Day 12 India, Tuesday, 3 January 2023
Quiet reading days; I have been studying Bengali every day, reading Pagnol, thinking about my aims for 2023 (whether or not to make a plan for the year), reading an introduction to Hinduism (with a view to better understanding Indian art), planning my reading on imperialism and re-reading J.N.D. Kelly’s biography of Jerome, the patron saint of translators with a view to writing some short pieces for a website. In Kelly’s notes, there is a reference to a letter from Jerome with his views on translation, which is also available on the net. I find it fascinating, a colleague wrestling with familiar problems more than 1,600 years ago.
I am reproducing an extract here faute de mieux.
Jerome defends his method of translation
Jerome defends his method of translation with appeal to classical, ecclesiastical and New Testament writers. Letter 52 to Pemmachius, AD 395-396, p 112-119:
“5. In the above remarks I have assumed that I have made alterations in the letter and that a simple translation may contain errors though not wilful ones. As, however the letter itself shows that no changes have been made in the sense, that nothing has been added, and that no doctrine has been foisted into it, obviously their object is understanding to understand nothing; and while they desire to arraign another’s want of skill, they betray their own. For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the holy scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery) I render sense for sense and not word for word. For this course I have the authority of Tully who has so translated the Protagoras of Plato, the Œconomicus of Xenophon, and the two beautiful orations which Æschines and Demosthenes delivered one against the other. What omissions, additions, and alterations he has made substituting the idioms of his own for those of another tongue, this is not the time to say. I am satisfied to quote the authority of the translator who has spoken as follows in a prologue prefixed to the orations. I have thought it right to embrace a labour which though not necessary for myself will prove useful to those who study. I have translated the noblest speeches of the two most eloquent of the Attic orators, the speeches which Æschines and Demosthenes delivered one against the other; but I have rendered them not as a translator but as an orator, keeping the sense but altering the form by adapting both the metaphors and the words to suit our own idiom. I have not deemed it necessary to render word for word but I have reproduced the general style and emphasis. I have not supposed myself bound to pay the words out one by one to the reader but only to give him an equivalent in value. Again at the close of his task he says, I shall be well satisfied if my rendering is found, as I trust it will be, true to this standard. In making it I have utilized all the excellences of the originals, I mean the sentiments, the forms of expression and the arrangement of the topics, while I have followed the actual wording only so far as I could do so without offending our notions of taste. If all that I have written is not to be found in the Greek, I have at any rate striven to make it correspond with it. Horace too, an acute and learned writer, in his Art of Poetry gives the same advice to the skilled translator:—
And care not with over anxious thought
To render word for word.
Terence has translated Menander; Plautus and Cæcilius the old comic poets. Do they ever stick at words? Do they not rather in their versions think first of preserving the beauty and charm of their originals? What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learned term pestilent minuteness. Such were my teachers about twenty years ago; and even then I was the victim of a similar error to that which is now imputed to me, though indeed I never imagined that you would charge me with it. In translating the Chronicle of Eusebius of Cæsarea into Latin, I made among others the following prefatory observations: It is difficult in following lines laid down by others not sometimes to diverge from them, and it is hard to preserve in a translation the charm of expressions which in another language are most felicitous. Each particular word conveys a meaning of its own, and possibly I have no equivalent by which to render it, and if I make a circuit to reach my goal, I have to go many miles to cover a short distance. To these difficulties must be added the windings of hyperbata, differences in the use of cases, divergencies of metaphor; and last of all the peculiar and if I may so call it, inbred character of the language. If I render word for word, the result will sound uncouth, and if compelled by necessity I alter anything in the order or wording, I shall seem to have departed from the function of a translator. And after a long discussion which it would be tedious to follow out here, I added what follows:— If any one imagines that translation does not impair the charm of style, let him render Homer word for word into Latin, nay I will go farther still and say, let him render it into Latin prose, and the result will be that the order of the words will seem ridiculous and the most eloquent of poets scarcely articulate.”
W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.)