George P. Marsh
Lectures on the English Language
(London: John Murray, 1863) pp. 429-432.

George P. Marsh

Lecture XXVII on the English Language

Dialect Test

True aim of translation.

§ 3. The rule often laid down, "that, in translating a foreign work into English, we are to adopt the same style and diction which the author would have used had he been an Englishman," is mistaken or inapplicable, because, except in matters of naked fact or natural science, a foreigner, writing for foreigners, has a totally different set of ideas to express, and a totally different mode of conceiving similar ideas, from those which an Englishman, writing on the same subject, would have, and therefore he would have written a different book. Had Goethe and Richter been born and trained in England, the one could never have produced a 'Wilhelm Meister' or a 'Faust,' the other never a 'Siebenkäs' or a 'Quintus Fixlein.' Had Shakespeare been a Frenchman by birth and education, the world had never seen a 'Hamlet' or a 'Henry IV.'

The true result to be aimed at, where we propose anything beyond the communication of bare fact, is to produce upon the mind of the English reader, so far as possible, the same impression which the original author produced upon the minds of those for whom he wrote. The rule I have just condemned does not lead to the accomplishment of this aim, but, so far as it is practicable at all, its effect is to translate the author, not his work, to give an imitation, not a copy, of the original; whereas it is the characteristic of a perfect translation, that it, for the time, transforms the reader into the likeness of those for whom the story, the ballad, or the ode, was first said or sung.1

The very supposition, that a genial writer could have acquired his special intellectual manhood in any but his native land, involves an absurdity, for it divests him of his nationality, which is as essentially a part of him as the fleshly organs wherewith he takes into his being the world around him, and reproduces it to the consciousness or the imagination of his readers. Shakespeare is often cited as an instance of genius too universal to bear the stamp of a national mint, and doubtless it is true that in him, more than in any other name known in literature, the man predominated over the citizen; but if we compare his works with whatever else modern humanity has produced, we shall find, if not positive internal evidence of his birthright, at least abundant negative proof that in no land save England could that mighty imagination have assumed the form and proportions to which it grew.

Choice of dialect of language into which the translation is to be made.

§ 4. But though the end to be sought in translation is simple enough, the means are neither obvious nor easy of command. There is, however, one principle generally not at all regarded, but which is nevertheless of great practical value in transferring the productions of creative genius from their native to a foreign soil, in such a way that they shall yield the same fruit as in their original clime. It is this: we should choose for our translation the dialect of the period when our language was in a stage of development as nearly as possible corresponding to that of the tongue from which we translate. It seems to have been taken for granted that the dialect of the translator's own time is in all cases to be adopted, and by those who labour for the largest public perhaps it must be; but if the original be a work of true art, belonging to a period of widely different culture, it is as absurd to attempt to modernize it in a foreign tongue as in its own. English historical literature furnishes a good illustration. The Chronicles of Froissart were completed in the year 1400, memorable for the supposed death of Chaucer, a period when the French prose dialect was in a much more advanced stage of development than the English. They were translated by Lord Berners, as great a master of English as any writer of his time, in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and again by Johnes in the early part of the present century. Johnes's translation is executed with commendable fidelity, in good modern English style, and is valuable as a repository of facts and dates, but its relation to Froissart is that of a lithograph to a Titian; while Lord Berners, employing the diction of a period when English prose had advanced to a culture corresponding to that of the French of the preceding century, and, as he himself says, "not followynge his author worde by worde, but ensewing the true reporte of the sentence of the matter," gives you so perfect a repetition of the great chronicler, that you are quite unconscious whether you are reading French or English, and can scarcely resist the belief that you are a contemporary of the fair dames and cavaliers of high emprize whose adventures are pourtrayed with such felicity.

The rule I have here laid down, though very general in its application, has, like most of the principles of literary composition, its exceptions. In the wide differences of culture, of opinion, and of sentiment, which exist between different nations, it may happen that a diction appropriate to the subject as viewed by those for whom a particular work of imaginative art is written may be quite unsuited to the tastes and intellectual habits of a contemporaneous people, equally, though differently cultivated. In such cases a master of the art of translation will select the dialect best adapted to express to his public the conceptions of the author, though it may be that of another century much inferior in grammatical refinement. The fine ballad of 'Lenore' by Bürger, already quoted as an example of imitative felicity of sound, affords a good illustration. Tales of this sort are no longer current in England, and of course the modern English dialect has not been employed to embody them. They belong to earlier English literature, and they are far more effective recited in the language employed when they were a part of a living mythology than when clothed in the critical, sceptical dress of a modern magazine. Taylor, therefore, judged wisely in translating the ballad into the simpler dialect in which it would have been told and understood when the superstitions of the middle ages, if they did not form articles of religious belief, were still constantly exciting the imaginations of the English people. I even doubt whether he has taken too great a licence in carrying back the date of the story from the days of the Battle of Prague, an event unknown in English traditionary lore, to the more familiar age of the Lion-hearted Richard's crusade against the Paynim in the Holy Land. Compare these two stanzas of Taylor, in the English ballad verse, with a more literal version in the metre of the original:--

"He went abroade with Richard's host
The Paynim foes to quell;
But he no word to her had writt,
An he were sick or well.

She bet her breast and wrang her hands
And rollde her tearlesse eye,
From rise of morne till the pale stars
Againe did fleck the sky."

"He'd gone with Fred'ric's host to wield
The sword on Prague's dread battle-field;
Nor had he sent to tell
If he were sick or well.

She wrung her hands and beat her breast,
Until the sun sank down to rest,
'Till o'er the vaulted sphere
The golden stars appear."

1. It was upon this principle that Sigurd, the apostle of Sweden, in a sermon delivered about the beginning of the eleventh century, by an extravagent, but not unnatural licence, substituted cold for heat in threatening the unbeliever with the torments reserved for the wicked in a future state of existence:--
"And bold traitors to God . . shall be accursed by the terrible word of God, and cast out into outer darkness, where is frost and gnashing of teeth."

The imagination of the Northman, whose life was an almost perpetual shiver, would be more readily excited by the idea of suffering from cold, than of exposure to torment by fire, an element which to him was always a beneficent agent.

Manager of this site:
Earl Gosnell
Box 3492
Eugene, OR 97403


Web page problems?

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Enable graphics to view counter visitors since 6/21/2006