The Polite Lie

Poet, novelist, and historian, Robert Graves is a classical scholar who is at home in many languages and whose reputation as a translator has been justly acclaimed. In the following essay, Mr. Graves tells of some of the pitfalls that beset a translator and provides us with some very helpful guide posts.


THOUGH often having both translated and been myself translated, I cannot claim to be a professional linguist, but at least to feel thoroughly at home in English, arid to have picked up the main languages that formed it, more or less in the historical order of their appearance. That is to say, I learned, or rather absorbed, German as a child from my mother, whose family was Saxon, and from three long summer holidays spent on my grandfather’s estate near Munich. Neither my accent nor my vocabulary has lost or gained much since I was eleven years old; and in conversation with Germans, idiomatic phrases float up unsought from the back of my mind. But I never learned to read the language in those days, so that now, if anyone writes me a German letter, I repeat the words aloud to myself and take them in through the car. At Oxford, ten years later, AngloSaxon formed part of my English literature course, and I found it easily understandable as a Germanic dialect.

French had been taught me at school by the hard way of irregular verbs and gender rhymes, such as bijou, caillou, pou, chou, genou, hibou, joujou; but at a period when we were on bad terms with France —the Entente Cordiale not having yet been cemented. The French master, an Englishman, although lavish with impositions if written work showed carelessness, never dared make us distort our mouths or lips for the correct pronounciation of tu, du, pit, ému, or train, bain, métropolitain, or les feuilles d’automne - he would have lost all control over the class. I am still self-conscious about talking what Chaucer called “French of Paris” as opposed to “French after the school of Stratford-atte-Bow”; and though my frequent visits to France, Belgium, and Switzerland must add up to several years of residence, I seldom play the Parisian except over a telephone: for intelligibility. French remains a foreign language, not only because it was forced on me but because I cannot think in the French way, and have a guilty sense of playacting if drawn into complicated discussions with academicians or Left Bank intellectuals. Nor, apparently, can they think as I do, since fewer of my books have been translated into French than even into Hebrew, Finnish, or Magyar. Nevertheless, I do feel at home with the language spoken by our Norman-French ancestors. Since they owned extensive domains in southern France, it came close to the langue d’oc, or Provencal; and so does Mailorquin, the domestic language of Majorca, which has been my home for thirty-five years. From the age of seven to nineteen I studied Latin, never rebelling against its discipline — perhaps because my father persuaded me that every gentleman must be a Latin scholar — and came to respect it as the most sober, economical, and unambiguous of languages. Latin first made me conscious of the translation problem. German and English, even French and English, have close syntactical resemblances, but Latin taught me to think in a fascinatingly different way: with ablative absolutes, gerunds, and intricate Chinese boxes of clauses piling up to the resonant verbal finish. In the Latin composition hour, each English sentence had to be recast Ciceronically. I can still write Latin hexameters or elegiac couplets on almost any subject at the drop of a hat; and (every second June) prepare a Latin oration, to be delivered at the Oxford Encaenia, in a sufficiently correct draft for two kindhearted classical dons to polish. Charles Chaplin, who was being awarded an honorary doctorate on the 1961 occasion, told me afterward how deeply he regretted never having had Latin included in his rough East End schooling. “It is the backbone of English,” he said vehemently. And, indeed, in early Saxon times Latin was our sole literary language, and taught King Alfred, who translated Boethius and Bede from it, the art of clear expression.

At school I also learned Greek, which is too extensive a language to be read without a dictionary even by those who have won first-class honors in classics at Oxford or Cambridge, which I never did, and demands taste as well as precision from its students. Not every important Greek writer — important in the sense of providing reliable historical information or neat philosophical theories — is a good writer of Greek. Incidentally, attempts have been made to remove St. James’s Epistle front the New Testament canon, on the ground that lie wrote rather too well. But St. James was an educated Temple priest, not a Galilean fisherman or Syrian tentmaker, and Alexandrian Greek will have been his second language.

My early affection for Greek allows me to distinguish good writing from bad, and I am more aware of its poetic potentialities than those of Castilian Spanish, which I have read daily since emigrating to Spain in 1929. It seems that unless driven by circumstances to adopt the customs of a foreign nation and break all contact with one’s own, none but a born mimic can achieve full command of its idioms after his early teens.

So I am lucky to have been educated in the main linguistic components of English: Latin, AngloSaxon by way of German, Norman-French by way of Mallorquin and French, Greek, which provides most of our scientific vocabulary, and Spanish, from which we have borrowed more than from any other vernacular except French.

My interest in English is both loyal and practical. Since the age of fifteen I have been dedicated to one sole pursuit: that of poetry. And the writing of English poetry demands that one should know the language in depth as well as in breadth. A poem’s emotional force depends on the strength and virtue of its component words; and the longer a word has been turned over by countless tongues and pens, and smoothed with use, the more powerfully will it strike home. This metaphor is, I suppose, suggested by the Old Testament account of how Israel’s leading poet, King David, when he went out to fight Goliath, chose smooth pebbles from the brook as sling bolts. Notice that this stark sentence — David, when he went out to fight Goliath chose smooth pebbles from the brook as sling bolts owes nothing to Norman-French. “Thought” is an Anglo-Saxon word; “fancy” and “imagination” are of Romance origin. The thoughtful depth of English seems to be mainly Anglo-Saxon; the imaginative breadth, Romance. But since the language has been constantly changing down the centuries, and at various social levels, a poet should know the history of each word he uses. So should all translators.

FOR some years I earned my livelihood by writing historical novels. There are two different methods. One is to enliven a chunk of ancient history by making the characters speak and behave in modern style. The central event in an early-Tudor novel published a few years ago was the Field of the Cloth of Gold, at which the heroine, a maid of honor to King Henry, remarked brightly to her chivalrous hero: “I do hate parties, darling, don’t you?” This tancy-dress foolery started, I suppose, with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at lung Arthur’s Court. The alternative method is suddenly to be possessed by a ghost with a grievance against historians, to relive his life and rethink his thoughts in the language that he himself used. I wrote once:

To bring the dead to life Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.
Let his forgotten griefs be now.
And now his withered hopes;
Subdue your pen to his handwriting
Until it prove as natural
To sign his name as yours.
Limp as he limped,
Swear by the oaths he swore;
If he wore black, affect the same;
If he had gouty fingers,
Be yours gouty too.
Assemble tokens intimate of him —
A seal, a cloak, a pen;
Around these elements then build
A home familiar to
The greedy revenant.

The theme of my novel Wife to Mr. Milton came suddenly with the realization that Milton was what we now call a “trichomaniac” (meaning that he had an obsession about hair — his own and women’s). This discovery gave me the key to his lamentable marriage with Marie Powell of Forest Hill, truly a ghost with a grievance. Yet to keep any hint of modern psychology or sociology from intruding, I wrote the book in pure mid-sevens teenth-century style, avoiding all words later of occurrence than 1651, the year in which she died. The language had to vary greatly from character to character, Marie Powell’s main associates being Royalists and rural, John Milton’s Roundhead and urban. Worse, she wore a dark-blue favor, he a light-blue miscegenation between the senior universities can be dangerous in the extreme. Here is Marie, accompanied by her humorless and ambitious poet, in London at the beginning of the Civil War:

One early morning I went out with my husband to the Artillery Garden, where he performed military exercises in a company of volunteers from his Ward banded together by their common religious interest. He told me, as he went, that he was a pikeman, not a musketeer, and that pikes are more honourable arms than muskets, in respect not only of their antiquity, but also of the colours flying upon their heads; and because with them is the Captain’s proper station, the musketeers being posted at the flanks. He himself, he said, stood in the most honourable post of any Gentleman of the Pike, namely in the hindmost rank of bringers-up, or Tergoductores, upon the right hand; which also had the advantage of security. Then with his sixteen-foot pike, which he carried with him, he showed me, as he went, the several postures of the pike — the trail, the port, the shoulder, the advance, the cheek — and discoursed upon the use of each posture, heedless of the jests of the citizens and the winks of their wives whom we passed in the street.

I also wrote two novels about Sergeant Roger Lamb, a self-educated Dubliner who fought with the 9th and 23rd British Infantry regiments in the American War of Independence. His language had a totally different rhythm and flavor. Here he reports on events leading to the outbreak of war:

Tidings of the Port Act were received by the Bostonians with most extravagant tokens of resentment. The text of the Act was printed on mourning paper with a black border and cried about the streets as a “Barbarous Murder.” The terms “Whigs” and “Tories,” for want of better, lately being introduced into America (the former covering those who favoured the action of the Bostonians, and the latter those who condemned it as turbulent and unwarrantable), a regular persecution of the Tories throughout New England now began. These Tories were for the most part people of property and education, descendants of the first settlers; but their barns were burned, their cattle driven, their families insulted, their houses broken into, and they themselves forced either to quit or starve. “A Tory,” the Whigs held, “is one whose head is in England, whose body is in America, and whose neck should be stretched.”

A PERIOD-STYLE comes easily enough to whoever soaks himself in the contemporary literature and impersonates the characters. But what sort of English should be put into the mouth of an ancient Greek or Roman? Here we reach a more difficult moral problem. In my two Claudius novels, I relied on extant specimens of Claudius’ literary style: his Latin speech about the Aeduan franchise and his Greek letter to the Alexandrians, besides numerous conversational fragments quoted by Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Seneca, and others. Suetonius records that Claudius wrote “ineptly” rather than “inelegantly”: die easy Alexandrian Greek which he used for his historical works will have come more naturally to him than polished Ciceronian Latin. I tried to reproduce the effect:

My tutor I have already mentioned, Marcus Porcius Cato; who was, in his own estimation at least, a living embodiment of that ancient Roman virtue which his ancestors had one after the other shown. He was always boasting of his ancestors, as stupid people do who are aware that they have done nothing themselves to boast about. He boasted particularly of Cato the Censor, who of all characters in Roman history is to me perhaps the most hateful, as having persistently championed tin’ cause of “ancient virtue” and made it identical in the popular mind with churlishness, pedantry and harshness. I was made to read Cato the Censor’s self-glorifying works as textbooks, and the account that he gave in one of them of his campaign in Spain, where he destroyed more towns than he had spent days in that country, rather disgusted me with his inhumanity than impressed me with his military skill or patriotism.

In my novel about Count Belisarius, the sixthcentury A.D. Byzantine general, I had to think in a less conversational and inept but equally fluent Greek modeled on Procopius, Agathias, and other near-contemporary historians, and put it into the mouth of Belisarius’ secretary. This passage tells how Belisarius’ wife, Antonina, a former Circus actress, won the distinction of being the only woman in history ever to unfrock a Pope:

The Pope Silverius himself came to my mistress secretly, and said to her — I was present — “Most Virtuous and Illustrious Daughter, perhaps you will be able to persuade the victorious Belisarius, your husband, to give over his unwise intentions. It seems that he is intending to stand a siege in our Holy Rome, which (though abundantly blessed by God) is the least defensible city in the world, and in twelve hundred years of its history has never successfully stood a long siege. Its circuit walls, as you can see, are twelve miles in length and rise from a level plain; it is without sufficient food for its many hundred thousands of souls, and cannot easily be provisioned from the sea — as Naples, for instance, could be. Since your forces are insufficient, why not return to Naples and leave us Romans in peace?”

My mistress Antonina replied: “Beloved of Christ, Most Holy and Eminent Silverius, fix your thoughts rather on the Heavenly City, and my husband and I will concern ourselves with this earthly one. Permit me to warn your Holiness that it is to your advantage not to meddle in our affairs.”

THE main problem of translation into English, an extraordinarily pliable language, will always be finding the level of diction that comes closest to the original. I have translated from live different languages, and consider French the simplest to handle because, even though Frenchmen occasionally rebel against their straitlaced academic style, which hardened in the seventeenth century, plus ça change, plus Vest la meme chose. A translator must let French take its own course — that is to say, he must imagine the author harnessing our barbarous English to his own inveterate elegance of speech. Here is a passage from my translation of George Sand’s Un Hiver aà Majorque:

In the ruins of a monastery, two strangers met by the calm light of the moon. One appeared to be in the prime of life; the other, though bent beneath the weight of years, happened to be the younger of the two. Their encounter made them both tremble, for the night was dark, the road lonely, and the Cathedral dock tolled the hour with slow and mournful strokes.

The bent stranger spoke first. “Whoever you maybe, sir,” he said, “you have nothing to fear from a man so weak and crushed as myself. You can take nothing from me, either. I am poor and destitute.”

“Friend,” replied the other, “my only enemies are those who attack me and, like you, I am too poor to fear robbers.”

“Then, brother, why did you start so at my approach?”

“Because, like all artists, I am somewhat superstitious, and mistook you for the ghost of one of those departed monks on whose shattered graves we are now treading. And you, friend, why did my approach equally startle you?”

“Because, being very superstitious, like all monks, I took you for the ghost of one of my fellows, who once buried me alive in the grave beneath your feet.”

This Anglo-French makes, I hope, inoffensive sense. It would have been wrong to mix vintages by translating George Sand into the crisper English style of her near-contemporary Dickens, perhaps as follows:

Two strangers met by moonlight in the deserted ruins of a Spanish monastery, just as a cathedral clock began dismally tolling the hour. Both started back in alarm. The younger of the two, who seemed crushed by years of suffering, spoke first.

“I do not know who you are, sir, but you have nothing to fear from a poor broken creature like myself; or I from you, since I am not worth robbing. . . ,” And so forth.

Other ventures in translation raised a problem: namely, had I any right to disguise an author’s loibles, follies, and clumsinesses, or to omit a large part of his perhaps admirably sustained, but no longer endurable, rhetoric?

English translators, from King Alfred forward, have always felt free to deal how they pleased with their texts. John Skelton, in his early-sixtcenthcentury version of Diodorus Siculus, is a good example of this. He did not, as a matter of fact, translate Diodorus’ own Greek, but only Poggio’s Latin abridgement, which he then expanded for the pleasure of Henry VIII’s courtiers. Here is a passage from Diodorus’ Book IV, Chapter 17 — translated by George Booth, three centuries later, in a fairly literal sense:

Then Hercules destroyed the wild beasts in the deserts, and made Africa so quiet and improveable, (which was before full of hurtful creatures), that every part was fit for tillage and planting of fruit-trees; the whole country productive of wine and oil. In short, he so improved Libya (which, by reason of the multitude of wild beasts, was before uninhabitable), that no country in the world afterwards exceeded it for fertility and richness of soil.

This is clumsy writing, but no clumsier than Diodorus’. If I were asked to translate the original for ordinary readers, I should (like Poggio) cut out repetitions and integrate the sense at half the length:

Hercules then freed Libya, deserts and all, of the wild beasts that overran it; thus reclaiming an immense acreage for farming and fruit growing. In fact, the country has since yielded more wine and oil than any other in the world.

Skelton’s readers must have been extraordinarily relaxed; nonreligious books in English were few, and time hung always heavy on their hands through the long winter evenings. He could turn Diodorus into courtly entertainment by amplifying him with rhetorical flourishes to twice his original length, and to four times mine:

But Hercules having pity on tire miserable depopulation and lamentable destruction of so noble a country, devised the means for to deliver them of this mischief. He animated himself to pourvey a redress, and by reason of this prudent policy lie utterly destroyed all the wild beasts aforesaid and saved the country from all danger of the wild beasts aforesaid. And so all the coast adjacent he set in quiet and made them convenable and commodious to be inhabited, in making the soil apt for to be sown with all manner of grain, to plant and graft all manner of trees bearing fruit, to order their vines and improve the ground with such economical feats of husbandry that the ground was encrassate and enfatted meetly for the fructuous increase of their oils. Thus Hercules destroyed all the wild beasts and worms and so enprospered the region of Libya, that it flourished in worldly felicity and prosperous wealth more than any other realm of our knowledge or experience.

The translator’s first problem is: What exactly does the reader need? Is it the literal text, in as faithful an English rendering as possible, or is it something a little more readable? If he needs a literal text, then Booth’s version preserves most of Diodorus’ felicities and clumsiness. If he wants mere factual information, laid out in good order for his hasty eye to catch, then give him my version. If he wants fantastic chimney-corner entertainment in a rush-strewn medieval hall, give him Skelton.

When my own books arc translated into foreign languages, I much prefer to have this done by someone who writes his mother tongue well — that is, someone who thinks clearly —than by an expert on English literature. The clear thinker may make minor errors of translation, but will seldom commit me to a crude, illogical, or ludicrous statement. Suppose, for instance, that he were French and I had made Lord Vere de Vaux ride out to the chase on his favorite steed, a flea-bitten gray. He would hesitate to render this son cheval gris rongé de poux. Recognizing that it must be an English idiom, he would consult a dictionary of decent size and find that moucheté describes a horse of that peculiar coat. I never mind my sentences being cut, and, some years ago, had only amicable feelings for the Finnish translator of Count Belisarius who wrote: “I propose to omit three chapters, the contents of which are familiar to every Finnish reader.”

I have translated Marcus Apulcius’ Golden Ass. He wrote a very ornate North African Latin, parodying the extravagant Greek with which street-corner storytellers of Miletus in Asia Minor used to impress their simpleminded audiences. William Adlington translated it into comparably extravagant Elizabethan English; and his version is still preferred by the Loeb Classics editors.

Sic infortunatissimae filiae misernmus paler, suspectatis caelestibus odiis et irae superum metuens, dei Milesii veluslissimum percontatur oraculum et a tanto numine, precibus et victimis, ingratae virgini petit nuptias et maritum.

Whereupon the miserable father of this unfortunate daughter, suspecting that the gods and powers of heaven did envy her estate, went into the town called Miletus to receive the most ancient oracle of Apollo, where he made his prayers and offered sacrifice, and desired a husband for his neglected daughter.

Since the stories need no rhetorical stiffening, I have translated them for the general public in the plainest possible English:

Her poor father feared that the gods might be angry with him for allowing his subjects to make so much of her; he therefore went to the ancient oracle of Apollo at Miletus, and after the usual prayers and sacrifices, asked where he was to find a husband for a daughter whom nobody wanted to marry.

This translation had two curious sequels. The Australian government pronounced it obscene and banished its importation, unaware that Adlington’s less intelligible version had been on sale in Australia for a hundred years, and that The Golden Ass, when first printed in the fifteenth century, had been edited by a Catholic bishop. Next, a Stockholm publisher bought the Swedish translation rights.

As a rule, I translate authors for whom I feel a strong liking: Apuleius, Suetonius, or Homer. Once, however, I rashly offered to translate Lucan’s Pharsalia, and hated every minute of it. Lucan had written this as a poem; but when Robert Frost defined poetry as “what gets lost in translation,” he was not referring to literary epics where the poetry is lost before the writing begins. I found the task could be decently undertaken only in prose; even so, to disentangle Lucan’s meaning from his rhetorical artifice was most wearisome.

FOOTNOTES distract the eye and should, whenever possible, be brought up into the text. Here another moral question arises: How far can one’s readers be trusted to catch recondite allusions in a foreign language? What, for instance, is the English for Monsieur de Paris IP aura? Should one translate: “Monsieur de Paris (*Footnote: the Paris executioner) will have him?” Or should one avoid the footnote with “He’s heading for the guillotine”? Or with the more colloquial “Jack Ketch will get him”—• although Jack Ketch used the noose, not the blade? How far can one safely underestimate the general reader’s knowledge?

When translating Alarcon’s Niño de la Bola, written in nineteenth-century Spain, I was doubtful whether to retain the entire text of this passionate novel or to cut at least thirty pages of sentimental rhetoric that add nothing to the story. I cut. When translating the Iliad, I omitted one or two post-Homeric interpolations that spoil the narrative: for instance, the later events at Patrocius’ funeral games, which had not been announced by Achilles’ heralds and are not eighth century in mood. And I rearranged the Catalogue of Ships in easily understood groups, according to the peopies, cities, and islands that sent contingents. Horner repeats certain formal phrases of which one tires after a while:

So spake the white-armed Goddess Hera, and the Owl-eyed Goddess Athene disregarded it not. Thus Hera the Goddess Queen, daughter of Great Cronus, went her way. . . .

Once Hera has been established as the daughter of Cronus, and Athene as Zeus’s virgin daughter, to whom the owl was sacred, why repeat this information.’ “Athene took Hera’s advice, and went away” is enough.

Paradoxically, the more faithful a rendering, the less justice it does the Iliad. Here is a typical passage from Book VI of Professor Lattimore’s unexceptionably professional version, written in broken-backed hexameters:

Bellerophontes went to Lykia In the blameless convoy of the Gods; when he came to the running stream of Xanthos, and Lykia,
the lord of wide Lykia tendered him full-hearted honour.
Nine days he entertained him with sacrifice of nine oxen,
but afterwards when the rose lingers of the tenth dawn showed, then
he began to question him, and asked to be shown the symbols,
whatever he might be carrying front his son-in-law, Proitos.
Then after he had been given his son-in-law’s wicked symbols
first he sent him away with orders to kill the Ghimaira. . . .

In other words:

The Olympians brought Bellerophon safe to the mouth of the Lycian River Xanthus, where Iobates received him splendidly: the feasting lasted nine days, and every day they slaughtered a fresh ox. At dawn, on the tenth day, the time came for Iobates to inquire: “My lord, what news do you bring from my esteemed son-in-law Proetus?” Bellerophon innocently produced the sealed package, and Iobates, having read the tablets, ordered him to kill the Chimaera.

“Blameless convoy of the Gods” and Proitos’“wicked symbols” mean little to modern readers; nor will they recognize “Bellerophontes” as “Bellerophon, or “Proitos” as “Proetus,” or “Lykia” as “Lycia,” or “Chimaira” as “Chimaera . . .”

Professor Lattimore is at least a scholar; far worse things are clone in the name of translation by literary amateurs. Not so long ago, the Times Literary Supplement applauded “the breath-taking magnificence and brilliant paraphrases of Ezra Pound’s translation of Propertius.” He was said to be “deliberately distorting the strict sense in order to bring out vividly Propertius’s latent irony, and to have written what must surely prove to be a durable addition to, and influence upon, original poetry in the English language of this century.” Very well: I looked up two of the couplets quoted by the reviewer:

Multi, Roma, tuas laudes annalibus addent
Out finem imperii Bactra futura canent.
Sed‚ quod pace legas. opus hoc de monte Sororum
Detulit Intacta pagina nostra via.

A word-by-word crib would run:

Multi, Roma, many men, O Rome, addent, shall add, tuas laudes annalibus, praises of thee to the annals‚ qui canent, and shall prophesy, Bactra futura, that Bactria shall form, imperii finem, thine imperial frontier [i.e., that the Parthian Empire shall be absorbed], sed, but, pagina nostra, our page, detulit, has brought down, hoc opus, this work, de monte Sororum‚ from the mountain of the Sisters [i.e., the Muses of Parnassus], via intacta, by an untrodden path, quod legas pace, for thee to read in time of peace.

Mr. Pound’s translation depends on an almost perfect ignorance of Latin, and a guessing at Propertius’ sense from the nearest English verbal equivalents. As here:

Multi tuas laudes, many of your praises, Roma, O Rome, addent annalibus, will be added by annalists, qui, who, Bactra futura, being Bactrians of the future, canent, will sing, fines imperii, about your fine empire. Sed, but, quod, what about, legas, reading matter, pace hoc opus, when all this work is at peace? via, a few, intacta pagina‚ unsullied pages, detulit‚ brought down, de monte Sororurn, from the hill of Sorites [a word which means “a forked complex of logical sophisms” ].

Mr. Pound has dressed this up as:

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations.
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Ro-
man celebrities
And expound the distentions of Empire,
But for something to read in normal circumstances?
For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied?

The book was advertised with “Except for a few pedants like Robert Graves, this translation . .

I UNDERTOOK to translate Terence’s Comedies three years ago, but found his Latin so pure and terse that a faithful rendering would have been too dull for the stage. Yet the formality of the plot and the most un-English atmosphere ruled out the use of modern slang. Luckily I came across a translation done in 1689, with fascinating vigor, by Lawrence Echard, a Cambridge undergraduate who later became prebendary of Lincoln Cathedral; and realized at once that Terence’s plays were vastly more readable when dressed up in the language of Restoration comedy. Echard wrote that Terence’s bluntness of speech did not suit the gallant manners of his own times, but that he had taken it upon himself to correct this fault and, in some places, had lent the scene greater humor than it originally contained, though always keeping a close eye on Terence’s design.

Here is my own attempted version of a scene:

BACCHIS. entering. to her maid: It’s not for nothing that Laches has arranged this interview, and I’m pretty sure that I can guess what it’s about,

LACHES, aside: I must see that my anger doesn’t prevent me from persuading her to do as I wish; or make me act in a way I might afterwards regret. I’ll go up to her. Good day’ Bacchis!

BACCHIS: Good day, Laches . . .

LACHES: I have no doubt that you wonder why I sent for you?

BACCHIS: Yes. I am a little timid when I consider what I am, lest your knowledge of my trade might he to my disadvantage; but I can easily defend my moral character. . . .

And this is Echard’s version:

BACCHIS, entering; I’ll be sworn ‘tis no small matter that makes Mr. Laches send to speak with me now. Yet, in truth. I’m mightily mistaken if I don’t guess what the business is,

LACHES, to himself: I must take special care that my passion neither hinders me from bending her to my wishes, nor makes me do in haste what I may repent at leisure. . . . I’ll accost her. . . . Mrs. Bacchis, your servant!

BACCHIS: Yours, good Mr. Laches.

LACHES: ‘Truth, I don’t doubt but what you somewhat wonder why I sent to speak with ye.

BACCHIS: And really when I consider that question myself, I fear lest the scandal of my trade should prejudice you against me. For, as to my honest behaviour in it, I defy the world to accuse me. . . .

It will easily be seen how much better than mine Echard’s level of English suits Terence.

Daring essays in the translation of Aristophanes have recently been made by a group of American writers. I do not dislike attempts at modernizing ancient dramas, such as Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, which plainly depends on Romeo and Juliet: but I think it unfair to father sophisticated New World obscenities on Aristophanes not even hinted at in his text.

Mr. William Arrowsmith justifies a new version of The Buds as follows:

Rhetorical conventions and jargon. What is true of dialects is also true of professional rhetoric and jargon: if they are to be comic, they have to be translated into an apposite convention of English rhetoric or jargon. Invariably, this means that their language must be heightened and made even more ponderous than it is in the Greek. The astronomer Meton, for instance, is used by Aristophanes to parody the jargon and abstruse pomposity of sophistic science. But because Greek scientific jargon was a relatively immature growth (at least when compared with the jargons of modern science), his words‚ literally translated, sound to modern ears merely somewhat silly. In the circumstances, I deliberately heightened this language, adding technical terms and jargonizing it further, in the belief that only by so doing could I create the effect of gobbledegnok that Meton’s demonstration was intended to have for Athenian ears.

Here is Mr. Arrowsmith’s handling of the theme:

PISTHETAIROS: And those tools?
METON: Celestial rules, of course.
Now attend, sir.
Taken in extenso,
our welkin resembles a cosmical charcoal oven or pothellied stove worked by the convection principle, though vaster. Now then, with the flue as my base, and twirling the calipers thus, I obtain the azimuth, whence, by calibrating the are or radial sine — you follow me, friend?

At this point in translation, I think, one should adopt the Victorian descriptive phrase “After Aristophanes.”

To sum up: A translator’s first duty must always be to choose the appropriate level of his own language for any particular task.

His second duty is to beware of a deceptive resemblance between words in allied languages. For example, in Spanish actual means “contemporary”; justificacion may mean “an apology.” The French for “encore” at a theater is bis.

His third duty will be to treat the other man’s work with as much respect as if it were his own, and present it with loving care — which means, in practice, correcting small faults and clarifying references. But, though entitled to abridge when boredom threatens, he must never foist new ideas on the original.

Finally, he must realize that translation is a polite lie, but nevertheless a lie. Ein Stückchen Brut, un morceau de pain, un tragi to de pan are all similarly rendered in English as “a morsel of bread.” But the altogether different sounds of these words convey immense variations in shape, color, size, weight, and taste of the breadstuff to which they refer, and in the eater’s attitude to them.

Perhaps my linguistic shortcomings have tempted me to overemphasize the importance of knowing one’s own language. You may recall the famous conversation — preserved, I think, by Charles Lever— between a musketeer of the Irish Brigade that fought at Fontenoy and a French sentry;

Old va là? says he.
Je, says I‚ knowing their lingo.
Où est votre lantern? says he.
Mon lantern a sorti, says I.
Comment? says he.
Come on, then, says I: and with that I sthruck him.