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This article is taken from PN Review 111, Volume 23 Number 1, September - October 1996.

Heroic Couplet Translation - A Unique Solution Felicity Rosslyn

What does the modern reader expect of a translation? Chiefly, that it should read easily, and be accurate, expressing only what the author intended. We cheerfully buy our paperback Homer, Virgil or Bible on the assumption that these are the real thing, or very nearly so, and we leave older translations, in less accessible idioms, on the library shelf.

The preference for 'natural' sounding translation, and the presumption that 'accuracy' is the essence of the translator's task, are so universal now that it comes as a surprise to discover that these attitude have a precise historical date to them - and before that time, virtually the opposite understanding prevailed. In the lifetime of Dryden and Pope (the hundred years from 1640-1740, say) translation was something that possessed an idiom of its own, and accuracy was the least of the translator's obligations: he was required to reproduce the greatness of his original, by whatever means he could. But by the 1760s dissenting voices were heard, and by the time of Cowper's Iliad in 1791, literal accuracy had become the aim. Cowper rejected the heroic couplet idiom of his predecessors precisely because it could not be accurate: the obligation to rhyme and employ heroic vocabulary were now insuperable barriers. His own translation was in blank verse; and it set the stage for Coleridge's denunciation of Pope's Homer in Biographia Literaria as 'the main source of our pseudo-poetic diction' - a position that hardened into Romantic orthodoxy and has not ...


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