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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

X. Writers of Burlesque and Translators

§ 12. Motteux and his Translation of Rabelais

Peter Motteux, a fitting companion in literature for John Phillips, differed widely from him in blood and breeding. His youthful steps were not encouraged by a great poet. Thrown early upon a country whose language he did not understand, he was compelled to make a double conquest, first of a speech which was not his own, and then of the town in which he was an enforced exile. Born in 1663 at Rouen, he came to England when the edict of Nantes was revoked, and speedily found a place among English men of letters. So swift a change of nationality is almost without parallel in the history of literature. The author of Gramont is no near rival, since he was but four when he was carried to France, and a Frenchman he remained, in all save blood, till the end. Motteux’s achievement was far more wonderful. He left France at the age of twenty-two, probably with no training either in English or in literature, and, within a few years, he was writing with precisely the same accent as any other haunter of the coffee-houses. In the preface to his Rabelais, he fears that he has “not given his Author the graces of the English language in every place,” and protests that he has not followed the example of Lucullus, who wrote a book in Greek and scattered some false Greek in it, to let the world know it was not written by a Greek. Motteux was not guilty of a similar indiscretion. What errors may be found in his diction, he assures us, have crept in without his intent. He need have had no fear, nor have offered his reader any apology. Motteux had many faults. Gallicism was not among them. He compared himself, proudly enough, with Livius Andronicus, a Greek, and Terence, a Carthaginian, who chose Latin for their tongue, and if he could not vie with them in purity of style, he surpassed them, doubtless, in fluency. There was no task to which he did not turn a ready hand. He wrote plays, after the prescribed model, and without the smallest distinction. He furnished the plays of others with doggerel prologues. He edited The Gentleman’s Journal, for which Le Mercure Galant of his own land served as a model, and was not refused the assistance of the great. Congreve and Prior both condescend to his pages, and, as it was Dryden under whose banner he fought, so it is the influence of Dryden which governs his journal. Frenchman though he was, he differs little enough from his neighbours in Grub street. He might sign their works or they his without much detriment to either side. Nevertheless, he played a part in the literary history of his time. If he won the approval of Dryden and Steele, he was deemed worthy the rancour of Pope, who celebrates him as a bore,

  • Talkers I’ve learned to bear, Motteux I knew,
  • and, in The Art of Sinking, puts him among the eels, “obscene authors that wrap themselves up in their own mud, but are mighty nimble and pert.” And then, to prove an astonishing adaptability, Motteux turned an honest tradesman, and sold China and Japan wares “cheap for a quick return.” He did not return to the craft of letters, and, after six years of honourable dealing, died a mysterious and shameful death.

    Had it not been for his translation of Rabelais, Motteux’s name would not have outlived this crowning scandal. His translation gives him a place in history. The work has many faults. It is “nimble and pert,” like its author, and Rabelais himself was never for a moment either pert or nimble. A still worse fault is its diffuseness, a fault of which Motteux appears to have been wholly unconscious. His style is as far from the Latin gravity of the original as from the humorous eloquence of Sir Thomas Urquhart. He is able neither to represent the one nor to carry on the tradition of the other. Between him and the knight of Cromarty there is not merely the difference which separates the English of Elizabeth (for Urquhart was a belated Tudor) from the English of Dutch William, but the difference which parts an erudite and curious Scots pedant from the trivial, boisterous frequenter of Will’s. Motteux’s phrase is simple to tawdriness. He drags Rabelais down to his own level, and in nothing does he prove his lack of taste so clearly as in his use of slang. Now, slang, to the translator of Rabelais, is indispensable. The romance of Pantagruel and Panurge cannot be turned out of its own into any other tongue save by an artist in strange words. Urquhart was perfectly equipped for the task, because his interest in oddly coloured speech never tired, and because, when he was himself at a loss, he made a liberal use of Cotgrave’s Dictionary. Thus it was that his slang had ever a literary flavour; it had already won the freedom of humane letters; the dust of the street corner was not thick upon it. Motteux’s slang was of another kind. It lacked literary association. The quickwitted Frenchman had picked it up in the gutter or the tavern; he had caught it fresh minted from the vulgar brains of his friends; and, though it was lively enough to gain an instant laugh, it long since lost its humour. Motteux makes free and frank acknowledgment of the source of his common talk, as he calls it.

  • “Far be it from me,” he writes, “for all this to value myself upon hitting the Words of Cant, in which my drolling Author is so luxuriant, for though such words have stood me in good stead, I scarce can forbear thinking myself unhappy in having insensibly hoarded up so much Gibberish and Billingsgate trash in my memory; nor could I forbear asking myself as an Italian Cardinal said on another account … Where the devil didst thou make up all these fripperies?”
  • He made them up in Grub street; and, when he had contrived them, they were ill suited to his purpose.

    The only literary sources from which he gathered his “words of Cant” were the travesties. He was no better able than John Phillips to escape the anachronisms of Cotton and Radcliffe. Though he had a finer restraint than the rascal who burlesqued Don Quixote, he could not forbear to treat the text of Rabelais with the same kind of wantonness. His version is full of allusions to his own time, which are wholly out of place in the Englishing of a masterpiece of the sixteenth century, and which to-day no man may understand. Nothing can be more impertinent than to interrupt the narrative of Rabelais with so foolish a catchword as “his name’s Twyford.” To translate maître d’eschole by “the Busby of the place” is wofully to misunderstand the business of a translator. Still less excuse has Motteux, when, instead of the simple words “at dawn,” he indulges his fancy thus extravagantly: “when day, peeping in the East, made the Sky turn from Black to Red, like a boiling Lobster.” The fact that he conveyed the image from Hudibras, where it was appropriate, to Rabelais, where it is a tiresome excrescence, does but heighten his sin. On every page, he affronts the reader. He calls Panurge a “sweet babe”; like the journalist that he was, he clips “doctor” into “doc.” Worse still, he can find no better equivalent for c’est tout ung than “it ’s all one to Frank.” Thus, he destroys the illusion of Rabelais, and, as though that were not enough, he drags in by the heels all the thievish gibberish that he could pick up in the purlieus of Newgate in Newgate’s heyday.