183. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. November 1796]

183. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. November 1796] ⁠* 

WHEN we read an imitation, we expect a beautiful poem, because the imitator may add beauties of his own to those of the first author; but in a translation, we ought to find a faithful copy of the original.

Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
Interpres — [1] 

is an admirable text for a title-page; but surely it is the duty of the translator to preserve the meaning of his original, while he adapts its idioms to another language.

Luis de Camoens [2]  is entitled the Prince of the Poets of Spain: I will not denounce the title. Mr. Mickle, [3]  however, is not contented with this; he has defended his faults, allegorized his absurdities, hid the thread-bare texture of the Portuguese, with his own embroidery, and then raises him to a proud equality with Homer, and Virgil, and Milton; but Camoens must not be lifted up so high, neither must Homer, and Virgil, and Milton, be degraded into such company: though Camoens may, perhaps. come the next to Tasso, [4]  he must be proximus, sed longo intervallo!  [5]  For though in the choice of a subject, and the unity of design, he may have the advantage over Lucan, and Statius, and Ariosto, [6]  in the execution of it he is lamentably inferior.

The English reader will be surprised to hear, that the language of the Lusiad is remarkably bald; but before I proceed to point out what poetical beauties belong to Camoens, and what to Mr. Mickle, it will be proper to give the Portuguese review of the English version.

I use the Lisbon edition of 1782, edited by Thomas Joseph de Aquino, [7]  and the second of his editions:

“In my first edition,” says he, “I informed my readers of a new and famous translation, published at London, by the celebrated poet, William Julius Mickle. At that time I knew nothing more of the version, and contented myself with thus slightly noticing it; now, however, I have the pleasure to give the public a complete analysis of all that the celebrated translator has written in his several dissertations and tracts upon the subject; for all this, I am obliged to the most reverend father Michael Daly, a man, as all know, signally accomplished in every kind of erudition, and more a Portuguese in his affections, than many who are so by birth. I could enlarge in well deserved encomiums upon this sage, did not my intimate knowledge of his modesty prevent me. This, however, I will always publish with a grateful mind, that in the general reformation of studies which took place in the reign of our lord the king, Don Joseph the First; he it was who principally revived Greek literature, which had been for so many years dead in Portugal; and he likewise it was, who, with an ardent and indefatigable zeal for religion, laboured in the re-establishment of the college, which the Irish have here, for the educating of missionaries, and the preservation of the Catholic religion in Ireland.” He now gives in the words of Father Daly, an analysis of all the tracts prefixed to the English Lusiad, with several extracts. “After these preliminary disquisitions,” says he, “comes the translation of the poem, which may be pronounced the most poetical that has yet appeared.” The translation is accompanied with notes, historical and critical, in which he displays great knowledge of the history of Portugal, and a sound critical judgment.

“Yet, though it be not our intention to criticise the English translator, who has done so much honour and justice to Camoens, we ought not to pass over in total silence, the various liberties which he has taken with the original, some which he has confessed, and others which he has not confessed. Of those which he has not confessed, we will give two examples, leaving it to others to determine how far a translator is justified in so altering and foisting interpolations on his text.

“In the fiction of Adamastor, Camoens makes that giant relate his history, and that of his amours, to Gama himself: the translator, however, takes another way; for he makes the spectre disappear after breathing out prophetical threats against the Portuguese, and the king of Melinda; then relates, that they had among them this tradition, that in the war of the giants, one had fallen upon their kingdom, whose groans were nightly heard; that by the incantations of a holy man, the spectre had been obliged to declare who he was; and then the history follows. The other place is in the beginning of the ninth book:— According to Camoens, the Zamorim releases the Portuguese goods, which in the 8th book had been landed; and he simply relates in the ninth, that Gama, impatient to depart for Europe, commands his factors to embark with their goods, but he receives intelligence, that his factors are detained: Gama immediately orders some merchants to be seized who had come on board his ship to sell precious stones, and prepares to depart. The wives and children of the merchants who are thus seized on board the ships, go to the Zamorim, and complain that their husbands and fathers are lost. Moved by their cries, the Zamorim releases the Portuguese factors, and restores the goods, and Gama departs from Calicut. But the translator relates all this differently: according to his account, in the ninth book, Gama is a prisoner at the court of the Zamorim, who in an arrogant speech commands that commander to make his ships draw nearer to the shore and to deliver up to him their sails. Gama refuses to consent, perceiving the evil intentions of the Zamorim. Immediately he makes a signal for his fleet to attack the Portuguese ships: a description of the engagement follows, and a tempest arises which totally destroys the fleet of the Zamorim. The victorious armada now draws nearer to the shore, and begins to thunder with its artillery upon the city. The terrified populace clamour around the palace, and demand the release of the factors; and their prince, alarmed by the destruction of his fleet, the insurrection of his people, and the intrepidity of the Portuguese, releases Gama, and permits him to embark. This account occupies more than three hundred lines, to which not one corresponding line is to be found in the original.

“I point out only these two instances, for the sake of brevity; but the reader who is versed in the English language, as well as in the Portuguese, will find many others in which the translator has either suppressed passages that are in the original, or inserted passages that are not.

“Mr. Mickle has, indeed, in his preliminary Dissertation, confessed, in general terms, that his intention was to give an English Lusiad in a free poetical spirit; and he says truly enough, that a “literal translation of poetry is in reality a solecism. You may construe your author, indeed; but if with some translators you boast that you have left your author to speak for himself, that you have neither added nor diminished, you have, in reality, grossly abused him, and deceived yourself. Your literal translation can have no claim to the original felicities of expression, the energy, elegance, and fire of the original poetry. It may, indeed, bear a resemblance, but such a one as a corpse in the sepulchre bears to the former man when he moved in the bloom and vigour of life.

“Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
“ Interpres — [8] 

was the taste of the Augustan age. None but a poet can translate a poet. The freedom which this precept gives, will, therefore, in a poet’s hands, not only infuse the energy, elegance, and fire of his author’s poetry into his own version, but will give it also the spirit of an original.”

“But notwithstanding this, a translation ought to be a faithful representation of the original, which it may be, without rendering word by word, as is evidently proved by the various versions of Homer and Virgil in the European languages, and particularly in the English. They preserve the spirit of the original, without suppressing or interpolating entire passages. Nor can the translator avail himself of the authority of Horace; for it clearly appears from the context, that this precept is entirely for imitators, and not for translators; and certainly there is a wide difference between an imitation and a translation. A translation, in which such great liberties are taken, may very easily deceive the reader. — Let us suppose, for instance, that some future Voltaire, without knowing the Portuguese language, should wish to form some idea of the poem of Camoens, by means of Mr. Mickle’s version: if he should imagine that the description of the battle and tempest in the ninth book, is in a very inflated style, and abounds with false sublime, he would naturally attribute all these faults to the original, notwithstanding not a trace of this description is to be discovered there. Thus would he be deceived, as Voltaire himself was, by imputing to Camoens the absurdities of Fanshaw. [9] 

“We have thus, with all possible brevity, made the Portuguese reader acquainted with the diligence which Mr. Mickle has bestowed upon the poem of Camoens, and the language and history of Portugal; and we have given him some idea of the labour he has taken to compile so many illustrations of his author, and to defend him from the insolent criticism of Rapin [10]  and Voltaire, and other critics, who were equally ignorant of Portuguese literature: in all this the translator has shown vast erudition, and an accurate judgment.

“After allowing this, we must not pass over some gross errors of Mr. Mickle, though it is with reluctance that we remark them. In many places he treats the Portuguese nation with great incivility, and particularly in a note to the life of Camoens, where he inveighs against our lord cardinal king Henry, for the punishment which he justly inflicted upon the Scotch Buchanan, [11]  from which he draws an inference very injurious to the Portuguese nation, and very unworthy as well of the gentleman as of the philosopher; for, in the nature of things, the character which he gives of the Portuguese cannot possible be true of any civilzed people.

“It might have been hoped, too, that in a work of this nature no place could have been found for introducing controversies upon religion; but he has taken care to show his hatred and aversion for the Catholic faith. He repeats over and over again, the old and almost forgotten calumnies of idolatry, and other similar charges which have been so completely refuted a thousand and a thousand times, and of which now all sensible Protestants are themselves ashamed. He falsifies facts and makes ridiculous and absurd allusions, which prove nothing except the malignity of the author. This he does, no doubt, to accommodate his book to the taste of his countrymen, and increase its sale.” [12] 

Having presented you with this translation from the Portuguese Review, I shall reserve some additional observations of my own till your next publication.

T. Y.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (November 1796), 787–789 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘T.Y.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 215. BACK

[1] Horace (65–8 BC), Ars Poetica, lines 133–134. The Latin translates as ‘you will not trouble to render word for word like a faithful translator’. BACK

[2] Luis Vaz de Camões (c. 1524–1580), author of The Lusiad (1572). BACK

[3] William Julius Mickle’s (1734/5–1788; DNB) translation of The Lusiad, or, The Discovery of India (1776). BACK

[4] Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), author of Jerusalem delivered (1580–1581). BACK

[5] Virgil (70–19 BC), Aeneid, Book 5, line 320. The Latin translates as ‘second [to him] but second by a big margin’. BACK

[6] Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (AD 39–65), author of the Pharsalia; Publius Papinius Statius (AD 45–96), Roman epic poet; and Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1535), Italian epic poet, author of Orlando Furioso. BACK

[7] Thomas Joseph de Aquino (dates unknown), Obras de Luis de Camoes, 2nd edn, 5 vols (Lisbon, 1782). The preface included translations of large chunks of Mickle’s introduction to his The Lusiad, or, The Discovery of India (1776). For de Aquino’s objections to Mickle see S. George West, ‘The work of W. J. Mickle, the first Anglo-Portuguese scholar’, Review of English Studies, 40 (1934), 398. BACK

[8] Horace (65–8 BC), Ars Poetica, lines 133–134. The Latin translates as ‘you will not trouble to render word for word like a faithful translator’. BACK

[9] Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), attacked Camões in his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727). However, his critique of The Lusiad was based purely on his reading of the 1655 translation by Sir Robert Fanshawe (1608–1666; DNB) and not of the original. BACK

[10] René Rapin (1621–1687), French priest, poet and critic, had attacked Camões in his Reflections sur La Poetique (1674–1675). BACK

[11] The Scottish humanist George Buchanan (1506–1582; DNB) was briefly imprisoned on a charge of heresy in Portugal in 1551. Mickle attributed this to the intervention of the future King Henry I of Portugal (1512–1580; reigned 1578–1580); see The Lusiad, or, The Discovery of India (Oxford, 1776), p. cxv. BACK

[12] Thomas Joseph de Aquino, Obras de Luis de Camoes, 2nd edn, 5 vols (Lisbon, 1782), I, pp. 29–31, 53–60. The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK