Between thieves, who profit from mistranslation, and fools, who know no better (and no profit), there lurks an intriguing class: lunatics, whose often considerable mind is whisked off to unexpected places by absurd fancies as to the nature of their task. The bigot Barnaby Rich writes in The Irish Hubbub (1617):
And as the irish are thus pleasantly conceited to iest and to scoffe, when they finde occasion, so they haue as great facility in weeping, as they have in laughing, insomuch that one of their owne writers Rychard Stanihurst by name, a man of great esteeme among the Irish, famed for his learning and for his wisedome, they doe equall him to the seuen Sages of Greece, and doe think him worthy to be reputed for the eigt[h] wise man.
It is truth, hee hath runne through diuers professions, first, for a lying learned Historiographer, hee hath shewed it in his Irish Chronicle.
After that he professed Poetry, and among other Fictions, he tooke vpon him to translate Virgill, and stript him out of a Veluet gowne, into a Fooles coate, out of a Latin Heroicall verse, into an English riffe raffe.
After that, I knew him at Antwerp, and there he professed Alchymy, and took vpon him to make Gold: from thence hee went to Spaine, and there hee became a Physition.
Now, I vnderstand, hee is in the Low Countries about the Arch Duke, and is there become a Massing Priest.
Gilbert Highet (The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949)) claims that poor Stanyhurst’s The First Foure Bookes of Virgil his Aeneis (1582)
has a strong claim to be the worst translation ever published–although competition in this field is very heavy. It will be enough to quote Dido’s indignant exclamation on being deserted by Aeneas:
Shall a stranger give me the slampam?
Stanihurst’s offence as a translator is to have cared less for Virgil than for his extraordinary project of linguistic reform. Apart from his views on diction and the hexameter, says The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21),
He invented a set of onomatopoeic symbols, which you cannot match elsewhere in literature. What can we make of such lines as these:
Theese flaws theyre cabbans wyth stur snar jarrye doe ransack. Now doe they rayse gastly lyghtnings, now grislye reboundings Of ruffe raffe roaring, mens harts with terror agrysing, With peale meale ramping, with thwick thwack sturdelye thundring?
Not content with these mimicries of sound, he invented whatever new words seemed useful for his purpose. “Mutterus humming,” “gredelye bibled,” “smacklye bebasse thee,” “boucherous hatchet”—these are a few of his false coins. And he used the slang which was modern in his day for the interpretation of Vergil without scruple or shame. Imagine Dido, queen of Carthage, asking in fury: “shall a stranger give me the slampam”! With an equal contempt of fitness he renders pollutum hospitium by “Paltock’s Inn,” and so pleased is he with “Scarboro warning,” for the blow before the word, that he uses it with no better excuse than incautam, and, in another place, he is guilty of “Scarboro scrabbling” without any excuse at all. As little did he hesitate to mar the epic dignity of Vergil with the popular proverbs of every day, such as “in straw there lurketh some pad,” or “as wild as a March hare.” And, being bound in the chains of the hexameter, he distorts the order of the words out of all semblance to English, until his version is wholly unintelligible without the friendly aid of the Latin. Yet his monstrous incongruities pleased the taste of his time. Harvey is proud to have been imitated by “learned Mr. Stanyhurst”: and Phaer fell, that this “thrasonicall huffe snuffe” might rise. Richard Carew mentions him in the same breath with Sir Philip Sidney, and Francis Meres cites him without disapproval. But critics there were who saw through his pretence. Nashe, above all, rated him at a proper value; and Barnabe Rich did him ample justice in few words: “Among other Fictions,” says Rich, “he tooke upon him to translate Virgill, and stript him out of a Velvet gowne into a Fooles coate, out of a Latin Heroicall verse into an English riffe raffe.” The question of the English hexameter has received a final answer, and, for us, Stanyhurst is but an episode in the history of literature. And what an episode! His very gravity makes him the more ludicrous, and his only pupils are Charles Cotton, Thomas Bridges, captain Alexander Radcliffe and the other writers of burlesque.
For me his images make the metrics a worthwhile struggle. At his most approachable he reminds me of the Frenchman Motteux, my favourite English translator of Quijote. Inevitably subsidised scribblers are now rediscovering him as James Joyce’s greatest grandfather.
Maik Hendrik Sprotte (via Margaret Marks) has another delicious example of a translator who may have been misled by extra-mural enthusiasms. During Euro 2012, which was hosted by Poland and Ukraine, a hotel room sign prohibiting smoking was observed to undergo a miraculous transformation, with an English-language financial penalty becoming an affair at twelve yards in the German:
We kindly ask not to smoke in hotel rooms and other areas. If you do not comply with the request, Guest will pay a penalty at the box office reception of 500 zl.
Wir bitten, nicht in Hotelzimmern und in anderen Bereichen zu rauchen. Wenn Sie nicht mit dem Antrag nicht entsprechen, werden Gäste einen Elfmeter an den Kassen Empfang von 500 zl bezahlen.
Speakers of other Germanic languages who translate the great Bavarian midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s surname as their version of “pigfucker” have also allowed personal obsessions to overshadow their work, and will burn in hell. That includes Dutchmen like Midas Dekkers, whose Lief Dier / Dearest Pet, a treatise confusing zoophilia with zoophily with, as it were, Philly Zoo, is better in David Sexton’s review.
The Dutch parliament banned German midfielders four years ago, but, curiously, the Christian Democrats voted against. Toef Jaeger suggests more misplaced priorities (it’s time to stop talking about mistranslation):
[T]he objection of the CDA may also stem from the realization that sex with animals can lead to contact with the Almighty. In that case it is to be commended that the CDA is apparently the only party that still knows its classics. A senator will undoubtedly, following Gerard Reve, have muttered, “My Lord and my God! Praised be Thy Name for all Eternity! I love You so very much.”
In Nearer to Thee (1966) Reve found God, in the form of a mouse-grey donkey. The love is mutual. Reve fails to utter his words to the Lord, but bursts into tears halfway through and begins to kiss the Donkey. “After some tremendous clambering to get up the stairs to the bedroom, I would take Him three long times in succession in His Secret Opening.” And Reve was perfectly well aware of the suffering of the Donkey. For when at the time the [Calvinist] SGP deputy Van Dis asked for clarification, he stated that the Donkey was whipped and reviled by others, and that precisely through this intimacy He would experience what love is, with “bandages around His little hooves”.
The SGP is the oldest still-existing Dutch party and has spent its entire life in opposition. But – though still bargaining hard – its one Europarliamentarian may be about to sweep to power as part of Nigel Farwich and Beppe Grillo’s anti-Brussels front. Lovely people, all of them, but what confusing things they do!
- Two versions of Flann O’Brien’s “The workman’s friend”
With some relevant chunks of Henry Fielding.
- The worst translator in the world? “Quoth she, so much I hate this nation, / I’ll damn this author in translation”
The London Magazine, 1734:
Verses occasioned by Mr. Budgel’s modest Proposal, in the Daily Post-Boy of Aug. 31. to give the Publick a new and accurate Translation of a late celebrated French Treatise, on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, and which has been already translated.
Dulness, good goddess, chanc’d to
- Yiddish and the Italian Welsh
Daffy-down-dilly has been and fled / Her yellow-green gown all stained in red. Featuring Google Translate’s transliteration service for unfamiliar scripts.
- Of hortism
And monkeys, obviously.
- London’s River Lea and Waltham Forest in Drayton’s 1622 Poly-Olbion
Now you see ’em, now you don’t.