Imperfect Constancy

A scholar and friend of mine, a native French speaker whose love of English has left him with a sure mastery of the language and a long familiarity with its literature, had a translation problem that had been nagging him for some time. It was in fact not his translation but his doubts about another’s rendering of an English text into French that was the pebble in his mental shoe, and he tapped me recently to sound out his suspicions.

The text in question was by the eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison, writing about Milton’s Paradise Lost and specifically, in the passage under study, about the great poet’s language and its shortcomings in this case. The French translation was by Jacques Delille (known as l’abbé Delille), whose translation of Milton’s epic was published in 1804. It is in his introduction to his translation that Delille quotes Addison. Here is the passage, first in the original and then the one sentence in the good abbé’s French that doesn’t quite cut the mustard:

“…Milton’s Sentiments and Ideas were so wonderfully Sublime, that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full Strength and Beauty, without having recourse to these Foreign Assistances [foreign idioms]. Our Language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of Soul, which furnished him with such glorious Conceptions.” (Addison, The Spectator 297)

Notre langue était insuffisante pour lui,” the French cleric translates, which, if I render word for word back into English, yields “Our language was insufficient/inadequate for him.” My friend justifiably wanted to know where the devil “sunk” had got to. Or was he being too exacting, he asked.

Indeed, he was not. What had become of Addison’s rather striking choice of a verb here? This is not a case of a mistranslation but something more interesting, a failure of will it would seem. The French wording, in a sense, does grasp the spirit of Addison’s critique; the essayist indeed affirms that the English tongue proved wanting with respect to what Milton had to say. This is not a problem of misunderstanding the English verb. And because we are dealing with prose here, one cannot argue that the strict confines of a classical French twelve-syllable verse line forced the translator to boggle and then blunder into the weak phrasing of “was inadequate.” Meter here doesn’t overrule matter. Finally, the French language has a number of verbs that cover some of the same linguistic territory that the intransitive sense of to sink occupies in English. My friend suggested ployer, plier or céder sous, and s’affaisser, without breaking a sweat. This is certainly not a case of a peculiarity in one tongue purportedly not carrying over into another. No, there is not even a hint of that most dimwitted of snowclones: such and such a language doesn’t have a word for this or that.

What we have in this case is a translator showing a loss of nerve. Father Delille seems to be lacking in faith either in his grasp of the out-of language or in the expressive power of his own. Or perhaps, given the eighteenth century’s ideas about decorum, our translator convinced himself that he couldn’t possibly maintain this figurative language in French. Nabokov, in his scholarly notes to his English translation of Eugene Onegin, gleefully excoriates eighteenth-century writers, for example, precisely for their annoying tendency to kowtow to convention, to prize the generic over the specific, to aim to please polite society at the expense of originality or interest pure and simple. When a translator labors under that kind of outlook—it can happen in any century of course—there is a leveling of what is colorful or vigorous or evocative in the original. Thus, Addison’s striking image, which summons a number of other ideas and images (gravitas, the weightiness of Milton’s subject, ideas, soul, the supposed weakness of vernacular English with respect to the poet’s “Foreign Assistances,” and so on), is devitalized into “our language was inadequate for him.”

The opposite can occur as well, naturally. The original may have a glaring mistake, a mixed and mangled metaphor, for instance, or an unfortunate repetition. Does the translator look to reproduce the same? Nabokov again: In his English translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, he renders the final sentence of the “Princess Mary” chapter in this way, “Will there not appear there, glimpsed on the pale line separating the blue main from the grey cloudlets, the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a sea gull, but gradually separating itself from the foam of the breakers and, at a smooth clip, nearing the desolate quay?”* In a note Nabokov then points out, “Otdelyayushchei, otdelyayushcheisya. It is just like Lermontov and his casual style to let this long and limp word appear twice in the same, final, sentence.” Nabokov shows courage here by refusing to restyle his author as he fits him out in his new English garb.

In my day-to-day work, however, this is not the usual practice. First I should point out that I make a loose distinction between literary or historical texts, i.e., writing whose age or relative importance to the culture places it off limits, so to speak; and journalism, in which I include the critical essays appearing in art catalogs that are the bulk and bane of my professional existence. With the latter I allow myself some leeway. That is, I will probably devise a workaround solution, tipping off the author or no depending on the deadline and several other factors. A recent project is an apt illustration of the above. A short history, handsomely done, of Les Délices, the manor that had once been Voltaire’s residence in Geneva, included both prose and poetry by the eighteenth-century man of letters as well as the prose of the booklet’s two authors. Thus, had Voltaire or one of his correspondents quoted in the text committed some awkward wording or image to paper, I would have dutifully followed the French as closely as possible. As it turned out, there were no such troublesome passages, only one rather obscure turn of phrase (“nous nous mîmes à jouer Zaïre pour interrompre le cercle”: is “interrompre le cercle” Voltaire’s invention or an idiom from the period? And what exactly does he mean?). The expression cried out for much greater research than the deadline allowed. “We set about performing Zaire to break the circle” had to do—and, well, sort of makes sense. Before the high court of sticklers I would plead in my defense that it certainly places an English reader in the same position as a modern French reader before the odd phrase.

On the other hand, the authors of this short history of Les Délices come up with something of a mixed metaphor in this sentence, “Genève vit au rythme de l’effervescence que suscite la foundation de la Croix-Rouge…” A very close rendering would be, “Geneva was living [the verb in French is in the historical present, but that narrative convention, though used in English too, is less widespread, and certainly wouldn’t seem natural here] in time with the effervescence [ferment, excitement] that the founding of the Red Cross had stirred/aroused.” But can one live in time with (literally it would be “at the rate of”) an effervescence, a vivacity, an enthusiasm? The idea of course is that the city was experiencing daily the enthusiasm generated by a new humanitarian enterprise. My first try had been this, “Geneva pulsed with ferment for the Red Cross…” My scholar friend, who happened to be overseeing the project, called me out on this weak translation with a kind of raised eyebrow in the margins of my text, “Mixed metaphor. Is this correct?” I retorted that the French, too, was also mixing metaphors, to be honest, but… alas, he was right, something better surely could be found. I finally proposed this, “…day to day life in Geneva… was alive with ferment for the newly founded Red Cross…”

…Forgive me! Truth is my real goal.
Who that laid hands on that perfect form
Could do other than stay with that in perfect constancy?

So writes Clive Wilmer in “The Translator’s Apology” (with tip of the hat to the blog Laudator Temporis Acti for bringing the poem to my attention). What struck me in this bit of verse is the amusing ambiguity in the poem’s final line, which may not be intentional by the way (the nine lines leading up to these final three show no such wordplay and argue either way. “In perfect constancy,” indeed, or is it also an “imperfect constancy”? And what of the imperfect form? It, too, at times warrants the courage of perfect constancy.


*By comparison, here is the passage in J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray’s translation, available at This translation was published shortly before the Great War, in 1912, and despite the presence of the very Nabokovian names of Wisdom and Marr, it appears that the oddity of their version is not an invention, or rather is entirely their invention: “… lo! yonder, upon the pale line dividing the blue deep from the grey clouds, is there not glancing the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a seagull, but little by little severing itself from the foam of the billows and, with even course, drawing nigh to the desert harbour?” Unlike Nabokov’s translation from his mid-fifties on (around the time of his Eugene Onegin), where the oddities and infelicities spring from a willful, even perverse, adherence to the original, the strangeness here seems more rooted in an unsure grasp of the Russian causing Wisdom and Murray’s command of English to wobble as well (the awkward use of “glancing” and “severing itself,” for instance, or “the desert harbour,” which at the very least reads like a mistake for “the deserted harbour”).

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