOHN LAWRENCE ABBOTT In his "Preface" to the English Dictwnary Samuel Johnson writes: 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 compiJing grammars and dictionaries, endeavour, with all their influence, to stop the license of transiatouIs, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France,l Throughout his long and productive career, however, Johnson was an active translator from many languages, particularly French, and there are in the canon a number of items based upon French sources that have received little critical or scholarly attention. It is the purpose of this article to examine the nature and scope of these works and show how Johnson worked with his various French sources. Johnson never formulated a precise theory of translation, but it is evident that he did considerable thinking about the subject, particularly in Idlers 68 and 69. In Idler 68 he comments, "Among the studies which have exercised the ingenious and the learned for more than three centuries, nOne has been more diligently or more successfully cultivated than the art of translation; by which the impediments which bar the way to science are, in some measure, removed, and the multiplicity of language becomes less incommodious.'" In Idler 69, a survey of translation in England from Chaucer's time to his own, Johnson generally finds fault with the literalness of the translations of Chaucer and Caxton and the excessive freedom of Restoration translators who "translated always with freedom, sometimes with licentiousness, and perhaps expected that their readers should accept spriteliness for knowledge, and Vol1mle XXXVI, Nttmber 2, Jan'uary, 1967 130 JOHN LAWRENCE ABBOTT consider ignorance and mistake as the impatience and negligence of a mind too rapid to stop at difficulties, and too elevated to descend to minuteness.'" In theory, at any rate, Johnson sought a via media between literalness and excessive freedom, a mean best seen, perhaps, in Dryden, who Johnson says "saw very early that closeness best preserved an author's sense, and that freedom best exhibited his spiri!.'" In his "Life of Dryden" Johnson comments further that the translator "is to exhibit his author's 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; hyperbolic ostentation is not to be repressed, nor sententious affection to have its points blunted. A translatour is to be like his author: it is not his business to excel him.'" In his own translation from the French, however, Johnson often takes far greater liberties with his sources than he would seem to permit in theory, and what emerges is less a translation and more a recreation of the foreign tex!. In translating from the French he generally does not view translation simply as a tool to render meaning from one language to another but rather as a means of commentary, criticism, and interpretation . Thus he often does not attempt to translate literally, but through condensation, compression, abridgement, and rearrangement of his foreign text he frequently comes close to an extensive rewriting of his source. Moreover, at times he even intrudes upon his text in various ways, and a comparison of the French and the English sometimes reveals Johnsonian attitudes, biases, and prejudices that One would hardly expect to find in the supposedly objective medium of translation. Neither is he srylistically a slave to his sources; his constant aim seems to be not simply to mirror in English the French original, but to create as readable...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 129-140
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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