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Won't a Translation Do?


By Andrew F. West, Dean of the Graduate School, Princeton University, 1917

The statement that the classics are sufficiently available for modern purposes in the form of translations deserves attention. Good translations are the next best thing to the originals. A vast amount of knowledge and profit is to be gained from them. By all means let those who cannot consult the originals, and also those who can, read fine versions. Some of them are English classics, such as Dryden's Virgil, Jowett's Plato and Jebb's Sophocles. So far as full reproduction of the tone and spirit of the originals is concerned, readers of translations will lose least in the books of information, such as Arrian, Polybius, Manilius, Pliny the Elder and Aristotle's Natural History, and most in the works of style and vision. They will get much and lose much in Herodotus and Thucydides and Tacitus. Tam diu Germania vincitur, wrote Tacitus, grimly summing up in four words two centuries of wars between Rome and the Germans. Who can put in English or any other tongue the strength and irony of this sketch in four strokes? No one has done so. Still, on the whole, readers of good versions will get nearest to the originals in the records of history and erudition. And "ancient history," as Bryce observes, "is the key to all history.

It takes genius to translate genius finely. Even then something is always lost. The best reflection is less than the full light, and often the best reflections cannot be obtained. The "disillusion" of translations, which are not actual works of re-creations, is easily proved, and the works of re-creation are very rare. The translators themselves are the best witnesses to this. Shakespear in German is amusingly interesting to the point of merriment and Homer's hexameters in that tongue thump in heavy tumbling lines. Milton tried his hand at Horace and turned fickle Pyrrha into a Priscilla. Ben Jonson did best of all in his part version and part creation of "Drink to me only with thine eyes" and then translated the thrilling Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus of Catullus with graceful inadequacy. Where these failed, who shall succeed? And in prose who shall ever copy perfectly Livy's picture of the dying Tarquin or Cicero's words to his son at the end of the De Officiis or the battle of Thermopylae in Herodotus or Plato's serene look as he tells of the mach aqanatoV, the "immortal conflict" between the hosts of Good and Evil, or the majestic rhythm of Augustine's Visibilium omnium maximus est mundus; invisibilium omnium maximus est Deus. In poetry the task is harder and often impossible. The unforgetable lines! how they haunt the memory by hundreds --- living, appealing, enchanting. Take three instances at random. For splendor take the vision of Ennius of the night sky filled with stars: O magna templa caelitum commixta stellis splendidis . Or for still beauty Virgil's picture of the glittering moonlit sea: Splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus. Or for "eternal passion, eternal pain" Sappho's deathless fainetai moi khnoV isoV qeoisin, exquisitely attempted by Catullus, but in vain, and the despair of poets ever since.

So translations are like photographs, best for reproducing drawings and worst for sunsets. It is as though one who could not see the French cathedrals or the pyramids should acquaint himself with good photographs and engravings, or, in rare cases, with good paintings of them. But they are not the cathedrals or the pyramids. They ar ethe next best thing, unless, as may be the case, the tales of the travellers ar better. These, too, are not the original, but a teacher's interpretation --- sometimes very good and sometimes not. To bring the meaning of all this straight home, think of Cowper's lines on receiving his dead mother's picture: "O that those lips had language! Life has passed / With me but roughly since I saw thee last." The picture was a reflection of his mother's face. It was not his mother.

Are translations sufficient for the best modern education? No one doubts the originals are better than the best versions. Why, then, should not those who are willing to learn the original languages and enjoy the original literature in its original vigor have a really good chance and also be urged to take it? This is the day when we are told incessantly to "go to the sources" in science and history and studies generally. We should do the same with the classics and lead everyone who is able and willing along the ascending way to the ever flowing self renewing Pierian spring.

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