Thursday, 22 January 2015

Poems about translation no. 21: Robert Burns on the translator as assassin

We haven't had a poem about translation for while; but with Burns Night coming up, here's Robert Burns (pictured in heroic mode above) apostrophising a Mr E. for attempted murder of Martial:
O Thou, whom Poesy abhors,
Whom Prose has turned out of doors;
Heards't thou yon groan? - proceed no further!
'Twas laurell'd Martial calling, Murther! 
You can listen to the poem as well on the same page.

I am reminded of number 18 in the Poems About Translation series, Willis Barnstone's ABC of Translating Poetry, in which Willis says (under R for Robber):
The translator poet is a blatant robber but should not kill the other author or steal her very name from her. But if murder and robbery are necessary, be open. Robbery can be an admirable crime. Normally, as with music, the translating artist reads and interprets but does not fully invent the score. Yet if you must kill and rob, if you must transform the past and correct and embellish it for your time, confess and praise your benefactor. Then, when you display your stolen wares, greater praise will await your deeds.
Mr E. the murderer of Martial is James Elphinstone (1721-1809):

We are told in Chambers' Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen that Elphinstone's 1782 translation of Martial
was met on all hands with ridicule and contempt. "Elphinstone's Martial," says Dr Beattie, in a letter to Sir William Forbes, "is just come to hand. It is truly a unique. The specimens formerly published did very well to laugh at; but a whole quarto of nonsense and gibberish is too much. It is strange that a man not wholly illiterate should have lived so long in England without learning the Language." The work, in fact, both in the poetry and the notes, displayed a total absence of judgment; and, accordingly, it has sunk into utter neglect.
You can judge for yourself whether Burns and his contemporaries were unnecessarily harsh to Elphinstone here.

Elphinstone portrait credit National Portrait Gallery with thanks.

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