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American translators

the English-speaking race has a strong instinct for translation, extending through both its branches. Miss Mitford says of one of her heroes in a country town, ‘He translated Horace, as all gentlemen do;’ and Mrs. Austin speaks of Goethe's ‘Faust’ as ‘that untranslatable poem which every Englishman translates.’ Americans are not behind their British cousins in these labors; and Professor Boyesen —who, as a Norseman by birth and an American by adoption, is free of all languages—has written an agreeable paper in Book News1 on the general subject of translations. In this he says that America has produced three of the greatest translators of modern times; a statement which every patriotic American would perhaps indorse, were he himself only allowed to make the selection. To two out of three of Mr. Boyesen's favorites I should certainly take [145] decided objection; and, curiously enough, should nominate as substitutes two other translators of the very books he selects as test-subjects for rendering.

About Longfellow there can be no difference of opinion. He seems to me, as to Mr. Boyesen, to rank first among those who have made translations into the English tongue. He alone avoids the perpetual difference between literal and poetic versions by absolutely combining the two methods; a thing which Mr. Boyesen thinks—but, I should say, mistakenly—cannot be done. Mr. Boyesen's dictum that ‘no poetic translation can be good and literal at the same time,’ is refuted by the very existence of Longfellow, whose instinct for the transference of his author's language seemed like a sixth sense or a special gift for that one purpose. Placing side by side his German ballads and their originals, one neither detects anything of Longfellow put in nor anything of Uhland or Heine left out. The more powerful and commanding class of translators insert themselves into the work of their authors; thus Chapman so Chapmanizes Homer that in the long run his [146] version fails to give pleasure; and Fiztgerald has whole lines in his ‘Agamemnon’ which are not in Aeschylus and are almost indistinguishable in flavor from his ‘Omar Khayyam.’ Even Mrs. Austin, in that exquisite version quoted by Longfellow in his ‘Hyperion,’ beginning

Many a year is in its grave,

has infused into it a tinge of dreamy sentiment slightly beyond that conveyed by Uhland in the original.

It is perhaps more beautiful, as it stands, than any of Longfellow's ballad-versions; but it is less perfect as a rendering. It is possible that Longfellow's own method swerved a little, in his later years, toward over-literalness. There are many who prefer the freer and more graceful movement of his ‘Vision of Beatrice’ in the ‘Ballads and other Poems’ to the stricter measure of the same passage in his completed translation. This last work has truly, as Mr. Boyesen says, an air of constraint; but I think he is in error in attributing this quality to the influence of those who met to criticise [147] Longfellow's work; it was rather due to the strong hold taken, by the theory of a literal rendering, on the poet's mind. Overliteral-ness appears to be the Nemesis of a genius for translating; the longer a man works, the more precise he becomes.

The second of Mr. Boyesen's great American translators is Bryant; and here I should utterly dissent from him. The best introduction to Homer in English is Matthew Arnold's ‘Essay on Translating Homer;’ or rather it would be, but for its needless and diffuse length, which prevents many persons from really mastering it; but I do not see how any one, after reading it, can look through a page of Bryant's version without a sense of its utter tameness and its want of almost all the qualities defined by Arnold as essential to Homer. Mr. Lawton has finely said, at the beginning of his admirable papers on Aeschylus in the Atlantic Monthly2 that ‘the Homeric poems offer us, as it were, a glimpse of a landscape scene by a flash of lightning. What came before and immediately after we cannot discern.’ But in [148] Bryant's translation there is substituted for the flash of lightning the very mildest moonlight; and there seems no particular reason, from anything in the tone or flavor of his narrative, why the whole series of events should not have taken place on Staten Island. Mr. Bryant undoubtedly had, in his youth, something of Longfellow's gift for translation; his early Spanish ballads had in them much promise; they were as good as Lockhart's, perhaps better. But his ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ were an old man's work, done with mechanical regularity, so many lines a day; and while they are ‘grave and dignified,’ as his critic says, they are Homer with the fire of Homer—or, in other words, with Homer himself—left out. But the real translator of the Father of Poetry is, in my judgment, one whom Mr. Boyesen does not name, and perhaps does not yet know, so recently has the first instalment of his great work appeared—Prof. G. H. Palmer. For the last half-dozen years it has been the greatest intellectual pleasure afforded by a residence near Harvard University to follow with the Greek text the public readings of Professor [149] Palmer from the ‘Odyssey.’ These readings were given so simply, with such quiet and sustained animation, that it all seemed like an extempore performance; and all the incidents were told with such utter freshness that they might have just arrived as news by telegraph. This English text is published; it is cast, with consummate art, in a sort of rhythmic prose, perfectly simple, yet measured, and securing, perhaps, the nearest approach that can be had in English to the actual rhythm of Homer. Professor Palmer will now have to solve the further and more difficult problem, whether the stronger and richer measure of the ‘Iliad’ can be dealt with in the same way. But the work already done is one of the monumental works of American scholarship; and although it stands to the eye as a prose version, and might at first be hastily classed with a translation so incomparably inferior to it as that of Butcher and Lang, yet it is really as literal as that, while achieving at least half the interval, whatever that may be, which separates prose from poetry.

Mr. Boyesen's third great American translator is Bayard Taylor. Here again he seems [150] to me to concede too much to labor and not enough to genius. As a tour de force, Taylor's great work is doubtless monumental, and an honor to American scholarship. I remember with what regret I noticed that there was no copy of it, ten years ago, in the collection of Goethean literature in the Gothe-Haus at Frankfort, though Taylor's honorary diploma was there, and the custodian spoke of him with respect. As a translator of the whole work, and as a copious commentator and elucidator he is entitled to great credit, although his abundant notes are taken largely from German sources, easily accessible. No Englishman, at any rate, has done the same work so well. But it is to be remembered that although the translation of the Second Part of ‘Faust,’ in the original metres, taxes severely the ingenuity and adroitness of any workman, yet it is in dealing with the oft-translated First Part that the higher poetic qualities come in; and in this Taylor has been easily surpassed, I should say, by the late Charles T. Brooks. And while Brooks, it is true, stopped short of the longer and more laborious Second Part, yet he made [151] up for that by his remarkable series of versions of the yet more difficult work of Jean Paul Richter. These he handled, especially the ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Titan,’ with a felicity and success unequalled among Richter's translators; and it is an illustration of the ignorance in England of the successes achieved by Americans in this direction, that Mr. Brooks's works of this series are there so little recognized. Another remarkable American translator from the German is Charles G. Leland, whose version of Heine's Reisebilder under the name of ‘Pictures of Travel’ is so extraordinarily graphic and at the same time so literal that it ought of itself to achieve a permanent fame for the author of ‘Hans Breitmann.’

1 1 August, 1888.

2 August, 1888.

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