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Ovid’s Epistles can in many ways be said to mark a turning point in John Dryden’s literary career. When the young publisher Jacob Tonson approached him to contribute to a miscellany edition of Ovid translations, Dryden was at the height of his reputation, as Poet Laureate and critic. Ovid’s Epistles marks at once the beginning of Dryden’s late and prolific career as a translator of the classics, and that of his collaboration with Jacob Tonson. Dryden’s re-fashioning as a literary translator coincides with a renewal of classical translation in Augustan England. The influence of Dryden’s first essay on translation was immediate, in particular his three-fold approach to translation, and his distinction between « metaphrase », « paraphrase » and « imitation ». Although some of the statements made in the preface were later qualified in response to Dryden’s encounters with other classical authors, the themes and issues articulated in this text can be said to form the basis of Dryden’s reflection on translation, and to establish the main tenets of Augustan translation discourse. However, although the significance of the preface to Ovid’s Epistles in English translation history remains undisputed, Dryden’s long reputation as the « first English translation theorist » has recently come into question.


(…) Thus much concerning the Poet: whom you find translated by divers hands,[1] that you may at least have that variety in the English, which the Subject denyed to the Authour of the Latine.[2] It remains that I should say somewhat of Poetical Translations in general,[3] and give my Opinion (with submission to better Judgments) which way of Version seems to me most proper.

All Translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.

First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben. Johnson.[4] The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator,[5] so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplyfied, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgils Fourth Aeneid.[6] The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name[7]) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases.[8] Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.[9]

Concerning the first of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this Caution,

Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus

Interpres —[10] 

Nor word for word too faithfully translate. As the Earl of Roscommon has excellently render’d it.[11] Too faithfully is indeed pedantically: ’tis a faith like that which proceeds from Superstition, blind and zealous:[12] Take it in the Expression of Sir John Denham, to Sir Rich. Fanshaw, on his Version of the Pastor Fido.

That servile path, thou nobly do’st decline,

Of tracing word by word and Line by Line;

A new and nobler way thou do’st pursue,

To make Translations, and Translators too:

They but preserve the Ashes, thou the Flame,

True to his Sence, but truer to his Fame.[13]

‘Tis almost impossible to Translate verbally, and well, at the same time; For the Latin, (a most severe and Compendious Language) often expresses that in one word, which either the Barbarity, or the narrowness of modern Tongues cannot supply [but] in more.[14] ‘Tis frequent also that the Conceit is couch’d in some Expression, which will be lost in English.

Atque ijdem Venti vela fidèmq; ferent.[15]

what Poet of our Nation is so happy as to express this thought Literally in English, and to strike Wit or almost Sense out of it?

In short the Verbal Copyer is incumber’d with so many difficulties at once, that he can never disintangle himself from all. He is to consider at the same time the thought of his Authour, and his words, and to find out the Counterpart to each in another Language: and besides this he is to confine himself to the compass of Numbers, and the Slavery of Rhime. ‘Tis much like dancing on Ropes with fetter’d Leggs: A man may shun a fall by using Caution, but the gracefulness of Motion is not to be expected: and when we have said the best of it, ’tis but a foolish Task; for no sober man would put himself into a danger for the Applause of scaping without breaking his Neck. We see Ben. Johnson could not avoid obscurity in his literal Translation of Horace, attempted in the same compass of Lines:[16] nay Horace himself could scarce have done it to a Greek Poet;

Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio.[17]

either perspicuity or gracefulness will frequently be wanting. Horace has indeed avoided both these Rocks in his Translation of the three first Lines of Homers Odysses, which he has Contracted into two.

Dic mihi Musa Virum captae post tempora Trojæ

Qui mores hominum multorum vidit & urbes.


Muse, speak the man, who since the Siege of Troy,

So many Towns, such Change of Manners saw.             } Earl of Rosc.[18]


But then the sufferings of Ulysses, which are a Considerable part of that Sentence are omitted.

[ς μλα πολλ

The Consideration of these difficulties, in a servile, literal Translation, not long since made two of our famous Wits, Sir John Denham, and Mr. Cowley to contrive another way of turning Authours into our Tongue, call’d by the latter of them, Imitation.[20] As they were Friends, I suppose they Communicated their thoughts on this Subject to each other, and therefore their reasons for it are little different: though the practice of one[21] is much more moderate. I take Imitation of an Authour in their sense to be an Endeavour of a later Poet to write like one who has written before him on the same Subject: that is, not to Translate his words, or to be Confin’d to his Sense, but only to set him as a Patern, and to write, as he supposes, that Authour would have done, had he liv’d in our Age, and in our Country.[22] Yet I dare not say that either of them have carried this libertine way of rendring Authours (as Mr. Cowley calls it)[23] so far as my Definition reaches. For in the Pindarick Odes, the Customs and Ceremonies of Ancient Greece are still preserv’d:[24] but I know not what mischief may arise hereafter from the Example of such an Innovation, when writers of unequal parts to him, shall imitate so bold an undertaking[;] to add and to diminish what we please,[25] which is the way avow’d by him, ought only to be granted to Mr. Cowley, and that too only in his Translation of Pindar, because he alone was able to make him amends, by giving him better of his own, when ever he refus’d his Authours thoughts.[26] Pindar is generally known to be a dark writer, to want Connexion[27] (I mean as to our understanding)[,] to soar out of sight, and leave his Reader at a Gaze: So wild and ungovernable a Poet cannot be Translated litterally, his Genius is too strong to bear a Chain, and Sampson like he shakes it off: A Genius so Elevated and unconfin’d as Mr. Cowley‘s, was but necessary to make Pindar speak English, and that was to be perform’d by no other way than Imitation. But if Virgil or Ovid, or any regular intelligible Authours be thus us’d, tis no longer to be call’d their work, when neither the thoughts nor words are drawn from the Original: but instead of them there is something new produc’d, which is almost the creation of another hand. By this way ’tis true, somewhat that is Excellent may be invented perhaps more Ex[c]ellent than the first design, though Virgil must be still excepted, when that perhaps takes place:[28] Yet he who is inquisitive to know an Authours thoughts will be disapointed in his expectation. And ’tis not always that a man will be contented to have a Present made him, when he expects the payment of a Debt. To state it fairly, Imitation of an Authour is the most advantagious way for a Translator to shew himself, but the greatest wrong which can be done to the Memory and Reputation of the dead. Sir John Denham (who advis’d more Liberty than he took himself,) gives this Reason for his Innovation, in his admirable Preface before the Translation of the second Aeneid: « Poetry is of so subtil a Spirit, that in pouring out of one Language into another, it will all Evaporate; and if a new Spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a Caput Mortuum.[29] » I confess this Argument holds good against a litteral Translation, but who defends it? Imitation and verbal Version are in my Opinion the two Extreams, which ought to be avoided: and therefore when I have propos’d the mean betwixt them,[30] it will be seen how far his Argument will reach.

No man is capable of Translating Poetry, who besides a Genius to that Art,[31] is not a Master both of his Authours Language, and of his own: Nor must we understand the Language only of the Poet, but his particular turn of Thoughts, and of Expression, which are the Characters that distinguish, and as it were individuate him from all other writers.[32] When we are come thus far, ’tis time to look into our selves, to conform our Genius to his,[33] to give his thought either the same turn if our tongue will bear it, or if not, to vary but the dress,[34] not to alter or destroy the substance. The like Care must be taken of the more outward Ornaments, the Words: when they appear (which is but seldom) litterally graceful, it were an injury to the Authour that they should be chang’d: But since every Language is so full of its own proprieties, that what is Beautiful in one, is often Barbarous, nay sometimes Nonsence in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a Translator to the narrow compass of his Authours words: ’tis enough if he choose out some Expression which does not vitiate the Sense. I suppose he may stretch his Chain to such a Latitude, but by innovation of thoughts, methinks he breaks it. By this means the Spirit of an Authour may be transfus’d, and yet not lost: and thus ’tis plain that the reason alledg’d by Sir. John Denham, has no farther force than to Expression: for thought, if it be Translated truly, cannot be lost in another Language, but the words that convey it to our apprehension (which are the Image and Ornament of that thought) may be so ill chosen as to make it appear in an unhandsome dress, and rob it of its native Lustre. There is therefore a Liberty to be allow’d for the Expression, neither is it necessary that Wordes and Lines should be confin’d to the measure of their Original. The sence of an Authour, generally speaking, is to be Sacred and inviolable. If the Fancy of Ovid be luxuriant,[35] ’tis his Character ot be so, and if I retrench it, he is no longer Ovid. It will be replyed that he receives advantage by this lopping of his superfluous branches, but I rejoyn that a Translator has no such Right: when a Painter Copies form the life,[36] I suppose he has no priviledge to alter Features, and Lineaments, under pretence that his Picture will look better: perhaps the Face which he has drawn would be more Exact, if the Eyes, or Nose were alter’d, but ’tis his business to make it resemble the Original. In two Cases only there may a seeming difficulty arise, that is, if the thought be notoriously trivial or dishonest; But he same Answer will serve for both, that then they ought not to be Translated.

Et quae —

Desperes tractata nitescere posse, relinquas.[37]

Thus I have ventur’d to give my Opinion on this Subject against the Authority of two great men, but I hope without offence to either of their Memories, for I both lov’d them living, and reverence them now they are dead. But if after what I have urg’d, it be thought by better Iudges that the praise of a Translation Consists in adding new Beauties to the piece, thereby to recompence the loss which it sustains by change of Language, [38] I shall be willing to be taught better, and to recant. In the mean time it seems to me, thatthe true reason why we have so few Versions which are tolerable, is not from the too close persuing of the Authours Sence: but because there are so few who have all the Talents which are requisite for Translation: and that there is so little praise and so small Encouragement for so considerable a part of Learning.

To apply in short, what has been said, to this present work, the Reader will here find most of the Translations, with some little Latitude or variation from the Authours Sence: That of Oenone to Paris, is in Mr. Cowleys way of Imitation only.[39] I was desir’d to say that the Authour who is of the Fair Sex, understood not Latine. But if she does not, I am afraid she has given us occasion to be asham’d who do.

For my own part I am ready to acknowledge that I have transgress’d the Rules which I have given; and taken more liberty than a just Translation will allow.[40] But so many Gentlemen whose Wit and Learning are well known, being Joyn’d in it, I doubt not but that their Excellencies will make you ample Satisfaction for my Errours.


J. Dryden.

[1] by divers hands] See the introduction for a list of the contributors to Ovid’s Epistles. The miscellany also offers alternative translations of the same text: Dryden’s version of « Dido to Aeneas » is immediately followed by a second translation « by another hand », attributed to John Somers.

[2] that variety, which the subject denyed…] Earlier in the Preface, Dryden writes: « there seems to be no great variety in the particular subjects which he has chosen, most of the epistles being written from ladies who were forsaken by their lovers ».

[3] something of Poetical Translations in general…] Dryden’s first statement of his approach to translation, which will be expanded and amended over the following 20 years. For a discussion of Dryden’s translation theory, see the introduction.

[4] Ben Jonson’s translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica was first published in 1640, and included in several miscellany editions of translations from Horace. See for example the first and second edition of Brome’s The Poems of Horace, published in 1666 and 1671 (in the 1680 edition, significantly, Jonson’s translation is replaced by a « paraphrase » by S. Pordage).

[5] kept in view… never to be lost] The theme of following, or racing with the author is a commonplace of translation discourse inherited from Seneca (Epistolae Morales, LXXIX.16) and Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, X.ii.9-10).

[6] Mr Wallers Translation] The Passion of Dido for Aeneas Translated by Sidney Godolphin and Edmund Waller (London, 1658, reprinted in1679).

[7] if now he has not lost that Name] See Abraham Cowley’s Preface to his Pindaric Odes (1656): « It does not at all trouble me that the Grammarians perhaps will not suffer this libertine way of rendring foreign Authors, to be called Translation… »

[8] run division on the ground-work] to perform variations on the theme. Compare with Katherine Philips on translating Corneille: « I think, a Translation ought not to be used as Musicians do a Ground with all the Liberty of Descant, but as Painters when they copy… » Letters of Orinda to Poliarchus, XIX (c. 1663, publ. 1729).

[9] Cowley’s Pindarique Odes also include an « imitation » of Horace’s Carmina, IV, ii.

[10] Horace, Ars Poetica, 133-134.

[11] as the Earl of Roscommon has excellently render’d it] In his 1680 version of the Ars Poetica (Horace’s Art of Poetry, p. 11). Dryden often presents Roscommon as an authority on translation: see below, and the preface to Sylvae (1685) where Dryden claims to have been spurred by Roscommon’s Essay of Translated Verse (1684).

[12] from Superstition, blind and Zealous] Compare with Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt’s criticism of « those who idolize all the words and thoughts of the Ancients (ceux qui sont idolâtres de toutes les paroles et de toutes les pensées des anciens) » in the dedication of his translation of Lucian (1654).

[13] Dryden quotes from Denham’s prefatory verses to Sir Richard Fanshawe’s Il Pastor Fido/ The Faithfull Shepherd (1647), « To the Author of this Translation », 15-16 and 21-24.

[14] [but in] more] But our addition: the 1680 text has it more and the 1681 edition in more.

[15] Ovid, Heroides VII, 8: « the same winds will bear away your sails and your loyalty ». Dryden’s own translation reads: « you, with loosen’d sails and vows… » (« Dido to Aeneas », 9). Dryden also comments on Ovid’s witticisms earlier in the preface: « the Copiousness of his Wit was such, that he often writ too pointedly for his Subject, and made his persons speak more Eloquently than the violence of their Passion would admit. »

[16] Ben. Johnson could not avoid obscurity] Compare with Roscommon’s preface to his 1680 translation of the Ars Poetica: « But with all the respect due to the name of Ben Johnson, to which no Man pays more Veneration than I, it cannot be deny’d that the constraint of Rhyme, and a literal Translation (to which Horace in this Book declares himself an Enemy) has made him want a Comment in many places ».

[17] Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio] « I strive to be brief, I become obscure ». Horace, Ars Poetica, 25-26.

[18] Ars Poetica, 141-142, and Roscommon, Horace’s Art of Poetry (1680), p. 11.

[19] « Who was very much tossed about ». Odyssey, I, 1-2.

[20] another way… Imitation] See John Denham’s preface to The Destruction of Troy (1656): « this new way of translating this author » (Virgil); and Cowley’s preface to the Pindarique Odes (1656): « my maner of Translating, or Imitating (or what other Title they please) the two ensuing Odes of Pindar« .

[21] the practice of one] Denham.

[22] had he liv’d in our Age, and in our Country] See Denham: « Therefore if Virgil must needs speak English, it were fit he should speak not onely as a man of this Nation, but as a man of this age… ».

[23] this libertine way of rendring Authors] See Cowley: « this libertine way of rendring forreign Authors ».

[24] still preserv’d] By contrast with Rochester’s or Oldham’s « imitations » of Horace, where the themes and topics are transposed to modern London.

[25] To add and diminish what we please] See Cowley: « I have in these two Odes of Pindar taken, left out, and added what I please ».

[26] to make him amends, by giving him better of his own…] See again Cowley: « And when we have considered all this, we must needs confess, that after all these losses sustained by Pindar, all we can adde to him by our wit or invention (not deserting still his subject) is not like to make him a Richer man then he was in his own Countrey ».

[27] to want Connection] Compare with Cowley: « If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one Mad man had translated another… »

[28] perhaps more excellent…still excepted] Denham by contrast claimed to have « endeavour[ed] sometimes to make [Virgil] speak better ».

[29] Caput mortuum] In alchemy and chemistry, the worthless residuum remaining after the distillation or sublimation of a substance (OED). Dryden quotes from Denham’s preface to The Destruction of Troy (1656).

[30] Dryden’s commendation of a middle way between literal and « libertine » translation is not unprecedented. Lawrence Humphrey’s Interpretatio Linguarum (1559) had similarly distinguished between word-for-word translation, which he deemed « rough and coarse » (« rudior et crassior »); a « looser », « over-indulgent » way of translating (« liberior et solutior », « nimium sibi permittit licentiae »); and finally, the « via media » which the translator should embrace.

[31] a Genius to that Art] Compare with Chapman’s preface to Homer Prince of Poets (1609), where he condemns translators lacking the ability « with Poesie, to open Poesie »; and Denham’s remarks in The Destruction of Troy (1656):  » ’tis not his business alone to translate Language into Language, but Poesie into Poesie ».

[32] the Characters that distinguish him] The notion of « character », first applied here to the context of literary translation, is central to Dryden’s approach to translation- and literary criticism. It is employed again – and developed – in the preface to Sylvae (1685) and in the Dedication of the Aeneis (1697).

[33] to conform our Genius to his] Dryden here echoes Denham’s prefatory poem to Fanshawe’s Pastor Fido (1647), l. 9-10: « Nor ought a Genius less than his that writ / Attempt translation ». See also Dryden’s preface to Fables Ancient and Modern (1700): « I have found by trial Homer a more pleasing task than Virgil (…). For the Grecian is more according to my genius than the Latin poet. »

[34] to vary but the dress] On Dryden’s use of the clothing metaphor, see the introduction.

[35] If the Fancy of Ovid be luxuriant] See Dryden’s previous remarks on the « copiousness of [Ovid’s] Wit » (above, note 17).

[36] When a Painter copies from the life….] Compare with Philips (see above, note 8). Dryden draws again on the analogy with portrait-painting ­­– yet with a slightly different position – in the preface to Sylvae (1685) and in the Dedication of the Aeneis (1697). After Dryden, the parallel turns into a commonplace of translation discourse.

[37] « and what you despair of treating in a brilliant way, you should leave aside ». From Ars Poetica, l. 149-150. The text actually reads « desperat » and « relinquit ».

[38] Dryden here again paraphrases Cowley. See above, note 26.

[39] Aphra Behn’s contribution, entitled « A Paraphrase on Oenone to Paris ». The 1681 edition includes another, more literal translation of the elegy by John Cooper.

[40] I have transgress’d the Rules which I have given] Dryden makes the same comment in the preface to Sylvae (1685): « I must acknowledge, that I have many times exceeded my Commission… »

Une réflexion sur « JOHN DRYDEN, « THE PREFACE TO OVID’S EPISTLES » (1680) »

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