Letter from Stephen MacKenna to E.R. Debenham (April 1919), in Journal and Letters of Stephen MacKenna
, ed. E.R. Dodds (London: Constable & Co Ltd, 1936), pp. 153-156 (at 154-156):
If I personally read Greek translation I'm always uneasy lest I'm reading the translator's ideas, not his author's, getting the translator's palette effects, not those of the original: if I have the Greek text en vis à vis I am at ease; I can colour up or down as the Greek indicates to my temperament that
the translator has over- or under-coloured, raised or lowered the tone....I read a good deal of Greek in Latin-Greek, French-Greek, German-Greek and English-Greek texts as a constant suggestion of tricks of the translation-craft, so I consider myself quite an authority on this point: my total testimony would be that nothing could serve the classics more than superbly free translations—backed of course by the thoroughest knowledge—accompanied by the strict text. The original supplies the corrective or the guarantee; the reader, I find, understands the depths of his Greek or Latin much better for the free rendering—again, I think of a chaste freedom, a freedom based rigidly on a pre-servitude.
I constantly find myself unable to read, unable to understand, translations which would appear to satisfy the accepted ideas of "literalness": give me a free translation by a man of first-rate knowledge, and I'm quite often amused to find that out of the freedom I can reconstruct the Greek original almost verbatim. In other words, a good free translation can I think be proven to be much nearer to the original than most literal translations: it is paradoxical, yet it is truer than people would think who have not tried it. I would add—all this is from a long meditated and never written essay on translations from Greek—that I think it can be shown that the literal school
(1) necessarily by their principle exclude from the translator's use vast and important or even essential
territories of the English language, idioms and words alike, and
(2) include hosts of words, idioms, and "attack" generally, which are no longer English.
So that "literal" English turns out to be (1) Liddell & Scott English or (2) a bastard English, a horrible mixture of Elizabethan, Jacobean, fairytale-ese, Biblicism and modern slang (not slang of word but, what is worse, of phrase or construction).