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liar, or characteristic, all that is Homerian in Homer,
or Horatian in Horace, evaporates in a translation.

It is true that, judging by dictionaries only, almost
every word in one language has equivalents in every
other; but a critical study of language shows, that, with
the exception of terms denoting sensible objects and acts,
there is rarely a precise coincidence in meaning between
any two words in different tongues. Compare any two
languages, and you will find that there are, as the mathe-
maticians would say, many incommensurable quantities,
many words in each untranslatable into the other, and
that it is often impossible, by a paraphrase, to supply an



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WORDS. 35

equivalent. To use De Quincey's happy image from the
language of eclipses, the correspondence between the disk
of the original word and its translated representative, is,
in thousands of instances, not annular; the centres do not
coincide; the words overlap.

Above all does poetry defy translation. It is too subtle
an essence to be poured from one vessel into another
without loss. Of Cicero's elegant and copious rhetoric, of
the sententious wisdom of Tacitus, of the keen philosophic
penetration and masterly narrative talent of Thucydides,
of the thunderous eloquence of Demosthenes, and even of
Martial's jokes, it may be possible to give some inkling
through an English medium; but of the beauties and
splendors of the Greek and Latin poets, never. As soon
will another Homer appear on earth, as a translator echo
the marvellous music of his lyre. Imitations of the " Iliad,"
more or less accurate, may be given, or another poem may
be substituted in its place; but a perfect transfusion into
English is impossible. For, as Goethe somewhere says,
Art depends on Form, and you cannot preserve the form
in altering the form. Language is a strangely suggestive
medium, and it is through the reflex and vague operation
of words upon the mind that the translator finds himself
baffled. Words, especially in poetry, have a potency of
association, a kind of necromantic power, aside from
their significance as representative signs. There is a min-
gling of sound and sense, a delicacy of shades of meaning,
and a power of awakening associations, to which the
instinct of the poet is the key, and which cannot be
passed into a foreign language if the meaning be also
preserved. You may as easily make lace ruffles out of
hemp. Language, it cannot be too often repeated, is not



36 WORDS; THEIR USE AND ABUSE.

the dress of thought; it is its 'living expression, and con-
trols both the physiognomy and the organization of the
idea it utters.

How many abortive attempts have been made to translate
the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" into English verse! AVL;it,
havoc have even Pope and Cowper made of some of the
grandest passages in the old bard! The one, it has been
well said, turned his lines into a series of brilliant epi-
grams, sparkling and cold as the Heroic Epistles of Ovid;
the other chilled the warmth and toned down the colors
of Homer into a sober, drab-tinted hue, through which
gods and men loom feebly, and the camp of the Achaeans,
the synod of the Trojans, and the deities in council, have
much of the air of a Quaker meeting-house. Regarded as
an English poem, Pope's translation of the " Iliad " is unques-
tionably a brilliant and exquisitely versified production;
but viewed as a transfusion of the old bard into another
language, it is but a caput mortuum, containing but little
more of Homer than the names and events. The fervid
and romantic tone, the patriarchal simplicity, the mytho-
logic coloring, the unspeakable audacity and freshness of
the images, all that breathes of an earlier world, and of
the sunny shores, and laughing waves, and blue sky, of the
old jEgean, all this, as a critic has observed, " is vanished
and obliterated, as is the very swell and fall of the versi-
fication, regular in its very irregularity, like the roll of
the ocean. Instead of the burning, picture-like words of
the old Greek, we have the dainty diction of a literary
artist; instead of the ever-varied, resounding swell of the
hexameter, the neat, elegant, nicely-balanced modern couplet.
In short, the old bard is stripped. of his flowing chlamys
and ' his fillets, and is imprisoned in the high-heeled shoes,



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WORDS. 37

the laced velvet coat, and flowing periwig, of the eighteenth
century." Chapman, who has more of the spirit of Homer,
occasionally catches a note or two from the Ionian trum-
pet; but presently blows so discordant a blast that it would
have grated on the ear of Stentor himself. Lord Derby
and William C. Bryant have been more successful in many
respects than Pope or Cowper; but each has gained some
advantages by compensating defects.

Did Dryden succeed better when he put the "JEneid"
into verse? Did he give us that for which Virgil toiled
during eleven long years? Did he give us the embodi-
ment of those vulgar impressions which, when the old
Latin was read, made the Roman soldier shiver in all his
manly limbs? All persons who are familiar with English
literature know what havoc Dryden made of tl Paradise
Lost," when he attempted, even in the same language, to
put it into rhyme, a proposal to do which drew from
Milton the contemptuous remark: " Ay, young man; you
can tag my rhymes." A man of genius never made a
more signal failure. He could not draw the bow of
Ulysses. His rhyming, rhetorical manner, splendid and
powerful as it confessedly is, proved an utterly inadequate
vehicle for the high argument of the great Puritan. So
with his modernizations of Chaucer. His reproductions
of " the first finder of our faire langage " contain much
admirable verse; but it is not Chaucer's. They are sim-
ply elaborate paraphrases, in which the idiomatic colors
and forms, the distinctive beauties of the old poet,
above all, the simplicity and sly grace of his language,
the exquisite tone of naivete, which, like the lispings of
infancy, give such a charm to his verse, utterly vanish.
Dryden failed, not from lack of genius, but simply



38 WORDS; THEIR USE AND ABUSE.

because failure was inevitable, because this aroma of
antiquity, in the process of transfusion into modern lan-
guage, is sure to evaporate.

All such changes involve a loss of some subtle trait of
expression, or some complexional peculiarity, essential to
the truthful exhibition of the original. The outline, the
story, the bones remain; but the soul is gone, the essence,
the ethereal light, the perfume is vanished. As well might
a painter hope, by using a different kind of tint, to give
the expression of one of Raphael's or Titian's master-
pieces, as any man expect, by any other words than those
which a great poet has used, to convey the same mean-
ing. Even the humblest writer has an idiosyncrasy, a
manner of his own, without which the identity and truth
of his work are lost. If, then, the meaning and spirit of
a poem cannot be transferred from one place to another,
so to speak, under the roof of a common language, must
it not a fortiori be impossible -to transport them faith-
fully across the barriers which divide one language from
another, and antiquity from modern times?

How many ineffectual attempts have been made to
translate Horace into English and French! It is easy to
give the right meaning, or something like the meaning,
of his lyrics; but they are cast in a mould of such ex-
quisite delicacy that their ease and elegance defy imita-
tion. All experience shows that the tradittore must
necessarily be traduttore, the translator, a traducer of
the Sabine bard. As well might you put a violet into a
crucible, and expect to reproduce its beauty and perfume,
as expect to reproduce in another tongue the mysterious
synthesis of sound and sense, of meaning and suggested
association, which constitutes the vital beauty of a lyric,



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WORDS. 39

The special imagination of the poet, it has been well
said, is an imagination inseparably bound up with lan-
guage; possessed by the infinite beauty and the deepest,
subtlest meanings of words ; skilled in their finest sympa-
thies; powerful to make them yield a meaning which
another never could have extracted from them. It is of
the very essence of the poet's art, so that, in the highest
exercise of that art, there is no such thing as the ren-
dering of an idea in appropriate language; but the con-
ception, and the words in which it is conveyed, are a
simultaneous creation, and the idea springs forth full-
grown, in its panoply of radiant utterance.

The works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakspeare, and
Goethe, exist in the words as the mind in conjunction
with the body. Separation is death. Alter the melody
ever so skillfully, and you change the effect. You cannot
translate a sound; you cannot give an elegant version of
a melody. Prose, indeed, suffers less from paraphrase than
poetry; but even in translating a prose work, unless one
containing facts or reasoning merely, the most skillful
linguist can be sure of hardly more than of transferring
the raw material of the original sentiment into his own
tongue. The bullion may be there, but its shape is al-
tered; the flower is preserved, but the aroma is gone;
there, to be sure, is the arras, with its Gobelin figures,
but it is the wrong side out. It is hardly an exaggeration
to say that there is as much contrast between the best
translation and the original of a great author, as between
a wintry landscape, with its dead grass and withered
foliage, and the same landscape arrayed in the green
robes of summer. Nay, we prefer the humblest original
painting to a feeble copy of a great picture, a barely



40 WORDS; THEIR USE AND ABUSE.

" good " original book to any lifeless translation. A liv-
ing dog is better than a dead lion; for the external
attributes of the latter are nothing without the spirit
that makes them terrible.

The difficulty of translating from a dead language, of
whose onomatopo3ia we are ignorant, will appear still more
clearly, when we consider what gross and ludicrous blunders
are made in translating even from one living language
into another. It has been well said that few English-
speaking persons can understand the audacity of Racine,
so highly applauded by the French, in introducing the
words chien and sel into poetry; " dog " and " salt " may be
used by us without danger ; but, on the other hand, we may
not talk of entrails in the way the French do. Every one
has heard of the Frenchman, who translated the majestic
exclamation of Milton's Satan, " Hail ! horrors, hail ! " by
" Comment vous portez-vous, Messieurs les Horreurs, comment
vous portez vous?" " How do you do, horrors, how do you
do?" Another Frenchman, in reproducing the following
passage from Shakespeare in his own tongue,

" Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,
So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone,"

translated the italicized words thus: "So, grief, be off with
you ! " Hardly less ridiculous is the blunder made by a
translator of Alexander Smith's " Life-Drama," who meta-
morphoses the expression, " clothes me with kingdoms," into
me fait un vetement de royaumes, " makes me a garment
of kingdoms." What can be more expressive than one of
the lines in which Milton describes the lost angels crowd-
ing into Pandemonium, where, he says, the air was

''Brushed with the hiss of rustling wings,"

a line which it is impossible to translate into words that



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WOHDS. 41

will convey precisely the same emotions and suggestions
that are roused by a perusal of the original. Suppose the
translator to hit so near to the original as to write

" Stirred with the noise of quivering wings,"

will not the line afl'ect you altogether differently? Let
one translate into another language the following line of
Shakespeare,

" The learned pate ducks to the golden fool,"

and is it at all likely that the quaint, comic effect of the
words we have italicized would be reproduced'?

The inadequacy of translations will be more strikingly
exemplified by comparing the following exquisite lines of
Shakespeare with such a version as we might expect in
another language :

"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony."

A foreign translator, says Leigh Hunt, would dilute
and take all taste and freshness out of this draught of
poetry, after some such fashion as the following :

"With what a charm the moon serene and bright
Lends on the bank its soft reflected light!
Sit we, I pray, and let us sweetly hear
The strains melodious, with a raptured ear;
For soft retreats, and n'ght's impressive hour,
To harmony impart divinest power."

In view of all these considerations, what can be more
untrue than the statement so often made, that to be
capable of easy translation is a test of the excellence of
a composition? This doctrine, it has been well observed,
goes upon the assumption that one language is just like
another language, that every language has all the ideas,
turns of thought, delicacies of expression, figures, associa-



42 WORDS; THEIR USE AND ABUSE.

tions, abstractions, points of view which every other lan-
guage has. " Now, as far as regards Science, it is true
that all languages are pretty much alike for the purpn-rs
of Science; but even in this respect some are more suit-
able than others, which have to coin words or to borrow
them, in order to express scientific ideas. But if languages
are not all equally adapted even to furnish symbols for
those universal and eternal truths in which Science con-
sists, how can they be reasonably expected to be all equally
rich, equally forcible, equally musical, equally exact, equally
happy, in expressing the idiosyncratic peculiarities of
thought of some original and fertile mind, who has availed
himself of one of them? A great author takes his native
language, masters it, partly throws himself into it, partly
moulds and partly adapts it, and pours out his multitude
of ideas through the variously ramified and delicately mi-
nute channels of expression which he has found or framed:
does it follow that this his personal presence (as it may be
called) can forthwith be transferred to every other language
under the sun? Then we may reasonably maintain that
Beethoven's piano music is not really beautiful, because it
cannot be played on the hurdy-gurdy. . .

" It seems that a really great author must admit of
translation, and that we have a test of his excellence when
he reads to advantage in a foreign language as well as in
his own. Then Shakspeare is a genius because he can be
translated into German, and not a genius because he cannot
be translated into French. The multiplication-table is the
most gifted of all conceivable compositions, because it !<>-<*
nothing by translation, and can hardly be said to belong to
any one language whatever. Whereas I should rather have
conceived that, in proportion as ideas are novel and recon-



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WORDS. 43

dite, they would be difficult to put into words, and that the
very fact of their having insinuated themselves into one
language would diminish the chance of that happy accident
being repeated in another. In the language of savages you
can hardly express any idea or act of the intellect at all. Is
the tongue of the Hottentot or Esquimau to be made the
measure of the genius of Plato, Pindar, Tacitus, St. Jerome,
Dante, or Cervantes?" *

The truth is, music written for one instrument cannot
be played upon another. To the most cunning writer that
ever tried to translate the beauties of an author into a
foreign tongue, we may say in the language of a French
critic: " You are that ignorant musician" who plays his part
exactly, not skipping a single note, nor 'neglecting a rest,
only what is written in the key of /a, he plays in the key of
sol. Faithful translator!"

When we think of the marvellous moral influence which
words have exercised in all ages, we cannot wonder that
the ancients believed there was a subtle sorcery in them,
" a certain bewitchery or fascination," indicating that lan-
guage is of mystic origin. The Gothic nations supposed
that even their mysterious alphabetical characters, called
" Runes," possessed magical powers; that they could stop
a sailing vessel or a flying arrow; that they could excite
love or hate, or even raise the dead. The Romans, in their
levies, took care to enrol first names of good omen, such as
Victor, Valerius, Salvius, Felix, and Faustus. Csesar gave
a command in Spain to an obscure Scipio, merely for the
omen which his name involved. When an expedition had
been planned under the leadership of Atrius Niger, the
soldiers absolutely refused to proceed under a commander

* J. H. Newman.



44 WORDS ; THEIR USE AND ABUSE.

of so ill-omened a name, dux abominandi nominis, it
being, as De Quincey says, " a pleonasm of darkness/ 1 The
same deep conviction that words are powers is seen in the
favete linguis and bona verba quceso of the Romans, by
which they endeavored to repress the utterance of any
word suggestive of ill-fortune, lest the event so suggested
to the imagination should actually occur. So they were
careful to avoid, by euphemisms, the utterance of any
word directly expressive of death or other calamity, saying
vixit instead of mortuus est, and " be the event fortunate or
otherwise," instead of adverse. The name Egesta they
changed into Segesta, Maleventum into Beneventum, Axei-
nos into Euxine, and Epidamnus into Dyrrhachium, to
escape the perils of a word suggestive of damnum, or
detriment. Even in later times the same feeling has pre-
vailed, an illustration of which we have in the life of
Pope Adrian VI., who, when elected, dared not retain his
own name, as he wished, because he was told by his cardi-
nals that every Pope who had done so had died in the first
year of his reign.

That there is a secret instinct which leads even the
most illiterate peoples to recognize the potency of words,
is illustrated by the use made of names, in the East, in
" the black art." In the Island of Java, a fearful influ-
ence, it is said, attaches to names, and it is believed that
demons, invoked in the name of a living individual, can be
made to appear. One of the magic arts practised there
is to write a man's name on a skull, a bone, a shroud, a
bier, an image made of paste, and then put it in a place
where two roads meet, when a fearful enchantment, it is
believed, will be wrought against the person whose name
is so inscribed.



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WORDS. 45

But we need not go to antiquity or to barbarous nations
to learn the mystic power of words. There is not a day,
hardly an hour of our lives, which does not furnish exam-
ples of their ominous force. Shakspeare makes one of his
characters say of another, " She speaks poniards, and every
word stabs " ; and there are, indeed, words which are
sharper than drawn swords, which give moi~e pain than a
score of blows; and, again, there are words by which pain
of soul is relieved, hidden grief removed, sympathy con-
veyed, counsel imparted, and courage infused. How often
has a word of recognition to the struggling confirmed a
sublime yet undecided purpose, a word of sympathy
opened a new vista to the desolate, that let in a prospect
of heaven, a word of truth fired a man of action to do a
deed which has saved a nation or a cause, or a genius to
write words which have gone ringing down the ages!

" I have known a word more gentle

Than the breath of summer air;
In a listening heart it nestled,

And it lived forever there.
Not the beating of its prison

Stirred it ever, night or day;
Only with the heart's last throbbing

Could it ever fade away."

A late writer has truly said that " there may be phrases
which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to
explore; a single word may be a window from which one
may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory
of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated
volumes have labored in vain to utter; there may be years
of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence."

" Nothing," says Hawthorne, " is more unaccountable
than the spell that often lurks in a spoken word. A
thought may be present to the mind so distinctly that no



46 WORDS; THEIR USE AND ABUSE.

utterance could make it more so; and two minds may be
conscious of the same thought, in which one or both take
the profbundest interest; but as long as it remains un-
spoken, their familiar talk flows quietly over the hidden
idea, as a rivulet may sparkle and dimple over something
sunken in its bed. But speak the word, and it is like
bringing up a drowned body out of the deepest pool of the
rivulet, which has been aware of the horrible secret all
along, in spite of its smiling surface.".

The significance of words is illustrated by nothing,
perhaps, more strikingly than by the fact that unity of
speech is essential to the unity of a people. Community of
language is a stronger bond than identity of religion,
government, or interests; and nations of one speech,
though separated by broad oceans and by creeds yet more
widely divorced, are one in culture, one in feeling. Prof.
Marsh has well observed that the fine patriotic effusion of
Arndt, " Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland," was founded
upon the idea that the oneness of the Deutsche Zunge,
the German speech, implied a oneness of spirit, of aims,
and of duties; and the universal acceptance with which
the song was received showed that the poet had struck a
chord to which every Teutonic heart responded. \Vlit-n
a nation is conquered by another, which would hold it in
subjection, it has to be again conquered, especially if its
character is essentially opposed to that of its conqueror,
and the second conquest is often the more difficult of the
two. To kill it effectually, its nationality must be killed,
and this can be done only by killing its language; for it
U through its language that its national prejudices, its
loves and hates, and passions live. When this is not done,
the old language, slowly dying out, if, indeed, it dies at



T'HE SIGNIFICANCE OF WOEDS. 47

all, has time to convey the national traditions into the
new language, thus perpetuating the enmities that keep
the two nations asunder. We see this illustrated in the
Irish language, which, with all the ideas and feelings of
which that language is the representative and the vehicle,
lias been permitted by the English government to die a
lingering death of seven or eight centuries. The co-
existence of two languages in a State, is one of the great-
est misfortunes that can befall it. The settlement of
townships and counties in our country, by distinct bodies
of foreigners, is, therefore, a great evil; and a daily
newspaper, with an Irish, German, or French prefix, or
in a foreign language, is a perpetual breeder of national
animosities, and an effectual bar to the Americanization of
our foreign population.

The languages of conquered peoples, like the serfs of
the middle ages, appear to be glebae adscriptitiae, and to
extirpate them, except by extirpating the native race itself,
is an almost impossible task. Rome, though she con-
quered Greece, could not plant her language there. The
barbarians who overran the Roman Empire, adopted the
languages of their new subjects; the Avars and Slaves
who settled in Greece became Hellenized in language;
the Northmen in France adopted a Romanic tongue; and
the Germans in France and northern Italy, as well as
the Goths in Spain, conformed to the speech of the tribes
they had vanquished. It is asserted, on not very good
authority, that William the Conqueror fatigued his ear
and exhausted his patience, during the first years of his
sovereignty, in trying to learn the Saxon language; but,
failing, ordered the Saxons to speak Norman-French. He
might as well have ordered his new subjects to walk on



48 WORDS; THEIR USE AND ABUSE.

their heads. Charles the Fifth, in all the plenitude of
his power, could not have compelled all his subjects,
Dutch, Flemish, German, Italian, Spanish, etc., to learn
his language; he had to learn theirs, though a score in
number, as had Charlemagne before him.

England has maintained her dominion in the East for
more than a hundred and fifty years, yet the mass of
Hindoos know no more of her language than of the Greek.
In the last century, Joseph II., of Austria, issued an edict



Online LibraryWilliam MathewsWords : their use and abuse → online text (page 3 of 28)