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"?


Is the concept that certain concepts are untranslatable itself untranslatable (FR->EN)?

The Vocabulaire européen des philosophies has now been versioned in English as Dictionary of untranslatables and Spanish as Diccionario de intraducibles. Here Mark Liberman cites Adam Gopnik, who seems to think the book is self-refuting Sapir-Whorfism, and here Jacques Lezra, coordinator of the English-language version, seems to be indulging the following incoherence: linguistic relativism is kind-of racist, but out there there are still lots of pretty false friends, as it were, for whom "untranslatable" is a reasonable enough synonym.

One of Lezra's examples of evil will ring a bell with many English/Spanish-speakers of perfectly liberal disposition, if not in his extreme interpretation:

En castellano decimos: 'Se me cayó el vaso', y en inglés, 'I dropped the glass'. De la expresión castellana se podría concluir que el hispanoparlante tiene poco sentido de la responsabilidad por la expresión impersonal-reflexiva. Diríamos que, o bien el idioma le lleva a una posición de irresponsabilidad, o bien refleja, en la sintaxis, esa misma disposición anímica. El inglés, en cambio, parecería ofrecernos un sujeto que asume sus acciones, para el cual no caben ambigüedades, y cuyo idioma-mundo ofrecería instituciones ordenadas, y jerárquicamente transparentes.

Despite what (El Mundo reports of what) Lezra says, there is empirical evidence of some types of linguistic relativism. Given denialist taboos in neighbouring fields, would it be unreasonable to ask whether Lezra has any empirical evidence to refute either the example he cites or something comparable? At the very least we might then come closer to understanding why Sancho Panza is such a lousy servant. Sancho's addiction to proverbs (try Refranes de Sancho Panza) suggests the transcendental view that shit happens, shit has always happened, and shit will always happen. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in The Menace of the Herd, an anti-Procrustean rant from 1943, explains that Sancho and Don Quijote are already thinking of the (Catholic) hereafter:

The word “democratic,” in connection with the Catholic (or schismatic) world, is, as we have pointed out at the beginning, not a happy one. In these countries, whether they have a highly hierarchic social structure or not, we find a certain “demophil” sentiment. De Tocqueville remarks in his De la Démocratie en Amérique that Americans are often astonished and even shocked about the familiarity between masters and servants in France. The insolence of Sancho Pansa also fits perfectly into this picture. Such Catholic pseudo-egalitarian sentiment can obviously not spring from the acceptance of a human equality, which does not exist, but from the aforementioned fact that the most important human value — the degree of sinfulness or sanctity — is hidden to our eye and only revealed in its completeness to God. The nonchalantly polite but nevertheless free interclass manners in the Catholic world are the natural consequence of a conventional (nonideological) egalitarianism, based on the profound knowledge that our final status — on the other side of the grave — will be basically different from our present one.

How satisfying, though, it would be to be able to blame the Word rather than God, though that probably still wouldn't clear up John 1:1 for me. Maybe someone who is better at reading (between the lines) will help me with all this sodding Greek.

The worst translation ever published, hotel foyer penalty shoot-outs, lovers of pigs: paving on the road to hell

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!


Shine on, you diamont crazy

Now that even those proto-Talibanic Gauls have decided that Queens are A Good Thing, and now that national political clans have made the hop to Brussels (more dosh, less accountability), it's surely time for a stupid but photogenic nephew-niece of one of the latter to be made King-Queen of Europe, with a view to the introduction of a regulator for Euro-globish, the new, dominant variety of English.

Its first act will probably not be to pardon all the transgressors mentioned here, but we hope it will go gently with Garage Splendit, Av Diagonal (was "del Generalísimo"), Barcelona.

Garage Splendit has been facilitating communications with the underworld for many years, and at least since D.ª Teresa Molins Azcona de Poch's passage from earth to heaven 50 years ago was announced in this sweet little advertaph:

The (from our mundane perspective) misplaced adjective is a Catalanism (in popular speech, Madrid -> Madrit). And, as we are still told, Anglicisms were forbidden during the dictatorship.

A gem, I say.