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The Bhagavad Gita


The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

Molière: The Affected Misses, Don Juan, Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, The Doctor by Complusion, The Miser, The Trademan Turned Gentlemen, The Learned Ladies

by Molière


Yet should not the ideal of the translator be to produce in his own tongue a work as nearly as possible equivalent to the original? And if so, how can he, handicapped as he necessarily is by the difference between two languages, accept the still greater handicap of the contrast between verse and prose? Surely no possible difference between any two ways of saying a thing can be greater than is the difference between prose and verse! And even though the translator cannot exactly reproduce the verse, of the original poet, he must at least try to create in his own language something that shall have, as nearly as possible, the qualities and characteristics of the original. He may not succeed completely. But the impossibility of attaining an ideal is hardly a reason for not striving toward it. Still less is it sufficient justification for turning and running in the opposite direction. In this case, the difficulty of the climb should not send us rolling down-hill, to wallow in that slough which Professor Raleigh has called " the despondent absurdity of translating verse into prose."

Rossetti has given us the law of verse-translation, and has nobly followed it in his renderings from the Italian. "The only true motive," he says, " for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty. Poetry not being an exact science, literality of rendering is altogether secondary to this chief law. I say literality—not fidelity—which is by no means the same thing. When literality can be combined with what is thus the primary condition of success, the translator is fortunate, and he must strive his utmost to unite them; when such object can only be attained by paraphrase, that is the only path." I should be inclined to make the law more rigid than does Rossetti, and to say that only when he has achieved the union of fidelity and literality can the translator be called truly successful. But it is certainly fidelity, in Rossetti's sense, that is of first importance. And such fidelity precludes the use of prose for verse.

So, when it became necessary to include Tartuffe and The Misanthrope in this series of French Classics, I could not accept a prose translation as at all truly reproducing them for English readers. I had attempted the impossible once, with the lyric verse of Ronsard, and had found delight in it; why should I not attempt it again, in a style as far removed as possible from Ronsard's, with the dramatic verse of Moliere? I have tried—to borrow a new metaphor from Mr. Swinburne—to "pour the wine from the golden into the silver cup," with as little loss as might be ; and even if the cup of my verse be only of clay, I think it is better so, than to pour the wine upon the ground and let it run abroad in wasteful prose.

For Moliere, to be sure, we must completely forget our Rossetti, Swinburne, and Ronsard. There is no poet so rarely lyric as Moliere. This does not imply—alas that there should be need of saying so, in these degenerate and undramatic days, when hardly anything except the lyric is generally recognised as poetry,—this does not imply that his verse is any the less excellent as verse, or any the less far removed from prose. It is in fact, I think, the best dramatic verse ever written: simple, direct, true, and telling ; humorous, subtle, shrewd, and strong; and attaining its effects through the simplicity, directness, effectiveness, and strength of its movement as verse. I cannot hope to have reproduced all its merits; it is something to have learned to appreciate them better, in attempting to create their equivalent in English.

The ideal which I set before myself was therefore to say in good English dramatic verse (if I could) exactly what Molttrc has said in good French dramatic verse. This principle seemed to settle at once the question of what metre should be used. Rhymed alexandrines, the metre of Moliere, have never been good English dramatic verse, and never can by any possibility be so. The standard English dramatic verse is the so-called five-accent iambic, for the most part unrhymed, somewhat free to shift or subordinate some of its accents, to throw in an extra syllable here and there (not too often), and to run over from line to line; and with rhyme (especially in comedy) occasionally coming in to point a moral or to end a scene. This is the metre of all good English plays in verse from Shakspere's comedies until to-day, and it holds exactly the same place upon the English stage and in the history of English drama which the rhymed alexandrine holds on the French stage and in the history of the French drama. Historically and dramatically the two different metres are exactly equivalent to each other.

They are also, in spite of their apparent difference, almost exactly equivalent in length and carrying power. Though I have made no effort to translate line by line, I have almost always done so, inevitably. French words have, I think, on the average, counting the mute e as is done in verse, something like twenty per cent, more syllables than the English, so that the French alexandrine, alternately of twelve and thirteen syllables, carries about the same number of words as the English heroic line, of ten or often eleven syllables. Moreover, the number of important accents in the two different lines is, in practice, about the same; though it must always be remembered that the stress accent, so far as it exists at all in the French language, is much lighter than in English; and that its position within the line of verse (except, for classic verse, at the caesura), must, according to the nature and laws of French verse, be irregular; while in English we need some regularity of accent to give us the feeling that there is rhythm at all. These facts, by the way, account for the usual lack of appreciation of French verse on the part of those born to the strongly accented English and German languages. Not finding in French the regularly recurrent beat which alone can give them the sensation of verse-rhythm, they conclude that "French poetry is not poetical," that the French language is unfitted for verse, and even, as Emerson himself did, that France is a " land where poet never grew"; failing to reflect that the effects of French verse may be far more exquisite and varied, perhaps even more poetical and beautiful, than their ears, dulled by the regular and monotonous pounding of the heavy Germanic accent, and untrained to the subtle divisions, relations, and variations of number, can even catch. English verse, however, does vary its normal accent somewhat; and in the blank verse or heroic line it usually makes one or two of its normal accents secondary, leaving three or four important ones to mark the rhythm ; and among these three or four, it is often the case that two stand out most prominently, dominating the line and marking its logical division. This is also the case with the French alexandrine, so far as accent plays any role in it. Properly, one should not speak, for French verse, of " accent" at all, but only of the rhythmical divisions or coupes of the lines. There are rarely more than three or four of these divisions; they mark the logical and constantly varied rhythmical movement of the lines; and usually two of them stand out as most important. In English, the so-called alexandrine is normally a six-accent line, and must always, counting secondary accents, at least suggest the possibility of being read as such. The French alexandrine can almost never be read with as many as six accents or divisions, even counting the very lightest stress or variation of the voice. Its true equivalent in English, then, is the apparently shorter line of ten or eleven syllables, normally of five accents, but in practice, when used freely for drama or narrative, subordinating one or two of these, and having only three or four really important stresses, two of which often dominate and logically divide the line. In cases where it has its full five accents, it is heavier, and practically longer, than the French line.

It has sometimes been difficult for me, in translating, sufficiently to repress rhyme; rhyme comes of itself, somehow, at the end of the lines, and it often seems much easier to write in rhyme than in blank verse. (As a matter of fact good rhymed verse is always, on general principles, much easier to write than good blank verse— but that is another storyv) In many passages I have at first dropped into rhyme, then have rewritten the passage in blank verse, and in almost every case I have finally chosen the blank verse rendering as being both better poetically and more truly equivalent to the original. Rhyme seems almost always to detract a little from dramatic realism in English; it does not in French, because in French it is a necessary part of the verse, there being, practically, no such thing as blank verse; and so, once the convention of characters speaking in verse at all is accepted, the rhyme follows inevitably. I have however allowed rhyme to come in, in the English version, as I said above, " to point a moral or to end a scene" —that is, in epigrammatic or sententious speeches, and sometimes in speeches of a somewhat artificial sentiment; and at the end of scenes or acts; as it constantly does in English blank verse comedies, including Shakspere's.

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