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Literary Blunders: A Chapter in the History of Human Error"" By Henry B. Wheatley Characters: 15699

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

THE blunders of translators are so common that they have been made to point a moral in popular proverbs. According to an Italian saying translators are traitors (``I traduttori sono traditori''); and books are said to be done into English, traduced in French, and overset in Dutch. Colton, the author of Lacon, mentions a half-starved German at Cambridge named Render, who had been long enough in England to forget German, but not long enough to learn English. This worthy, in spite of his deficiencies, was a voluminous translator of his native literature, and it became a proverbial saying among his intimates respecting a bad translation that it was Rendered into English.

The Comte de Tressan translated the

words ``capo basso'' (low headland) in a passage from Ariosto by ``Cap de Capo Basso,'' on account of which translation the wits insisted upon calling him ``Comte de Capo Basso.''

Robert Hall mentions a comical stumble made by one of the translators of Plato, who construed through the Latin and not direct from the Greek. In the Latin version hirundo stood as hirdo, and the translator, overlooking the mark of contraction, declared to the astonished world on the authority of Plato that the horse- leech instead of the swallow was the harbinger of spring. Hoole, the translator of Tasso and Ariosto, was as confused in his natural history when he rendered ``I colubri Viscontei'' or Viscontian snakes, the crest of the Visconti family, as ``the Calabrian Viscounts.''

As strange as this is the Frenchman's notion of the presence of guns in the canons' seats: ``L'Archevque de Cantorbery avait fait placer des canons dans les stalles de la cathdrale.'' He quite overlooked the word chanoines, which he should have used. This use of a word

similarly spelt is a constant source of trouble to the translator: for instance, a French translator of Scott's Bride of Lammermuir left the first word of the title untranslated, with the result that he made it the Bridle of Lammermuir, ``La Bride de Lammermuir.''

Thevenot in his travels refers to the fables of Damn et Calilve, meaning the Hitopodesa, or Pilpay's Fables. His translator calls them the fables of the damned Calilve. This is on a par with De Quincey's specimen of a French Abb's Greek. Having to paraphrase the Greek words ``'' (Herodotus even while Ionicizing), the Frenchman rendered them ``Herodote et aussi Jazon,'' thus creating a new author, one Jazon. In the Present State of Peru, a compilation from the Mercurio Peruano, P. Geronymo Roman de la Higuera is transformed into ``Father Geronymo, a Romance of La Higuera.''

In Robertson's History of Scotland the following passage is quoted from Melville's Account of John Knox: ``He was so active and vigorous a preacher that he was like

to ding the pulpit into blads and fly out of it.'' M. Campenon, the translator of Robertson into French, turns this into the startling statement that he broke his pulpit and leaped into the midst of his auditors. A good companion to this curious ``fact'' may be found in the extraordinary trope used by a translator of Busbequius, who says ``his misfortunes had reduced him to the top of all miseries.''

We all know how Victor Hugo transformed the Firth of Forth into the First of the Fourth, and then insisted that he was right; but this great novelist was in the habit of soaring far above the realm of fact, and in a work he brought out as an offering to the memory of Shakespeare he showed that his imagination carried him far away from historical facts. The author complains in this book that the muse of history cares more for the rulers than for the ruled, and, telling only what is pleasant, ignores the truth when it is unpalatable to kings. After an outburst of bombast he says that no history of England tells us that Charles II. murdered his brother the Duke of Gloucester. We should be sur

prised if any did do so, as that young man died of small-pox. Hugo, being totally ignorant of English history, seems to have confused the son of Charles I. with an earlier Duke of Gloucester (Richard III.), and turned the assassin into the victim. After these blunders Dr. Baly's mention of the cannibals of Nova Scotia instead of New Caledonia in his translation of Mller's Elements of Physiology seems tame.

One snare that translators are constantly falling into is the use of English words which are like the foreign ones, but nevertheless are not equivalent terms, and translations that have taken their place in literature often suffer from this cause; thus Cicero's Offices should have been translated Duties, and Marmontel never intended to write what we understand by Moral Tales, but rather tales of manners or of fashionable life. The translators of Calmet's Dictionary of the Bible render the French ancien, ancient, and write of ``Mr. Huet, the ancient Bishop of Avranch.'' Theodore Parker, in translating a work by De Wette, makes the blunder of con

verting the German word Wlsch, a foreigner (in the book an equivalent for Italian), into Welsh.

Some men translate works in order to learn a language during the process, and they necessarily make blunders. It must have been one of these ignoramuses who translated tellurische magnetismus (terrestrial magnetism) as the magnetical qualities of Tellurium, and by his blunder caused an eminent chemist to test tellurium in order to find these magnetical qualities. There was more excuse for the French translator of one of Sir Walter Scott's novels who rendered a welsh rabbit (or rarebit, as it is sometimes spelt) into un lapin du pays de Galles. Walpole states that the Duchess of Bolton used to divert George I. by affecting to make blunders, and once when she had been to see Cibber's play of Love's Last Shift she called it La dernire chemise de l'amour. A like translation of Congreve's Mourning Bride is given in good faith in the first edition of Peignot's Manuel du Bibliophile, 1800, where it is described as L'pouse de Matin; and the translation which Walpole

attributes to the Duchess of Bolton the French say was made by a Frenchman named La Place.

The title of the old farce Hit or Miss was turned into Frapp ou Mademoiselle, and the Independent Whig into La Perruque Indpendante.

In a late number of the Literary World the editor, after alluding to the French translator of Sir Walter Scott who turned ``a sticket minister'' into ``le ministre assassin,'' gives from the Bibliothque Universelle the extraordinary translation of the title of Mr. Barrie's comedy, Walker, London, as Londres qui se promne.

Old translators have played such tricks with proper names as to make them often unintelligible; thus we find La Rochefoucauld figuring as Ruchfucove; and in an old treatise on the mystery of Freemasonry by John Leland, Pythagoras is described as Peter Gower the Grecian. This of course is an Anglicisation of the French Pythagore (pronounced like Peter Gore). Our versions of Eastern names are so different from the originals that when the

two are placed together there appears to be no likeness between them, and the different positions which they take up in the alphabet cause the bibliographer an infinity of trouble. Thus the original of Xerxes is Khshayarsha (the revered king), and Averrhoes is Ibn Roshd (son of Roshd). The latter's full name is Abul Walid Mohammed ben Ahmed ben Mohammed. Artaxerxes is in old Persian Artakhshatra, or the Fire Protector, and Darius means the Possessor. Although all these names-Xerxes, Artaxerxes, and Darius-have a royal significance, they were personal names, and not titles like Pharaoh.

It is often difficult to believe that translators can have taken the trouble to read their own work, or they surely

would not let pass some of the blunders we meet with. In a translation of Lamartine's Girondins some courtly people are described as figuring ``under the vaults'' of the Tuileries instead of beneath the arched galleries (sous ses voutes). This, however, is nothing to a blunder to be found in the Secret Memoirs of the Court of

Louis XIV. and of the Regency (1824). The following passage from the original work, ``Deux en sont morts et on dit publiquement qu'ils ont t empoisonns,'' is rendered in the English translation to the confusion of common sense as ``Two of them died with her, and said publicly that they had been poisoned.''

This is not unlike the bull of the young soldier who, writing home in praise of the Indian climate, said, ``But a lot of young fellows come out here, and they drink and they eat, and they eat and they drink, and they die; and then they write home to their friends saying it was the climate that did it.''

Some authors have found that there is peril in too free a translation, thus Dotet was condemned on Feb. 14th, 1543, for translating a passage in Plato's Dialogues as ``After death you will be nothing at all.'' Surely he who translated Dieu dfend l'adultre as God defends adultery more justly deserved punishment! Guthrie, the geographical writer, who translated a French book of travels, unfortunately mistook neuvime (ninth) for neuvelle or

neuve, and therefore made an allusion to the twenty-sixth day of the new moon.

Moore quotes in his Diary (Dec. 30th, 1818) a most amusing blunder of a translator who knew nothing of the technical name for a breakwater. He translated the line in Goldsmith's Deserted Village,

``As ocean sweeps the labour'd mole away,


``Comme la mer dtruit les travaux de la taupe.''

D'Israeli records two comical translations from English into French. ``Ainsi douleur, va-t'en ``for woe begone is almost too good; and the man who mistook the expression ``the officer was broke'' as meaning broke on a wheel and translated it by rou made a very serious matter of what was possibly but a small fault.

In the translation of The Conscript by Erckmann-Chatrian, the old botcher is turned into the old butcher.

Sometimes in attempting to correct a supposed blunder of another we fall into

a very real one of our own. Thus a few years ago, before we knew so much about folk-lore as we do now, we should very probably have pointed out that Cinderella's glass slipper owed its existence to a misprint. Fur was formerly so rare and so highly prized that its use was restricted by sumptuary laws to kings, princes, and persons holding honourable offices. In these laws sable is called vair, and it has been asserted that Perrault marked the dignity conferred upon Cinderella by the fairy's gift of a slipper of vair, a privilege confined to the highest rank of princesses. It is further stated that by an error of the printer vair was changed into verre. Now, however, we find in the various versions which have been collected of this favourite tale that, however much the incidents may differ, the slipper is almost invariably made of some rigid material, and in the earliest forms the unkind sisters cut their feet to make them fit the slipper. This unpleasant incident was omitted by Perrault, but he kept the rigid material and made the glass slipper famous.

The Revisers of the Old Testament

translation have shown us that the famous verse in Job, ``Oh that mine adversary had written a book,'' is wrong; but it will never drop out of our language and literature. The Revised Version is certainly much more in accordance with our ideas of the time when the book was written, a period when authors could not have been very common:-

``Oh that I had one to hear me!

(Lo, here is my signature, let the Almighty answer me;)

And that I had the indictment which mine adversary hath written!

Surely I would carry it upon my shoulder;

I would bind it unto me as a crown.''

Silk Buckingham drew attention to the fact that some translations of the Bible had been undertaken by persons ignorant of the idioms of the language into which they were translating, and he gave an instance from an Arabic translation where the text ``Judge not, that ye be not judged'' was rendered ``Be not just to others, lest others should be just to you.''

The French have tried ingeniously to

explain the difficulty contained in St. Matthew xix. 24, ``It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,'' by affirming that the translators mistook the supposed word milos>, a rope, for mhlos>, a camel.

The humours of translation are numerous, but perhaps the most eccentric example is to be found in Stanyhurst's rendering of Virgil, published in 1583. It is full of cant words, and reads like the work of a madman. This is a fair specimen of the work:-

``Theese thre were upbotching, not shapte, but partlye wel onward,

A clapping fierbolt (such as oft, with rownce robel-hobble,

Jove to the ground clattreth) but yeet not finished holye.''

M. Guyot, translating some Latin epigrams under the title of Fleurs, Morales, et pigrammatiques, uses the singular forms Monsieur Zole and Mademoiselle Lycoris. The same author, when translating the letters of Cicero (1666), turns Pomponius into M. de Pomponne.

Pitt's friend, Pepper Arden, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and Lord Alvanley, was rather hot-tempered, and his name was considered somewhat appropriate, but to make it still more so his friends translated it into ``Mons. Poivre Ardent.''

This reminds one of the Frenchman who toasted Dr. Johnson, not as Mr. Rambler, but as Mr. Vagabond.

Tom Moore notices some amusing mis- translations in his Diary. Major Cartwright, who was called the Father of Reform (although a wit suggested that Mother of Reform would have been a more appropriate title), supposed that the Brevia Parliamentaria of Prynne stood for ``short parliaments.'' Lord Lansdowne told Moore that he was with Lord Holland when the letter containing this precious bit of erudition arrived. Another story of Lord Lansdowne's is equally good. His French servant announced Dr. Mansell, the Master of Trinity, when he called, as ``Matre des Crmonies de la Trinit.''

Moore also relates that an account

having appeared in the London papers of a row at the Stock Exchange, where some strangers were hustled, it appeared in the Paris papers in this form: ``Mons. Stock Exchange tait chauff,'' etc.

There is something to be said in favour of the humorous translation of Magna est veritas et prevalabit-``Great is truth, it will prevail a bit,'' for it is probably truer than the original. He who construed Csar's mode of passing into Gaul summa diligentia, ``on the top of the diligence,'' must have been of an imaginative turn of mind. Probably the time will soon come when this will need explanation, for a public will arise which knows not the dilatory ``diligence.''

The translator of Inter Calicem supremaque labra as Betwixt Dover and Calais gave as his reason that Dover was Angli suprema labra.

Although not a blunder nor apparently a joke, we may conclude this chapter with a reference to Shakespeare's remarkable translation of Finis Coronat opus. Helena remarks in All's well that Ends well (act iv., sc. 4):-

``All's well that ends well: still the fine's the crown.''

In the Second Part of King Henry VI. (act v., sc. 2) old Lord Clifford, just before he dies, is made to use the French translation of the proverb:-

``La fin couronne les uvres.''

In the first Folio we read:-

``La fin corrone les eumenes.''

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