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 see
The product of a belle esprit,
Which clearly does the causes mention
Of Roman grandeur and declension.
Pen’d in pure French so very sprightly,
She judg’d ‘twould take; and judg’d it rightly.

Quoth she, so much I hate his nation,
I’ll damn this author in translation;
Then, to concert her purpose well,
She hasten’d to Oblivion‘s cell,
And found her moping over Tindal,
For she reads all who e’er have been dull.

Sister, said she, you must befriend me,
And some spare blockhead quickly lend me
Lay by that old religion-hater,
And let me have your worst translator,
Some drudging foe to wit and merit,
Most fit to damp an author’s spirit.

Oblivion, smiling, cry’d, I have
The flow’r of dunces in my cave,
And one who, I can safely swear,
Will suit your purpose to a hair;
He is your darling, or I judge ill;
Here—Humdrum—call your brother B—el.


Dulness is the Mighty Mother in Alexander Pope‘s Dunciad, and this evokes the poxy dwarf’s attacks on Eustace Budgell. I don’t know whether Budgell was a bad translator or not, though what I have read confirms “Georgia”‘s opinion of his literary style.

Other assaults reflect his general loathsomeness. Here is Pope again, freebasing off Horace:

This meets a Blanket, and that meets a Cudgel–
And all applaud the Justice–All, but Budgell.

I think this is a reference to the terrible beating administered by Budgell to his landlord’s creditor, William Bohun, in 1726. It is preceded by lines such as these – off-topic, but rather good:

My Lord of L—–n, chancing to remark
A noted Dean much busy’d in the Park,
“Proceed (he cry’d) proceed, my Reverend Brother,
‘Tis Fornicatio simplex, and no other

More Pope:

Let Budgel charge low Grubstreet on his quill,
And write whate’er he pleas’d, except his will.

Budgell appears to have forged the will of Matthew Tindal, uncle and anticipated benefactor of his fellow-translator Nicholas Tindal above, in order to make good his South Sea Bubble losses. In 1737, before the case came to trial, he threw himself into the Thames, paraphrasing Addison’s “It must be so — Plato, thou reason’st well!”:

What Cato did, and Addison approved, cannot be wrong.

What Cato did was actually rather more dramatic:

And now the birds were already beginning to sing, when he fell asleep again for a little while. And when Butas came and told him that harbours were very quiet, he ordered him to close the door, throwing himself down upon his couch as if he were going to rest there for what still remained of the night. But when Butas had gone out, Cato drew his sword from its sheath and stabbed himself below the breast. His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand, and so he did not at once dispatch himself, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a geometrical abacus that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound. Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died.

Early Georgian London was a hotbed of literary translation – I think mainly from the classics, for the moderately-lettered leisured, and from the French, for the modern-minded – and ferocious public criticism of translators and their work was commonplace. Claire Boulard has some good background on the translation wars, in which Budgell thrived as long as Joseph Addison, his cousin, was alive to protect him. Lesser figures included Charles Carthy, a “a scribling Schoolmaster” of Dublin, whose translations are only remembered for the epigrams of Swift, Pope and others. His Horace was published Latin recto, English verso, and so:

This I may boast, which few e’er could,
Half of my book at least is good.


You’ve undone Horace,–what shou’d hinder
Thy muse from falling upon Pindar?
But e’er you mount his fiery steed,
Beware, O Bard, how you proceed:–
For shou’d you give him once the reins,
High up in air he’ll turn your Brains:–
And if you shou’d his fury check,
‘Tis ten to one he breaks your neck.

“Upon his having Rotten Teeth” (“Book-binders use a Dog’s-Tooth”):

A Mastiff’s teeth are justly held in vogue,
They burnish paper, or they bite a rogue:
To neither use thy tusks contribute right,
Too rough to polish, and too blunt to bite.

Happily Mr Carthy seems not to have taken any fatal plunge – perhaps he avoided wild adventures and hung grimly onto his day job.

There’s a nice burlesque here, “occasion’d by a ludicrous translation of some Latin lines written to the [Archbishop] of York.” But the original text “is bullion all, and will forever shine,” rather as will the Word of God in the explanation of King James’ translators as to why a new version of the Bible is needed, and, if it is needed, why previous versions were approved for publication:

the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere.

Is that an early proto-statement of the legal boilerplate, “the French version shall take precedence over the English”?

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