Sunday, April 07, 2013


Mania for Translations

Henry James (1843-1916), review of A Winter in Russia. From the French of Théophile Gautier. By M.M. Ripley. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1874, in Nation (November 12, 1874), rpt. in Henry James, Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition (New York: The Library of America, 1984) pp. 384-386 (at 384-385):
We have observed for some time past an increasing mania for translations.

It is a very good fashion, but even the best things may be overdone. Of course, dull books should never be translated, but it by no means follows that because a book is clever it should be translated into another tongue. A book may be very clever in French or in German and very dull in English, and translation, intended as a compliment, may become in fact an unpardonable injury. There are certain cases, indeed, in which it seems to us really immoral; when it deliberately encumbers a foreign language, namely, with books of a light and trivial order. Natives have a certain property in their language, and though we may regret their using it for frivolous purposes, one can hardly pretend to legislate against them. As a general thing, a people may be trusted to produce its own padding, and there is no good reason why our groaning English idiom should be weighted with exotic commonplaces. A great many things are said in society which it is very well to hear once, if you happen to be sitting near the speaker; but he would be a very officious master of ceremonies who should insist on repeating and propagating them. In so far as we may lay down a general rule in the case we should say that the books translatable were books of matter, and books untranslatable books of manner. If the substance of a book is light and its chief attraction is in the way things are said, it had certainly better be left in the closely-fitting garment of the original. This, of course, limits very much the translation of merely entertaining and amusing books, but the restriction in such cases is especially wholesome. If a writer has nothing but sweetened froth to offer the public, it is well that he should at least have been at pains to beat his froth into the finest possible consistency; and just so it is well that readers who have an appetite for the compound should be forced, to take such exercise as is involved in a walk to the confectioner's. To read such a writer as Théophile Gautier, for instance, is pure diversion, and a healthy-minded reader ought to pay for his pastime by making the very moderate effort required for reading him in the original. It is true that readers are becoming such abandoned Sybarites, and the aversion of the public at large to anything which compels attention to pause for an instant and touch her feet to the earth is so strikingly on the increase, that the "healthy mind" in question can be but rarely postulated. Gautier is precisely one of the writers who are everything in their own tongue, and nothing, or almost nothing, out of it. He is what the French call a fantaisiste, and his fantasies are four-fifths verbal to one-fifth intellectual. Half the charm of his writing is in the mere curl and flutter of his phrase, as he unreels it in long bright-colored ribands; but in an English version the air of spontaneity soon disappears, and this ceaseless play of style becomes rigid and awkward. Moreover, Gautier chose his words with an extraordinary fineness of instinct, and in his pictures, as they stand, every hair-stroke tells. A translator rarely chooses the foreign equivalent with the care with which such an artist as Gautier selects the original term, so that the phrase must often be at best but a rough approximation to the author's. In each case the deflection is slight, but in the whole is enormous. The house when it is finished is found to stand crooked. The translation before us is executed with commendable skill; its only fault is that it is a translation. It will have rendered a service, however, if it sends a few readers to its untranslated companions.

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