Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 13. Roger L’Estrange as a Translator

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

§ 13. Roger L’Estrange as a Translator

For Roger L’Estrange, the work of translation was but a profitable interlude in a busy, active life. He was by temperament a fighter; by habit, a man of affairs. No man loved the fray better than he; none defended his opinions more bravely. For the principles of an aristocratic toryism, which he advocated fiercely and consistently, he suffered exile and imprisonment. The highest reward, which he obtained for his loyalty to the king, was to be appointed some years after the restoration “surveyor of the imprimery” and one of “the licensers of the press.” To the end of his long life, therefore, it was to his pen alone that he could trust, and, though controversy was most to his taste, he fell to translating with the same brisk energy which made him formidable as a pamphleteer. It was for money, of course, that he wrote his many lively versions; he was paid for his Josephus at so much a sheet, as he might be paid to-day; but he could prove his preferences by his selection of authors, and a preface always gave him an opportunity of publishing his views. Thus, the face of the controversialist is always seen through the mask of the translator. In his Colloquies of Erasmus, for instance, he roundly states that he made choice of this piece and subject for his own sake and not for the readers’. Writing at the time of the popish plot, and with a full consciousness of the suspicion that fell upon him, he makes clear his own position. “Some will have the Translator to be a Papist in Masquerade,” says he, “for going so far. Others again will have him to be too much of a Protestant, because he will go no farther: so that he is crushed betwixt the two Extremes, as they hang up Erasmus himself, betwixt Heaven and Hell.” In his preface to Seneca’s Morals, he descends from truth itself to his own experience with yet greater clarity. For L’Estrange, though he spoke with another’s voice, could still advocate the causes which for him were never lost.

He did his work of translation with the utmost thoroughness. He was the master of many tongues, and when, in Englishing Greek, he used the French version, which lay at his hand, he was very careful to compare the result with the original. But his chiefest qualification for the task was his mastery of his own language. Having spent fifty years in the service of letters, he had turned our English speech into the ready instrument of his thought. Whatever author he translated, he took him not only out of his own tongue, but out of his own land. He made him, for the moment, a true-born Englishman, speaking the slang of the moment with the proper accent of the cockney. As we have said, there are objections to this method. It is inevitable that all works, of whatever time or place, should wear the same aspect, when they have undergone this equalising process. They cannot but lose much of their individual character if they are all brought to walk with the same gait, to use the same gesture. When Nero “looks big upon disaster,” and “carries it on at a huffing note,” the reader loses sight of Rome and Judaea, and is instantly borne back to Gray’s-inn-gate or Little Britain. And the mere fact that L’Estrange set upon all the works which the Englished this very stamp and pattern of his own time, while it increased their momentary popularity, prevents their general acceptance as classics. They are translated not into English, but into the dialect of a particular time and place, and thus, with happy exceptions, they leave the work of interpretation to be done all over again. But L’Estrange’s method has one conspicuous merit. It removes all signs of halting uncertainty. You read a version, composed in accord with it, in the confidence that the idiom of the original will never disturb you, that you may judge it not as the tortured expression of a foreign tongue, but as a fresh and independent experiment in style. Pepys, for instance, a critic of quick intelligence, was not blind to the peculiar merit of L’Estrange, thus fortunate in the appreciation of his contemporaries, who saw and approved the end at which he aimed.