The literary bee.
I switched to reading The Collected Short Stories of Saki (which I’m now about half way through) because I’d had enough of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories for the moment. But feeling that Munro’s stories are like a snack for which you have a particular relish until a glut of them makes them less alluring, I’ve turned my attention to Montaigne’s Essays to avoid developing an aversion to Saki.
Renascence Editions offers John Florio’s early 17th century translation. The version offered Penn State’s Electronic Classics series (Montaigne) is Charles Cotton’s late 17th century translation edited by William Hazlitt in the 19th century. This edition is also available via Google Books (The Works of Michel de Montaigne).
Unfortunately, searches via Google Books seem a little haphazard. I found Volume III of Halifax’s 1711 edition of Cotton’s translation, but only by selecting the tab labelled About this book did I find Volume I and discover that I already had Volume II. Other editions are similarly random – Volume II from the University of Michigan, but no signs of I or III; a 1759 edition of Volume I; an 1811 edition of Volume I with the first 66 essays. And there seem to be a lot of others like this.
Nor am I mentioning these editions because it amuses me to do so, but rather because I got to the third essay of the first book (That our affections may carry themselves beyond us) and encountered a somewhat tortuous sentence.
THOSE which still accuse men for ever gaping after future things, and go about to teach us, to take hold of present fortunes, and settle ourselves upon them, as having no hold of that which is to come; yea much lesse than we have of that which is already past, touch and are ever harping upon the commonest humane error, if they dare call that an error, to which Nature her selfe, for the service of the continuation of her worke, doth address us, imprinting (as it doth many others) this false imagination in us, as more jealous of our actions, than of our knowledge.
They who accuse Mankind of the Folly of gaping always after Futurity, and advise us to lay hold of the Good which is present, and to set up our rest thereupon, as having too short reach to seize that which is to come, a Thing even more impossible for us than to recover what is past, have hit upon the most universal of human Errors, if it may be called an Error, whereto Nature itself has disposed us, which, for the better Continuation of her own Work, has, among several others, impressed us with this deluding Imagination, as being more jealous of what we do than what we know.
Cotton, Halifax edition, 1759
SUCH AS ACCUSE mankind of the folly of gaping after future things, and advise us to make our benefit of those which are present, and to set up our rest upon them, as having no grasp upon that which is to come, even less than that which we have upon what is past, have hit upon the most universal of human errors, if that may be called an error to which nature herself has disposed us, in order to the continuation of her own work, prepossessing us, amongst several others, with this deceiving imagination, as being more jealous of our action than afraid of our knowledge.
Cotton, Hazlitt edition, 1877
It was only by using all three versions of the translation that I managed to comprehend the sense of this sentence. If you can read this thing and understand it on the first occasion, you’d be justified in calling me an idiot, because beside you, I’d be such.
With a combination of 19th century snootiness and ignorance, Hazlitt says in his introduction
The besetting sin of both Montaigne’s translators seems to have been a propensity for reducing his language and phraseology to the language and phraseology of the age and country to which they belonged, and, moreover, inserting paragraphs and words, not here and there only, but constantly and habitually, from an evident desire and view to elucidate or strengthen their author’s meaning. The result has generally been unfortunate; and I have, in the case of all these interpolations on Cotton’s part, felt bound, where I did not cancel them, to throw them down into the notes, not thinking it right that Montaigne should be allowed any longer to stand sponsor for what he never wrote; and reluctant, on the other hand, to suppress the intruding matter entirely, where it appeared to possess a value of its own.
Nor is redundancy or paraphrase the only form of transgression in Cotton, for there are places in his author which he thought proper to omit, and it is hardly necessary to say that the restoration of all such matter to the text was considered essential to its integrity and completeness.
I can only assume that Hazlitt was unaware of the habit of Restoration and Augustan translators to produce paraphrases rather than faithful renderings of the original text. I can’t begin to imagine how Hazlitt thought Florio or Cotton might write except using the language and phraseology of their times. I don’t think Cotton sat down and thought he’d translate Montaigne into 18th century English. Hazlitt wanted, as we would today, a translation that was more faithful to the original, his aim being to tidy up Cotton’s translation; but he was possibly a little inconsistent. The 1711 edition has
Such as accuse Mankind of the folly of gaping and panting after future things, and advise us to make our Benefits of those which are present, and to set up our rest upon them, as having too short a reach to lay hold upon that which is to come, and it being more impossible for us, than to retrieve what is past, have hit upon the most universal of Humane Errours, if that may be call’d an Errour to which Nature it self has dispos’d us, who in order to the subsistence, and continuation of her own Work, has, amongst several others, prepossess’d us with this deceiving Imagination, as being more jealous of our Action, than afraid of our knowledge.
Cotton, Halifax edition, 1711
Hazlitt has returned to the wording of the older edition, even although it’s less accurate than the later edition. The original text can be read in French on the Montaigne Project site. It says
Ceux qui accusent les hommes d’aller tousjours béant apres les choses futures, et nous aprennent à nous saisir des biens presens, et nous rassoir en ceux-là, comme n’ayant aucune prise sur ce qui est à venir, voire assez moins que nous n’avons sur ce qui est passé, touchent la plus commune des humaines erreurs, s’ils osent appeler erreur chose à quoy nature mesme nous achemine, pour le service de la continuation de son ouvrage, nous imprimant, comme assez d’autres, cette imagination fausse, plus jalouse de nostre action que de nostre science.
I suppose Ceux qui could be translated into English as “Such as”, but even in the 19th century with its peculiar notions of propriety in translation, I’m sure “They who” would’ve been more idiomatic as it was in 1759. I started with Hazlitt’s edition when I began reading the third essay, but resorted to others because in spite of whatever liberties Cotton (in one edition or another) might’ve taken with the text, he seems a little more readable before the liberties Hazlitt took with his translation.
But every age looks back at the ages before it and tends to condemn their shortcomings from a contemporary perspective which is irrelevant to the period being criticised. We might deplore the failings of such times, but we shouldn’t expect that things should’ve been other than they were.
I had to revise this entry slightly when I found that the 1759 edition of Cotton’s translation was different from the 1711 version, the former having been altered in various ways that I was unaware of. Being even less expert in these matters than Hazlitt was, I ought to mind what I say.