26 March 2018

An Error on the Right Hand

John Denham (1615-1669) in the preface to his translation of The Destruction of Troy, from The Works of the British Poets, ed. Robert Anderson, Vol. V (London: John & Arthur Arch, 1795), pp. 693-694:
I conceive it is a vulgar error in translating poets, to affect being fidus interpres; let that care be with them who deal in matters of fact, or matters of faith: but whosoever aims at it in poetry, as he attempts what is not required, so he shall never perform what he attempts; for it is not his business alone to translate language into language, but poesy into poesy; and poesy is of so subtle a spirit, that in the pouring out of one language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a caput mortuum, there being certain graces and happinesses peculiar to every language, which gives life and energy to the words; and whosoever offers at verbal translation, shall have the misfortune of that young traveller, who lost his own language abroad, and brought home no other instead of it: for the grace of the Latin will be lost by being turned into English words; and the grace of the English, by being turned into the Latin phrase. And as speech is the apparel of our thoughts, so are there certain garbs and modes of speaking, which vary with the times; the fashion of our clothes being not more subject to alteration, than that of our speech: and this I think Tacitus means, by that which he calls sermonem temporis istius auribus accommodatum; the delight of change being as due to the curiosity of the ear, as of the eye; and therefore if Virgil must needs speak English, it were fit he should speak not only as a man of this Nation, but as a man of this age; and if this disguise I have put upon him (I wish I could give it a better name) sit not naturally and easily on so grave a person, yet it may become him better than that fools-coat wherein the French and Italian have of late presented him; at least, I hope, it will not make him appear deformed, by making any part enormously bigger or less than the life; (I having made it my principal care to follow him, as he made it his to follow Nature in all his proportions) neither have I any where offered such violence to his sense, as to make it seem mine, and not his. Where my expressions are not so full as his, either our language, or my art were defective (but I rather suspect myself;) but where mine are fuller than his, they are but the impressions which the often reading of him, hath left upon my thoughts; so that if they are not his own conceptions, they are at least the results of them; and if (being conscious of making him speak worse than he did almost in every line) I err in endeavouring sometimes to make him speak better, I hope it will be judged an error on the right hand, and such an one as may deserve pardon, if not imitation.
A related post: Rather Impressionist Than Pre-Raphaelite