Ruskin on translations

From the always engaging Laudator:

John Ruskin, letter to Susan Beever (December 17, 1873):

What translation of Aristophanes is that? I must get it. I’ve lost I can’t tell you how much knowledge and power through false pride in refusing to read translations, though I couldn’t read the original without more trouble and time than I could spare; nevertheless, you must not think this English gives you a true idea of the original. The English is much more "English" in its temper than its words. Aristophanes is far more dry, severe, and concentrated; his words are fewer, and have fuller flavor; this English is to him what currant jelly is to currants. But it’s immensely useful to me.

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  1. Mike says:

    Nice passage.

    Two comments:

    1. I wish I had taken Greek in college, for I was dipping into Ratzinger’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy” this morning and he mentions that in the Greek, in the Prodigal Son parable, it’s “bring out the “first” robe”, not the “best” robe, to put on the returning son. Ratzinger then says that the Fathers often saw this as the restoration of Adam to the Creator, who had lost his “first robe” of grace through original sin. That’s quite cool.

    2. My son, a rising senior in high school, is taking his fifth year of Latin. I’m really proud of his efforts, especially when he says, “Dad, you just have to read Vergil in the original.” Yes!

  2. AnAmericanMother says:

    With the best will and effort in the world, a translation is still a translation. It’s different by its very nature.

    I’m not skilled enough in Greek to do anything but limp along with a crib, but from my German reading I know that many things (especially in poetry and drama) are lost in translation. Aside from the elusive “flavor” that Ruskin mentions, there are shades of meaning and untranslatable words.

    A shot at the difficulties of translation, by Kipling:


    “‘Idiot! Regulus was not a feature of the landscape. He was a man, self-doomed to death by torture. Atqui sciebat — knowing it — having achieved it for his country’s sake — can’t you hear that atqui cut like a knife?— he moved off” with some dignity. That is why Horace out of the whole golden Latin tongue chose the one word “tendens”—which is utterly untranslatable.’

    The gross injustice of being asked to translate it, converted Beetle into a young Christian martyr . . . “

  3. Tom in NY says:

    @Mike: your son is on the right track. Even translating into English in your head as you read Virgil (or other authors) is still better than reading translation. But I can’t read Dostoyevsky in Russian (yet!).
    Rev Moderator knows two biblical tools – translated from German – which have been high-powered drills for scholars, known in English as the TDOT and TDNT. I’d get my papers done faster in English.
    Cf. Mark 1:15: the RSV has “repent, and believe in the gospel.” It’s also legitimate to translate as “change your heart (thoughts) and trust in the good news.” The JPS translates “torah” as “teaching” rather than “law.” Vg. and LXX have the equivalents of “law.” How does your understanding change?
    Salutationes omnibus.

  4. aquinas138 says:

    Mike, the image of the restoration of the lost Robe of Glory is the dominant image in the Syriac tradition. It was lost by original sin (and this is why Adam and Eve notice they are naked – they weren’t before!), and since Christ (the New Adam) deposited the Robe in the Jordan at his own baptism, the individual Christian recovers the Robe in the baptismal waters, which have become the waters of the Jordan by the prayers of the Church. It is also connected with the wedding garment, which once it has been recovered, must be kept unsullied for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The image occurs several times in St. Ephrem’s beautiful Hymns on Paradise.

  5. Mike says:


    Aquinas138: beautiful!

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