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Illustration from "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"

Found in translation: how the amateur translator brought Asian classics to a 19th century audience

Today, translation is a professionalized activity closely linked to the publishing industry. Identifying a foreign-language text that appears suitable for its list, a publisher commissions a translator to produce an English version in return for a fee, and the resulting manuscript is subject to editorial intervention and input from the marketing department prior to publication. For most of the nineteenth century, however, this organized chain of production had yet to be established. Instead, it was typically the translator who embarked on a project according to their own whims and preferences, and who subsequently submitted the manuscript, unsolicited, to the publisher. 

The people who submitted these manuscripts were representative of their era. The majority of nineteenth-century translators were not formally qualified and did not see their activity as a full-time job. For them, translation was just one among a range of literary pursuits, undertaken more frequently for recreation than remuneration—practised often, in fact, in a thoroughly leisurely or desultory manner. One such noteworthy dilettante was the poet and recluse Edward Fitzgerald, who translated quatrains or ruba’i from Persian while sauntering in the fields near his Suffolk home. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam would ultimately make his name famous around the English-speaking world, but he originally published it anonymously, entirely indifferent to worldly success. 

“For the majority of nineteenth-century translators, translation was undertaken in a leisurely or desultory manner.”

Similarly amateurish, yet actuated by quite different motives and financial pressures, were self-styled “popularizers” whose business it was to make various branches of specialist knowledge, including foreign literature, accessible to the general public. Popularizers flourished in an era of increasing literacy and cheap print, and were celebrated by the influential critic and social commentator, Matthew Arnold, for disseminating cultural capital “outside the clique of the cultivated and learned.” 

A little-known fact is that the first person to translate Omar Khayyam into English was not Edward Fitzgerald, but Louisa Stuart Costello, an Irishwoman who turned her hand to various forms of writing to support her widowed mother. Her 1845 anthology of lyric poets, The Rose Garden of Persia, was rendered not from the original Persian but from translations published by professional orientalists in France and Germany. Taking their work, she glossed or removed obscure phrases or allusions, abridged long texts, and offered brief accessible biographies for each poet in her anthology. She also “versified” their prose translations of Persian lyric, turning the text back into poetry (but using metres and rhyme schemes recognizable in 1840s Britain). 

Such recycling of technical or specialist publications for the general audience was a common phenomenon, and one particularly interesting to observe in regard to Asian languages. This field of translation was characterized by an especially sharp contrast between a large and active body of popularizers, and the surprisingly small community of professional orientalists, who lacked the numbers and the clout to prevent interlopers grazing on their turf. This was sometimes a source of bitter resentment. E.B. Eastwick, Professor of Hindustani at the East India Company’s training college, was outraged to see the public “batten on such scraps of Orientalism as Miss Costello’s ‘Rose-Garden’.” While such a concoction might please the ignorant, Eastwick went on, “the Eastern scholar” (his italics) would find it utterly unsatisfactory. But such readers had never been Costello’s intended audience. “I scarcely dare address a word to the oriental scholar,” she wrote humbly in her preface, except to ask that “he” (academic orientalism being an exclusively male preserve at this time) forgive any flaws in her execution, for the sake of her motive. This was to acquaint the British public with “a new source of admiration of the graceful and beautiful,” and make the names of the great Persian lyricists, like Hafez and Sa‘di, “familiar in the mouth as household words.”

“The Rose Garden has distinctive merits, not least is Costello’s sensitiveness to the cultural particularities of her source-texts.”

Costello’s execution could indeed be called flawed, in some respects. Her inexpertise betrays her into a number of blunders, which her reviewers pounced on. But the Rose Garden also has distinctive merits, not least among which are Costello’s sensitiveness to the cultural particularities of her source-texts, and her fundamental sympathy and respect for the quite different moral and aesthetic values she encountered in Persian writing. By contrast, Eastwick himself expressed a remarkable contempt for the literature he spent much of his life studying. “Those very characteristics of style, which form its chiefest beauties in the eye of Persian taste,” he explains in the preface to his translation of the Anvar-i Suhayli, “will appear to the European reader as ridiculous blemishes.” The text’s “hyperbole and sameness of metaphor and the rudeness and unskilfulness of the plots of some of the stories,” it goes on, “cannot but be wearisome and repulsive to the better and simpler judgment of the West.” 

Costello also surprises the modern reader with her frank admission of the English language’s limitations as a medium for communicating the beauty of Persian poetry. Indeed, she regrets the compound nouns of German when trying to express locutions like “rose-lipped” and “emerald-hued.” However, the defective verbosity to which her antagonist refers is, as far as he is concerned, intrinsic to the text and glares forth blatantly in his own crisp and transparent English. The possibility that its special beauties may have eluded his masterful translation is beneath consideration.

Not all amateurs combined Costello’s enthusiasm, sensitivity, and humility. It is easy to find similarly underqualified translators who plugged gaps in their knowledge by catering to stereotypical and prurient fantasies about “the East.” But I have found many popularizers who produced versions more respectful of the complexity, cultural difference, and fundamental untranslatability of Asian texts than the professional orientalists whose work they were typically adapting. The global literary canon as we experience it today arose, to a considerable degree, from their activities, and in them may be found things lost even in contemporary translation.

Featured image: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – First Version – Illustrated, translated by Edmund Fitzgerald, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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