Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Jonson on the Translator's Pen

The following anecdote is taken from the Isaac Disraeli's widely admired multi-volume Curiosities of Literature, a compilation of observations on a life of book-loving, -collecting, and -making, edited by his son Benjamin, the future Prime Minister. In that collection, this entry appeared under the heading “Ben Jonson on Translation.” My gratitude to the good work of the Project Gutenberg volunteer community for providing the text.
I have discovered a poem by this great poet, which has escaped the researches of all his editors. Prefixed to a translation, translation is the theme; with us an unvalued art, because our translators have usually been the jobbers of booksellers; but no inglorious one among our French and Italian rivals. In this poem, if the reader's ear be guided by the compressed sense of the massive lines, he may feel a rhythm which, should they be read like our modern metre, he will find wanting; here the fulness of the thoughts forms their own cadences. The mind is musical as well as the ear. One verse running into another, and the sense often closing in the middle of a line, is the Club of Hercules; Dryden sometimes succeeded in it, Churchill abused it, and Cowper attempted to revive it. Great force of thought only can wield this verse.

On the AUTHOR, WORKE, and TRANSLATOR, prefixed to the translation of Mateo Alemans's Spanish Rogue, 1623.

   Who tracks this author's or translator's pen
   Shall finde, that either hath read bookes, and men:
   To say but one were single. Then it chimes,
   When the old words doe strike on the new times,
   As in this Spanish Proteus; who, though writ
   But in one tongue, was formed with the world's wit:
   And hath the noblest marke of a good booke,
   That an ill man dares not securely looke
   Upon it, but will loath, or let it passe,
   As a deformed face doth a true glasse.
   Such bookes deserve translators of like coate
   As was the genius wherewith they were wrote;
   And this hath met that one, that may be stil'd
   More than the foster-father of this child;
   For though Spaine gave him his first ayre and vogue
   He would be call'd, henceforth, the English rogue,
   But that hee's too well suted, in a cloth
   Finer than was his Spanish, if my oath
   Will be receiv'd in court; if not, would I
   Had cloath'd him so! Here's all I can supply
   To your desert who have done it, friend! And this
   Faire aemulation, and no envy is;
   When you behold me wish myselfe, the man
   That would have done, that, which you only can!

The translator of Guzman was James Mabbe, which he disguised under the Spanish pseudonym of Diego Puede-ser; Diego for James, and Puede-ser for Mabbe or May-be! He translated, with the same spirit as his Guzman, Celestina, or the Spanish Bawd, that singular tragi-comedy,—a version still more remarkable. He had resided a considerable time in Spain, and was a perfect master of both languages,—a rare talent in a translator; and the consequence is, that he is a translator of genius.

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