The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. Translators

§ 1. The Craft of Translation

THE TRANSLATORS of Elizabeth’s age pursued their craft in the spirit of bold adventure which animated Drake and Hawkins. It was their ambition to discover new worlds of thought and beauty. They sailed the wide ocean of knowledge to plant their colonies of the intellect where they might, or to bring back to our English shores some eloquent stranger, whom their industry had taught to speak with our English tongue. Holland justly describes his enterprise as a conquest. He “would wish rather and endeavour,” says he in the preface to his translation of Pliny, “by all means to triumph now over the Romans in subduing their literature under the dent of the English pen, in requitall of the conquest some time over this Island, atchieved by the edge of their sword.” And, harbouring this sentiment of conquest, the translators were strongly impelled also by the desire to benefit their native land and its rulers. They had learned from the classics deep lessons of policy and statecraft, which they would impart to their queen and her magistrates. Their achievement was, indeed, the real renascence of England, the authentic recovery of the ancient spirit. That they were keenly conscious of what they were doing is clear from their dedications and their prefaces. The choice of the great personages to whom they presented their works was made with a deliberate purpose. When North and Holland asked the queen’s protection for their master-pieces, it was in the full hope and knowledge that Plutarch and Livy would prove wise guides unto her footsteps. Nor was it with the mere intent of flattery or applause that other translators offered the fruits of their toil to Cecil, Leicester and Christopher Hatton. They wished to give counsel where they deemed it useful. Thomas Wilson, for instance, the translator of Demosthenes, thought that every good subject should compare the present and the past; that, when he heard of Athens and the Athenians, he should remember England and Englishmen; that, in brief, he should learn from the doings of his elders how to deal with his own affairs. John Brende, who Englished Quintus Curtius, in presenting his book to the duke of Northumberland, thus explained his purpose:

  • “There is required in all Magistrates,” says he, “both a faith and feare in God, and also an outward pollicie in wordly things: whereof, as the one is to be learned by the Scriptures, so the other must chiefly be gathered by reading of histories.”
  • Wherever you turn, you find the same admirable excuse; and, as the translators gave to England well nigh the whole wisdom of the ancients, they provided not merely grave instruction for kings and statesmen, but plots for the dramatists, and entertainment for lettered ease.

    As their interest lay chiefly in the matter of their originals, they professed little desire to illustrate a theory of translation. They had neither the knowledge nor the sense of criticism, which should measure accurately the niceties of their craft. They set about their work in a spirit of sublime unconsciousness. In their many prefaces, and they delighted in prefaces, there is scarce a hint that they are pursuing a delicate art. The most of them were indifferent to, or ignorant of, Horace’s maxim:

  • Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere fidus
  • Interpres,
  • though, for the best of reasons, they followed the poet’s liberal counsel. They would not have understood the scientific care with which Dryden presently distinguished metaphrase and paraphrase. Chapman, it is true, knew the end at which he aimed, and, in the preface to his Homer, lucidly describes what should be the ambition of the translator:
  • “The work of a skilfull and worthy translator,” says he, “is to observe the sentences, figures and formes of speech proposed in his author, his true sence and height, and to adorn them with figures and formes of oration fitted to the originall in the same tongue to which they are translated.”
  • And one W. R., in an eloquent epistle, addressed to the translator, wittily defends Lodge against the charge that he had not parrot-like spoken Seneca’s own words and lost himself in a Latin echo. But both Chapman and Lodge’s defender wrote when the art of translation had been pursued for two generations and was falling, not unnaturally, into a habit of self-criticism. In general, the translators of the heyday were accurate neither in word nor in shape. They followed the text as remotely as they imitated the style of their originals.

    I have said that North and his colleagues were inspired by a love of adventure. They resembled the pioneers of our empire also in a splendid lack of scruple. As the early travellers cheerfully seized upon the treasure of others, painfully acquired, and turned to their own profit the discoveries of Spaniard and Portuguese, so the translators cared not by what intermediary they approached the Greek and Latin texts. Very few were scholars in the sense that Philemon Holland was a scholar. Like Shakespeare, the most had little Latin and less Greek. When Thomas Nicolls, citizen and goldsmith of London, set out to translate Thucydides, he went no further than the French of Claude de Seyssel, and Claude de Seyssel made his version not from the Greek but from the Latin of Laurentius Valla. Between Thomas North and Plutarch stands the gracious figure of Jacques Amyot. Thomas Underdowne derived his Aethiopian Historie from the Latin of Stanislaus Warschewiczki, a Polish country gentleman, who translated the Greek of Heliodorous, rure paterno, in 1551. Thus Adlington, in interpreting The Golden Ass, was misled by Lasne Dore of Guillaume Michel. Thus Aristotle came into our speech through the French of Leroy, and even Bandello crossed from Italy to England by the courtly bridge of Belleforest.

    The result of this careless method is that the translations of Elizabeth’s age (in prose, at any rate) are unsoiled by pedantry. They do not smell of the lamp; they suggest nowhere the laborious use of the pedestrian dictionary. They call up a vision of space and courage and the open air. That they are inappropriate seems no fault in them. If they replace the restraint of the classics with the colour and sentiment of romance, it is because the translators have done their work thoroughly. They have turned the authors of Greece and Rome not merely into a new language but into the feeling of another age and clime. In other words, their books carry with them the lively air of brave originals. And this natural impress is the deeper, because translation was not an exclusive craft, pursued in the narrow spirit of mere scholarship. Many of the most ingenious craftsmen were men of the world, who made their versions to beguile a leisure snatched from the conduct of affairs. Sir Thomas Hoby, who gave us The Courtier, was an ambassador; Danett, who put Commines in an English dress, practised the art of diplomacy loftily exemplified in his original; with a fine sense of propriety, Peter Whitehorne translated Machiavelli’s Arte of Warre when he was in Barbary with the emperor, “at the siege and winning of Calibbia”; Thomas North himself played his part as a magistrate in the policies of the larger world. Even those who, like Holland and Golding, adopted translating as a profession practised a style all untrammelled by the schools. The reproach of Dryden, that “there are many who understand Greek and Latin, and yet are ignorant of their mother-tongue,” might not be brought with justice against them. Few men of the century knew Greek and Latin. Many were masters of English, which they wrote with an eloquence and elaboration rarely surpassed.