John Florio and Charles Cotton’s translations of Montaigne

Wading through a Francophone African legal swamp, where jurisprudence grows out of the barrel of a gun, one is reminded of early translators’ struggles with Montaigne:

  • John Florio (beware of noisome loons who think he’s Shakespeare), 1603: In summe, if any thinke he could do better, let him trie; then will he better thinke of what is done. Seven or eight of great wit and worth have assayed, but found these Essayes no attempt for French apprentises or Littletonians. If this doone it may please you, as I wish it may, and I hope it shall, I with you shall be pleased: though not, yet still I am the same resolute JOHN FLORIO
  • Charles Cotton, 1685: My Design in attempting this Translation, was to present my Country with a true Copy of a very brave Original; How far I have succeeded in that Design is left to every one to judge; and I expect to be the more gently censured, for having my self so modest an Opinion of my own Performance, as to confess that the Author has suffered by me, as well as the former Translator; though I hope, and dare affirm, that the misinterpretations I shall be found guilty of, are neither so numerous, nor so gross. I cannot discern my own Errours, it were unpardonable in me if I could, and did not mend them; but I can see his (except when we are both mistaken) and those I have corrected; but am not so ill natur’d as to shew where. In truth, both Mr. Florio, and I are to be excused, where we miss of the sence of the Author, whose Language is such in many Places, as Grammar cannot reconcile, which renders it the hardest Book to make a justifiable version of that I yet ever saw in that, or any other Language I understand: insomuch, that thouth I do think, and am pretty confident, I understand French as well as many Men, I have yet sometimes been forc’d to grope at his meaning. Peradventure the greatest Critick would in some Places have found my Author abstruse enough. Yet are not these Mistakes I speak of either so many, or of so great importance, as to cast any scandalous blemish upon the Book; but such as few Readers can discover, and they that do, will I hope essily excuse.

How different the work of the translator, without published authorities or tools, and how different the translator: someone who went out into the world instead of sitting scrunched up before a screen.

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Last updated 03/04/2016

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