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

§ 8. Florio’s Montaigne

John Florio’s Montaigne holds a place apart. This translator had neither the sentiment of North nor the scholarship of Holland. He brought to his task that which neither the one nor the other of these masters possessed—a curious fantasy, which was all his own. He was of the stuff whereof pedants are made. He delighted in eccentricity and extravagance. His prefaces are masterpieces of pomp and decoration. Asking, in a breathless refrain, “Madame, now do I flatter you?” he exhausts the language of adulation, until at last he falls back upon ecstatic repetitions. He dedicates the first book of his Montaigne “to the Right Honourable my best-best Benefactors, and most-most honored Ladies, Lucie Countesse of Bedford; and hir best-most loved-loving mother Lady Anne Harrington.” He plays upon words; he lets sound take the place of sense; he cultivates-alliteration, and pleads guilty to “a jirke of the French jargon.” A plain simplicity is beyond his reach; he fetches his frequent images from afar. He declares that in his translation he serves “but as Vulcan, to hatchet this Minerva from that Jupiter’s bigge braine.” When he contemplates his finished work, he strikes an attitude of valiance. “I sweat, I wept, and I went-on, til now I stand at bay.” He is modest only when he thinks of his original. “Him have I set before you,” says he, “perhaps without his trappings,” and his “meate without sauce.” But he keeps a stern face even in the presence of his “peerlesse, and in all good gifts unparagonised Ladies”; he tells his reader that he is “still resolute John Florio”; and there is always more of Bobadil in his bearing than of Holofernes.

Upon his version of Montaigne’s Essays he exhausted his gifts and lavished his temperament. He loved words for their own sakes with a love which Montaigne would not have appreciated, and which will be easily intelligible to all who know Florio’s famous Worlde of Wordes. Turn where you will in his translation, and you will find flowers of speech, which grow not in the garden of the original. “Je n’y vauls rien,” says Montaigne, and Florio interprets: “I am nothing worth, and I can never fadge well.” For soufflet Florio can find nothing simpler than “a whirret in the ear”; for finesses verbales he gives us “verbal wily-beguilies,” surely a coinage of his own. Fade becomes “wallowish,” and crestez is admirably rendered by “pert and cocket.” The “jirke of the French jargon,” already mentioned, is evident in such borrowed words as “tintamare,” “entrecuidance,” “friandize” and “mignardize.” He is as fond as Montaigne himself of proverbial phrases. “I will have them to give Plutarch a bob upon mine own lips” has precisely the same sense and sound as the French “Je veux qu’ils donnent une nazarde à Plutarque sur mon nez.” And, though the metaphor is changed, “he hath had the canvas” (as who should say “he hath had the sack”) is an excellent match for “cettuy-cy aura donné du nez à terre.” It will be seen that Florio’s method was neither just nor accurate. He made no attempt to suppress himself as we are told a good translator should. The reader never forgets that “resolute John Florio” is looking out from the page as well as Montaigne. He is often inaccurate, and not seldom he misses the point. But compare his version with Cotton’s, and you will not hesitate to give the palm to Florio. Cotton’s translation is a sound and scholarly piece of work; Florio’s is a living book.

The translations in verse made in the age of Elizabeth may not be compared with the translations in prose. For their inferiority there are many plain reasons. Only a poet can render in another tongue the works of a poet, and even a poet cannot ensure a just interpretation. Between one language and another there are obstacles of metre and style, of temper and music, which are most often insuperable. Moreover, in the sixteenth century, the translating of prose was governed by so wise a convention, that mere journeymen could attempt a delicate task without risking conspicuous failure. The secret of verse could not be thus easily imparted, and much that won the approval of its own time appears to us the saddest of doggerel. The enterprise was yet further hampered by a vain love of experiment. An age which desired to leave nothing untried did its best to introduce the hexameter into English verse, and, as Vergil and Ovid composed their poems in hexameters, it seemed proper to some translators to follow an alien example. Ascham began the controversy both by practice and precept. In his Toxophilus, he gave the world some poor specimens of the kind. The exercise of some ingenuity may scan the lines which follow:

  • What thing wants quiet and meri rest endures but a smal while.
  • Both merie songs and good shoting deliteth Apollo.
  • His precept was better than his practice. He condemned the English hexameter far more effectively than he wrote it. Carmen exametrum, said he, “doth rather holte and hoble than run smothly in an English tong.” The question, once posed, was hotly debated. Gabriel Harvey wished no other epitaph than this: “the inventor of the English hexameter.” Spenser gave Harvey a ready approval, and Nashe, of course, took the other side. “The Hexameter verse,” says he, with excellent sense, “I grant to be a gentleman of an auncient house (so is many an English begger); yet this clyme of ours hee cannot thrive in.” Time has proved the justice of Nashe’s opinion. The experiments of Spenser and Harvey were long since forgotten, and those who turned Vergil and Ovid into their own measures are remembered only as curiosities.