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In a review of H. D.’s fine translation of some lines from Euripides, I indicated what seemed to me to be two different results, two categories even, which translation might produce. The fundamental difference between them speaks to a more profound distinction, a distinction between two attitudes towards literature, and especially poetry, called classic.

Obviously, modern literature, in becoming cosmopolitan, experienced a certain weakening of its central impulse. Instead of nourishing itself on foreign literatures, instead of truly borrowing, we have a kind of market of vile wares to which each nation brings short-lived novelties to trade, and from which they return with equally useless novelties. One goes to the theater to see a performance of some Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Brazilian play; at home, one escapes the tiring reality of daily life by reading a novel by the latest Russian, Czech, Serbian (because the Slavs are still in at present): that is to say, in order to relax, we turn to masterpieces by unknown artists, whose history, customs, traditions, and mentalities are unknown to us, and hardly any of which we are prepared to learn. It might even be said that the extraordinary speaks to us–such that the Greek masterpieces, a stage performance (scrupulously exact, according to the most recent breakthroughs in archaeology) of Aeschylus, for example, whispers to us with almost the same impact as the eccentricities of our contemporaries. Yet more scandalous, our own English classics . . . and Shakespeare! . . . no longer being an integral part of our modern literature, find a painful existence as archeology tries to adorn them as an offering to exotic taste. Between Shakespeare and Mr. so-and-so, who depicts so well life on the boulevards, there is nothing in common. Agreed: when we are tired of current affairs, current current affairs, current affairs currently current in 1916, let us go see what affairs were current in 1600. But to do so would be simply to insult a cadaver.

There are certainly exceptions to be made. A lively commerce between nations is enormously useful, even necessary, if it only be well informed. But in order to turn a profit from foreign literatures, one has to have intelligent ideas about one’s own literature. Of all those who rave about Dostoevski, how many are prepared to analyse his work to the slightest degree, to recognise in it what is universal, what is common to all great works of art, from whatever country or age? 2 And how many are capable of distinguishing between what is eternally human in it and what is eternally Russian, and what is eternally Russian and what is particularly Russian, and who can put their finger on what is due to Dostoevski’s genius, and what is due to Dostoevski’s eccentricities? Apart from a limited few, readers and audience members prefer to sit back into a narcotic trance, allowing curious images to float before their half-opened eyes.

And these limited few, who are they? Of those belonging to this group, the majority of them are themselves professionals. It is they who know how to appropriate, to assimilate, elements from foreign literatures which can fertilize indigenous literature. Now, in this work of enrichment, translations play a significant role. But the value of translation lies in the exact combination of fidelity and originality. Faithful, because otherwise the translator will produce only eccentricities; he would do better to write an original poem than to devote himself to a false veneer: original, because the fusion of the minds of two languages, the vivifying force, takes place within the translator’s mind. What he produces must be foreign, but not strange, something that is new, but to which we have rightful claim. These limits of fidelity and originality can vary: one does not demand the same originality from a mere scholar as one does from a true poet, or the same fidelity from a poet as from the scholar; but in both cases, both qualities must be present. Let us disregard, of course, translations made solely to convey information, translations...

Published By:   Johns Hopkins University Press