Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Charles Whibley
Philemon Holland (1552–1637) and the Classical Translators
[Philemon Holland was born at Chelmsford in 1552. He was educated at Chelmsford Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, of which foundation he was elected a major fellow in 1574. He also studied medicine, and proceeded to the degree of M.D. In 1595 he settled at Coventry, and there he remained until his death in 1637. For some years he was an usher at Coventry School, and for a while headmaster. He translated Livy (1600), Pliny (1601), Suetonius (1606), Plutarch’s Morals (1603), and Xenophon’s Cyropedia (1632), by which admirable versions he is best remembered. The other translators are known by their works. Thomas Underdowne translated—besides the Aethiopica (1587)—Ovid, his Invective against Ibis into “English meeter” (1569), and was the author of The Excellent Historye of Theseus and Ariadne. The title-page of his Thucydides (1550) tells us that Thomas Nicolls was a “citizeine and goldsmyth of London.” Of Adlington, who Englished the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, we know no more than that he was educated at University College, Oxford, while the translator of Herodotus hides even his name. It seems to be taken for granted that the initials B. R. stand for Barnaby Rich, but proof is lacking, and it is not a matter of the first importance. Sir Henry Savile—a friend of Ben Jonson, who dedicated to him a copy of verses—was the best scholar of them all. He took part in the authorised translation of the Bible, Matthew, The Acts, and Revelations falling to his share. In 1591 he published a translation of the Histories of Tacitus under the title of The End of Galba.]  1
THE LAST half of the 16th century was the golden age of translation. Not a few attempts had been made a hundred years earlier to discover to English readers some fragments at least of classical literature. Will. Wyrcestre, alias Botaner, for instance, translated The Boke of Tulle of Old Age in 1481, and his was not a solitary experiment. But the genuine enthusiasm of the Renaissance did not lay hold upon England until seventy years later, when the insatiable curiosity, which urged the exploration of new continents, encouraged also the revived study of Greece and Rome. In fifty years an incomparable series of English versions was produced, and a wealth of literature revealed to the uninitiated. The translators approached their task with characteristic recklessness. They endured no probationary period of scholarship. They had as little Greek as their readers, and not much more Latin. Amyot and the French were their most direct and potent inspiration, and as these did not disdain the help of the Latin cribs, which had been made in Italy, not a few of the English translations were removed by more than one stage from their originals. Thomas Nicolls, goldsmith of London, “turned” Thucydides from the French of Claude de Seyssel, Bishop of Marseilles, who himself did but know the history in its Latin dress. And yet the version of Thomas Hobbes, who proudly records on the title-page that his author was “interpreted with Faith and Diligence immediately out of the Greek,” is dry and insipid when compared to the less scholarly and ruggeder translation of the modest goldsmith. Some, indeed, of the translators went sadly astray. Even the example of Amyot was not always sufficient for success, and one Angell Day succeeded in converting Daphnis and Chloe from Amyot’s pellucid French into as tiresome and turgid a piece of affectation as the language will supply. But the most had so noble a sense of the picturesque, and so fertile a diction, that one does not regret for an instant their lack of scholarship.  2
  This brilliant efflorescence is the more remarkable, because it was due not to the genius of distinguished writers, but to the talent of marvellously-gifted hacks. Then, as now, the work of translation was commonly performed by men who added nought to their country’s literature. But while to-day the average version is the cheapest journey-work, there are few of the Tudor translations which are not vigorous, eloquent, and distinguished. Even the best are marred by faults, and by one so grave that admiration cannot overlook it. The attempt is rarely made to represent the style of the original. How should it be when the Greek or Latin phrase was filtered into English through the French? Exceptions there are. Sir Henry Savile, for instance, was a scholar gifted with an understanding of Tacitus and his diction. Now and again he presents the idiom and conciseness of his author even to the prejudice of his own style. The passage which here follows is an echo at least of the Tacitean brevity and construction: “A worke I take here in hande containing sundry changes, bloudie battailes, violent mutinees, peace full of cruelty and perill: foure Emperors slaine with sword, three civil warres, foraine many mo, and oft both at once: good success in the East, bad in the West: Illyricum troubled; the countries of Gallia wavering: Brittanny al conquered, not al retained: invasions of the Sarmatian and Suevian nation: the Dacian giving and taking notable overthrowes: the Parthians also almost in amies, abused by a counterfayt Nero.” This is clumsy enough, yet it adheres closely to the original, and how shall the telegraphic sentences be more elegantly interpreted? But Tacitus, being a decadent, refused to suit himself with the youthful vigour of Elizabethan prose, so that Sir Henry Savile’s scholarship does not long prevail against the spirit of his own language. And where he was not successful, the rest were certain of failure. In truth, when we approach the translations of the 16th century, we had better forget our classics. “A translator,” said Dr. Johnson, “is to exhibit his author’s thoughts in such a dress of diction as the author would have given them had his language been English.” Tried by this severe standard, Holland, Adlington, Underdowne, fail miserably, one and all. But it were an injustice to their achievement to demand accuracy. Like North, they were writers rather than scholars. Their practice was to neglect their original, and to aim at a fresh composition which should recall the substance, if not the quality, of the Greek or Latin. Though the versions thus differ from the works, which are their excuse, they are bound together by marked resemblances. A uniform convention directs their style. Energy of expression, colour and variety of phrase, invention and redundancy characterise them all. As they are guilty of the same vices, so they share the same virtues, and to consider their merits, we need not separate them one from another.  3
  The language handled by the translators with so keen an enthusiasm was young and full-blooded and still in a state of revolution. Words and phrases were fighting hard for their life, and too many lost it. “Many travise and dance minionly,” writes B. R., translator of Herodotus; while Philemon Holland in his passage of the Alps talks of the “slabberie snow-broth,” and sets the Romans down as “poor garrons.” Slang clamoured for admittance into the written language, and it is our misfortune that later writers denied what Holland and his colleagues so readily granted. B. R. is a lover of common words even above his fellows. Thus he renders a simple passage concerning the writing of the Egyptians: “The Aegyptians contrarywise proceede from the right to the left, wherein also they frump and gird at the Graecians.” And there is an admirable homeliness in the sentence: “Protheus turned hymselfe to Alexander and tucked hym up with thys rounde talk.” The result of this freedom was a marvellous vividness and strength, marred, it is true, by an uncouth and awkward prolixity. But the style is tempered to the softer passion of love, and passages in Adlington’s Golden Asse and Underdowne’s Aethiopian Historie are masterpieces of dainty narrative. In another respect English is in a state of flux. Prefix and suffix vary and are changed. “Mockery” has not entirely ousted “mockage.” Sometimes “praecel” is found; at others the more familiar “excel”; and though the points of difference are small, they are sufficient to stamp a marked character upon the style. Then, again, the language was enriched, especially by Holland, with countless borrowings from French or Latin. “The mures and counter-fabrickes of the city;” “our forces to be cassed and discharged from service;” by such phrases are the pages of Livy distinguished. And thus a plumpness and dignity are imparted to English prose—qualities which (with their defects) the niceness and common sense of a later age purged away. Above all, the prose is rhythmical and well fashioned to the ear, and each after his kind has the gift of telling a story with point and direction. Thus does Holland sum up the character of Hannibal: “Most forward he was and hardie to all hazards and dangerous adventures: right provident and warie againe, at the verie point of perill and jeopardie. No travaile was able to wearie and tire his bodie; no painestaking could daunt and breake his hearte.” In the few lines that follow there is a rare touch of picturesqueness: “They crossed the rockes overthwart, and (as they were accustomed and used to them) ran to and fro, up and down through the blind and unhaunted bywaies.” If direct simplicity be to your taste, where shall you match the conference between Protheus and Alexander, as set forth by B. R.? “Beeing arrived at the Court, the king asked Alexander in these words: Yong gentleman, what are you, and from what countrey are you landed heere in Aegypt? Alexander, who was not to seeke of an aunswere, with a comely grace made aunswere to the King, descrying both his countrey and lynage, the place also from whence hee was arrived, and to what coastes he directed his course. And where then (quoth the King) had you this goodly gentlewoman, for she seemeth to be a woman of no common bloud: whereat my youth somewhat mammering before he coulde cast the plot of his excuse, was betrayed by his servaunts, who in humble manner on their knees, deciphered to the king the whole discourse of his treason.” In prose such as this there is a robust delight which a more accurate and better handled style will not always afford, and there is scarce a translation but will yield passages of like quality on every page. Though the convention is invariable, differences there are of energy and tone. Philemon Holland is the greatest of the group. In strength and variety none other is comparable to him. Not only is his grip of the language firmer, but his key of expression is larger, his ear far truer for suiting sound to sense. Sir Henry Savile is chastened and restrained, as befits a scholar. B. R., the nameless translator of Herodotus, joins to a light hand a pretty taste for those outcasts of speech which are slang, while William Adlington displays a feeling for elegance which others lack. But the work of all is good to read, and their faults are the faults of great men.  4

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