The risks of snobbery in the classics

A few days ago I was reading the 17th century John Aubrey’s Brief lives when I came across the following statement in the life of Sir Henry Billingsley (d. 1606), who translated Euclid into English.

Memorandum. P. Ramus in his Scholia’s sayes that the reason why mathematiques did most flourish in Germanie was that the best authors were rendred into their mother tongue, and that publique lectures of it were also read in their owne tongue – quod nota bene. 

There are other statements of the same kind, that people had real difficulty accessing technical works written in Latin, but that translations were the exception rather than the rule.

This evening I was reading Martial in the old Loeb edition.  This contains a  list of translations, ending with the following paragraph (vol. 1, p.xxi).

If a “bad eminence” confer any title to fame, James Elphinston (1721-1809) deserves special notice. He was the son of an Episcopalian clergyman, and was educated at the High School and at the University of Edinburgh. In 1750 he superintended the issue of a Scotch edition of Johnson’s Rambler, supplying English translations of the mottoes, for which he was thanked by Johnson. From 1752 to 1776 he was successively a schoolmaster at Brompton and at Kensington. He published in 1778 a Specimen of the Translations of Epigrams of Martial, with a preface informing the public that he awaited subscriptions to enable him to publish a version of Martial’s works complete. With regard to this work, it is recorded by Boswell under date of April 9, 1778 that Garrick, being consulted, told Elphinston frankly that he was no epigrammatist, and advised him against publishing; that Johnson’s advice was not asked, and was not forced upon the translator; and that Elphinston’s own brother-in-law, Strahan, the printer, in sending him a subscription of fifty pounds, promised him fifty more if he would abandon his project.

The offer was not accepted, and in 1782 the whole work appeared in a handsome quarto. It was received with derision, the poet Beattie saying, “It is truly an unique: the specimens formerly published did very well to laugh at, but a whole quarto of nonsense and gibberish is too much.” And Mrs. Piozzi records that “of a modern Martial, when it came out, Dr. Johnson said ‘there are in these verses too much folly for madness, I think, and too much madness for folly.'” And the unhappy author was gibbeted in the following epigram by Robert Burns:

“O thou whom Poesy abhors,
Whom Prose has turned out of doors !
Heardst thou that groan? Proceed no further:
‘Twas laurell’d Martial roaring ‘Murther!'”

Criticism indeed.  The comment of Garrick to Elphinstone is recorded in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, where it is given verbatim (‘…you don’t seem to have that turn’).  It is certainly true that Elphinstone’s versions lack literary charm, being frankly dull.

But … the fact is that Elphinstone’s translation was the first attempt at a complete Martial.  Selections had been made before.  There is quite a list in the Loeb.  An unpublished Elizabethan manuscript by an unknown author contains many vivid versions in verse, included in the Bohn Classical Library.  So too are many by William Hay MP, also in verse and of much charm.

However such selections did not make Martial accessible to ordinary people.  We have already seen that, when medical textbooks were in Latin, this was enough to stifle knowledge. The criticisms above of Elphinstone achieved nothing, however well reasoned they were.

So we owe Elphinstone thanks for his charmless efforts.  He started the process of creating an English Martial.  The versions in the Loeb are indeed themselves greatly to my own taste, and some have real poetic power.

An obstacle stands in the way of completing such a task.  This is the problem of the obscene epigrams. 

Each edition edges closer to a full version, as the years of our age pass by, and moral standards fall.  We live in a coarse age, and it is extremely easy for one of a coarsed nature to render common verbs like futuere by English obscenities.  A complete version that would be unfit for any decent man’s bookshelf would be possible to print and sell today. 

Such “choices” do not advance the process of creating an English Martial that is faithful, poetic, and non-pornographic.  Perhaps it is impossible to achieve this end, I do not know.  But we should certainly try.

Yet Martial is fortunate.  How many texts do not possess any English translation?  How many of us have been deterred from making one, for fear of criticism such as that which greeted the luckless Elphinstone?

Translations are essential.  Even bad translations make an author more accessible than he was.  Whatever you do with ancient literature, translate!


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