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Why the forgotten alternative translations of classical literature matter

When they are creative, translations and imitations can be the most revealing form of criticism. It is sometimes said that translation is the most intimate form of reading; successful translations are also highly expressive. The English-language heyday of classical verse translation, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, produced works that people still read, enjoy, and study today, beginning with English classics such as Alexander Pope’s Homer and John Dryden’s Virgil. Translation has been central in what we now call the reception of ancient poetry through the ages.

Thanks to increasing scholarly interest, we understand the history of literary translation in English better today than we did only a couple of decades ago. Bibliographical tools have appeared, historical narratives have been published (the weightiest of them the five-volume Oxford History of Literary Translation in English), and critical studies are no longer restricted to a small number of high-profile writers. But the record of printed translation on which this understanding is based reflects only part of the historical phenomenon, and not necessarily a representative part. Translations that never reached a printer may hold as much interest for us as those which were widely read in their own day, and in some cases more. One example recently printed for the first time is the English translation of the Latin epic poem of Lucretius, De rerum natura, by the civil war period writer Lucy Hutchinson. This shows us very clearly how someone quite different from any published translator of Lucretius responded to his epic. Hutchinson may well be its very earliest English translator. Hutchinson was a Puritan, Lucretius was renowned as an atheist. Like all Lucretius’s other translators, Hutchinson was a capable Latinist; but unlike them, she was a woman.

Translations that never reached a printer may hold as much interest for us as those which were widely read in their own day, and in some cases more.

Scholars and editors have been retrieving historical verse compositions from manuscript copies on an occasional and often serendipitous basis for centuries, including, every so often, classical translations. But the low profile of translation in English literary history (for a long time thought of as inferior to original writing) has made for slow progress here. Individual scholars and editors have rescued and published only a few of the most sizeable and eye-catching extant items, such as translations of famous epics. No concerted attempt has ever been made at methodically collecting some of the best of this often amateur work from the English-speaking world’s archives.

But such research can bring to light hitherto unknown English readers and translators. Translating a Greek or Latin verse text was an exercise in which a surprising number of people indulged. Some of them are anonymous. Some belong to social groups previously not much in evidence in the record. Writings by more familiar figures can be recovered too. The private diaries of Warren Hastings, the eighteenth-century statesman, contain remarkable translations of Catullus which Hastings never published. An impressive English version of part of a Horatian epistle appearing in two contemporary manuscripts is likely to have been written by Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright contemporary with Shakespeare.

Plenty of schoolroom translation exercises are certainly extant, but so is much sophisticated work by adults – their translations are often not the amateurish productions we might expect. They are frequently responses to the professional printed translations with which they are familiar, but these responses can be questioning or testing, undercutting, subversive, hostile. They tend to be in some way alternative because, after all, a reader entirely happy with existing translations would have no reason to devote time to creating another. Thus different Catulluses, different Juvenals, different Horaces emerge here from those we know in the familiar or classic English versions. One reason for this must be that innovation, experiment, playfulness, and risk-taking are much more likely to happen among translators who do not have to satisfy a publisher who commissioned their work, and have no public to avoid offending.

By the eighteenth century, English-speaking readers acquired the habit of seeing the world in terms of the ancient works with which they had become so familiar. This familiarity came about partly through a heavily Latin-based education. But it also came about through the burgeoning production of English classical translation, by now at the very forefront of literary endeavour and prestige. What we have not understood until now is how energetically, and with what creativity and sophistication, these readers participated in that production themselves.

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Recent Comments

  1. Thomas Breivogel Jr.

    Great article. Fascinating topic. Thanks for posting.

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