SIXTY-TWO authors, most of them modern, translated from five different languages, contribute to Professor Copeland’s new book of over a thousand pages. Although one is usually irritated by anthologies, the choice here is so admirable, and so few of us are literate in five languages, that we are profoundly grateful. The admirable Introductory Notes by the compiler are in the very manner of the few words of preface that Copeland often gives to the poems or prose that he reads aloud, unexpected and always most pat.
He warns the reader that ‘literature in translation is almost sure to be literature once removed.’ That ‘almost’ saves him from having to make such obvious exceptions as the King James version and Edward Fitzgerald. But in this connection we have read, within the month, that the translation of Marcel Proust is being set back into French because of the greater clarity of the English and in the belief that Proust’s style will not lose charm.
The noble art of translation has been neglected by literary men of the last decades and left in general to hacks, but there are in this volume fresh stimulus and new proof that are worthy of attention from the masters. The book will be used by hosts of young writers as the ‘case books’ in the schools of law and medicine are used. For it is still recognized by the craft that the closest to a royal road to achieving a supple style is through abandoning creative writing and all self-expression and working for a while on the expression of some other person’s idea, concentrating one’s energy on precision of meaning and on style.
The second and of course much larger class of readers will include us all. There is great browsing in one language or another, and a chance to feel that one has been doing it in the company of an expert.
In his next volume of translations, which it is rumored are to be from the Greek and Latin classics, I hope Professor Copeland will write an essay on the craft of the translator, its technical difficulties, and its almost magic effect on the English style of the craftsman.