6 March 2013

Get Off My Lawn

W. E. Henley, "Heine," in Views and Reviews, Vol. I (London: David Nutt, 1892), pp. 79-80:
We hate to see [the original work] tampered with; we are on thorns as the translator approaches, and we resent his operations as an individual hurt, a personal affront. What business has he to be trampling among our borders and crushing our flowers with his stupid hobnails? Why cannot he carry his zeal for topsy-turvy horticulture elsewhere? He comes and lays a brutal hand on our pet growths, snips off their graces, shapes them anew according to his own ridiculous ideal, paints and varnishes them with a villainous compound of his contrivance, and then bids us admire the effect and thank him for its production! Is any name too hard for such a creature? and could any vengeance be too deadly? If he walked into your garden and amused himself so with your cabbages, you could put him in prison. But into your poets he can stump his way at will, and upon them he can do his pleasure. And he does it. How many men have brutalised the elegance, the grace, the winning urbanity of Horace! By how many coarse and stupid fingers has Catullus been smudged and fumbled and mauled! To turn Faust into English (in the original metres) is a fashionable occupation; there are more perversions of the Commedia than one cares to recall; there is scarce a great or even a good work of the human mind but has been thus bedevilled and deformed.
The fact is, the translator too often forgets the difference between his subject and himself; he is too often a common graveyard mason that would play the sculptor. And it is not nearly enough for him to be a decent craftsman. To give an adequate idea of an artist’s work a man must be himself an artist of equal force and versatility with his original. The typical translator makes clever enough verses, but Heine’s accomplishment is remote from him as Heine’s genius. He perverts his author as rhyme and rhythm will. No charge of verbal inaccuracy need therefore be made, for we do not expect a literal fidelity in our workman. Let him convey the spirit of his original, and that, so far as meaning goes, is enough. But we do expect of him a something that shall recall his author’s form, his author’s personality, his author’s charm of diction and of style.
A related post: Like Dishes of Meat Twice Drest