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“ If, because of the immense fame of the following Tragedy, I wished to acquaint myself with it, and could only do so by the help of a translator, I should require him to be literal at every cost save that of absolute violence to our language. I would be tolerant for once—in the case of so immensely famous an original--of even a clumsy attempt to furnish me with the very turn of each phrase in as Greek a fashion as English will bear.”_BROWNING: Preface to the translation of Aga
“Car . . . une méthode, seule, existe, honnête et logique, de traduction : la littéralité impersonnelle à peine atténuée pour juste le rapide pli de paupière et savourer longuement. . . . Elle produit, suggestive, la plus grande puissance littéraire. Elle fait le plaisir évocatoire. Elle recrée en indiquant. Elle est le plus sûr garant de vérité. Elle plonge, ferme, en sa nudité de pierre. Elle fleure l'arome primitif et le cristallise. Elle dévide et délie. Elle fixe. Certes si la littéralité enchaine l'esprit divaguant et le dompte, elle arrête l'infernale facilité de la plume.”—Un mot du traducteur à ses amis, J. C. MARDRUS. Preface to the Arabian Nights.
HAVE prefixed as the phylactery of this
book these two quotations ; but there are one or two other matters of which the reader (or he that keeps the reader's conscience) may expect that some account be given. Firstly, why rhymed couplets instead of the traditional blank verse ?
I will not cite Dryden in defence of the rhymed couplet for dramatic verse, because I might be answered with Dryden's recantation. The great difficulty of English blank verse might be excuse enough ; but if a translator meekly confesses, “ I cannot write blank verse,” the critic, unappeased, may retort, “ Then don't translate Sophocles !”
But in truth I hold that the rhymed and not the blank verse is nearer the Sophoclean pitch of language. Sophocles moves, by predilection, in the middle diction, which is common ground to the poetical and the prose style; his dialogue is colloquially plain and direct; in King Edipus especially his vocabulary resembles that which Antiphon employed in prose to plead his cases, real or imaginary. Now English blank verse must (to my thinking) be always in full dress if it is to succeed--perpetually sonorous, balanced, aloof from the ordinary. True, Byron's noble dramatic verse is unrhymed, but too rhetorical for Sophocles, who is (with rare exceptions) notably pure from rhetoric. Wordsworth tried to abolish the distinction between verse and prose; we may bless him for easing poetical diction, but most of his blank verse might conveniently be printed as prose.
The rhymed couplet gives a perpetual reservation within which to approximate, as near as may be, to prose. With Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Keats, Shelley, and the Victorians before us, what bounds can we set to the aptitude of this metre? The eighteenth century had tied it up in antithetical, epigrammatic bondage, but a hundred years of reaction have freed it again. So Ovid killed the elegiac couplet in Latin for all purposes but wit; only, in Latin, no poet arose to revive it. Between the dry, tense brilliance of Pope's couplet and the moribund wateriness of William Morris' archaistic rhyming, there is room for ease or elevation, flow or retort, argument and narrative, music and cleverness; the couplet is capable of all the grandeur of blank verse, and yet through all colloquialism of diction or construction the rhyme is present to reassure the ear. Perhaps to confess an ambition is only to offer an estimate of one's own failure ; however, I will confess that I have often coveted the joyous brilliancy and unembarrassed current of Rostand's dramatic verse ; and I still believe that, given our five foot couplet for the French Alexandrine, a like success is feasible in English, though sadly far from realised in these pages. .
Next, the matter of Choruses. The late Mr. Warr in his companion volume of
Aeschylus adopted the device of “rhythmical prose. Perhaps it is foolhardy to attempt
But I felt that my rhymed couplets prohibited me from leaving the choruses to prose even “rhythmical”; and, I confess, was not content with giving the lyrics of Sophocles the air of an irresponsible canticle modelled on some jingle from Hymns Ancient and Modern interpolated in the midst of dramatic action.
“Changing passions, and numbers changing with those passions, make the whole secret of Western as well as Eastern poetry,” says Goldsmith's ingenious Chinaman. And if the words were married by the poet to a rhythm dochmiac, logaædic, glyconic, anapæstic, as the case may be, surely (in obedience to the text on my phylactery) the translator's task must be to produce such words as might conveniently be chanted to the poet's music (if by some divine accident the sands of Egypt should ever restore it), or to a modern music which should observe the same rhythm. It would be idle to hope that my choruses will afford the reader a pleasure bearing any tolerable proportion to the extreme labour spent upon them; but I felt myself in honesty bound to hazard this system for representing (to such a reader as Browning imagines) what kind of thing a Sophoclean chorus is.
I need not
weary him by explaining the various treatments I have experimented upon in the metrical pauses or rests which make the Greek cadence, especially in the penultimate of the lyric period.
I have sometimes taken the licence to rhyme across from Turn (strophe) to Counter-turn (antistrophe), but after King Edipus this plan has been abandoned.
Lastly, obligations. A naturally thievish memory has forbidden me to look at other verse translations of my author; but by the high value of his critical contributions to Sophoclean study, I can judge how great is my loss in the case of Mr. Whitelaw's version. I owe it to Sir Richard Jebb that so little commentary is needed to this volume; and what little there is, is in great measure a debt to him also. His great edition is so complete and judicious that for many years to come all Sophoclean criticism must be expressed in terms of differing or agreeing with him. I have only departed from his view in three or four passages; and having his translation perforce before me, where it offered the one right word to render the Greek or to suit the metre, I have not avoided the sin of plagiarism; but I hope my loans will not be judged excessive in this particular.