Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 17. John Stevens and his Services to English knowledge of Spanish Literature

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

§ 17. John Stevens and his Services to English knowledge of Spanish Literature

The most industrious and by no means the least distinguished of the translators of his time was captain John Stevens. Who and what he was we know not. There is no record of him or his achievements, save on the title-pages of his many books. There is no doubt that he did a signal service to English letters. It was through his skill and learning that the history of Spain and Spanish literature was made known to his countrymen. His mere industry appals us. He translated nothing save the works of Spaniards, and he accommodated his style to the style of his originals with a variety which no other of his contemporaries could match. Where a light and easy manner was required, as by Quevedo, he knew how to give it, and, when he brought Mariana’s History of Spain “to speak English,” as he said, under the auspices of the earl of Dorset, to whom it is dedicated, he did it with a dignity and eloquence which befit the Muse of history. The one cause of complaint which we have against him is that he could not keep away from Shelton’s Don Quixote, which he “revised and corrected” with a lavish hand. Nor does his excuse better his ill-doing. He declares in a dedication that Cervantes’s “successful masterpiece has not prov’d happy in its translators, for though it has been made English twice the versions have neither time been proportionable to the Beauty of the Original.” As to Shelton’s work, he pronounces it “almost a literal version,” and then complains that it is “in such unpolish’d language, and with so many Mistakes, that there seem’d to be nothing left but the outlines and rough Draught of this curious piece.” So Stevens took Shelton’s masterpiece and amended it, bringing it, it is true, far nearer to the original, and robbing it of what is of far higher worth than accuracy, its style and character.

For the rest, Stevens touched nothing that he did not embellish. Though he did not disdain romance, though we owe to his pen Pablo de Segovia, the Spanish Sharper, and a collection of novels, with the title The Spanish Libertines, his preference, or the preference of his readers, was for history and travel. Sandoval’s History of Charles V followed The Spanish Rule of Trade to the West Indies, written by Don Joseph de Veitia Linage. He took his share in the English of a series of voyages, published in monthly parts, thus making a link between the old method of publishing and the practice of to-day. So far as we know, he was a translator and a translator only. He seems to have played no part in the life of his time. His dedications, couched in the terms of the loftiest flattery, afford us little clue to his career. Perhaps, as he inscribes his translation of The Portuguese Asia, with humble adulation, to Catherine, queen dowager of England, he may have professed the Catholic faith. But, by his works we know him, and by his works alone, and they tell us that he did the journey-work of translation with a sounder scholarship and with a more various style than any of the men of letters, his contemporaries, could boast.