Monday, 4 November 2013

Poems about translation 17: epitaph for Henry G. Bohn

Henry George Bohn has popped up in this blog before, as publisher of Ichabod Wright's translation of Dante. He was a Victorian publisher who, in the late 1840s, established the series known as the 'Libraries' (the Standard Library, the Classical Library, and many others) which became a widely known brand. They featured literal translations which were popular with students, and the Libraries continued to be published by George Bell & Sons until well into the twentieth century, eventually supplanted by Everyman and Loeb.

Bohn's output of translations was so substantial that, according to Kenneth Haynes in the Oxford History of Literary Translation into English, “it was Henry Bohn, more than any other publisher, whose series actively influenced the formation of a canon of world literature in translation” (2006: 8). The Libraries' attractive and inexpensive volumes were eagerly awaited by Victorian readers with three-and-sixpence or five shillings to spare:

When Bohn died in 1884, Punch published an affectionate obituary (6 September 1884, p.110), which gives some sense of the institution that was Bohn, and the reputation the translations enjoyed:
Eh? Dead at Eighty-nine? A ripe old age.
Dear renderer of many a learned page
Into the—rather dryasdust—vernacular;
True source of many an utterance oracular
From many a pseudo-pundit, who scarce owns
To wandering in that valley of dry Bohns.
Thousands should thank thee who will hardly do so—
In public! From Catullus down to Crusoe,
From Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle deep,
To Goethe, Schlegel, Schiller we drink pottle-deep –
Of Learning’s fount from thy translated tap!
And what though o’er it one may nod and nap?
‘Tis wholesome, if not sparkling, with sound body,
If not the glint of true Pierian toddy.
Gone from thy roses underneath the daisies,
We echo Emersonian thanks and praises,
And say (Pundits make puns, and sometimes own ‘em),
            Vale! De mortuis nil nisi Bo(h)num!”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man who compared reading foreign languages in the original to swimming across the Charles River when he wanted to go to Boston, had said, in a judgment much-quoted in Bohn's advertisements, that Bohn's translations "have done for literature what railroads have done for internal intercourse".)

I have the good fortune to be talking about Bohn the translation publisher on Thursday 14 November 2013 as part of the UCL 'Translation in History' series.

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