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‘Characters’ were already a popular genre in England when, in 1714, the Whig writer and occasional Spectator essayist Eustace Budgell (1686-1737) published his translation of Theophrastus’s Characters. Therefore, Budgell was capitalising on this general interest for ‘characters’ when he published The Moral Characters of Theophrastus, Translated from the Greek with the famous London publisher Jacob Tonson in 1714.  His preface is a landmark in the history of translation theory because it shows how translation – with its new rule of politeness and propriety – was turned by the Moderns into an instrument of patriotism and a symbol of English superiority. Addison’s publicity in The Lover and the subsequent editions of Budgell’s translation – two editions in 1714, a third in 1718, two others as late as 1743 and 1751 – show that Budgell’s conception of translation was well received by contemporary readers.


There having already been two Translations of the Characters of Theophrastus, one in French and the other in English,[1] the Publick will doubtless expect I should say something of this Version, and perhaps will not be displeased with a few Remarks on the Work it self.

Theophrastus writ in the hundred and fifteenth Olympiad, that is, above three hundred Years before the Birth of our Saviour. There are, I presume, few People who will not be pleased to see the Characters of Mankind in that early Age, and the Manners of the People of Athens, the most celebrated Republick in Greece, described in so masterly a Hand. The Book I have translated, has been ever look’d upon as one of the most valuable Pieces of Antiquity. It was translated into French several Years since by the famous Monsieur Bruyere, and probably gave the first Hint to that excellent Author for his own succeeding Characters. As for our English Translation, I shall say no more of it, but that it is wholly done from the French, [2] and as it always happens in a Translation of a Translation, is every where flat and spiritless. It might perhaps be thought too hard if I should say Monsieur Bruyere was afraid of having Theophrastus outshine himself; yet I shall make no Scruple to affirm that the Method he has used in translating him, has very much taken from the Beauty of his Author.

The very Life and Soul of these Characters seems to consist in their being struck at an heat, and in a peculiar smartness and turn, which ought, if possible, to be preserved in every Sentence. If the Reader is diverted in the midst of a Character, and his Attention called off to any thing Foreign to it, the lively impression it should have made is quite broken, and it loses more than half its force. Theophrastus at the time he writ, refer’d to nothing but what was well known to the meanest Person in Athens; but as Monsieur Bruyere has manag’d it, by hinting at too many Grecian Customs, a modern Reader is obliged to peruse one or two Notes,[3] which are frequently longer than the Sentence itself he would know the Meaning of.

In order to avoid this, I have taken a pretty deal of Liberty in the present Translation; and been much more solicitous to preserve the Spirit and Humour of Theophrastus, than his Words. I have carefully read over the Notes of Casaubon and Duport,[4] to whom I am oblig’d  for the Meaning of several obscure Passages. I have usually followed his Interpretation in which there was most Humour, and sometimes ventured to differ from them both; so that the Reader may, if he pleases, look upon this Translation of Theophrastus, as a short Commentary interwoven with the Text. I have indeed still given a Grecian cast to the whole Work; but as there is not one Sentence but what a Reader of common Understanding, tho’ no Scholar, may easily take the Meaning of, I have added no Notes.

Every one who is acquainted with the Greek Tongue, will find that some of the Titles to the following Characters express so many complex Ideas, that it was impossible to translate them by any single English Word; for which reason I found myself obliged now and then to explain them.

I shall say nothing more about the present Translation, but that I was particularly forced to vary from my Author in the 19th Chapter, entitled, A Sloven. The Truth of it is, the Original was so very course, that the Politeness of the present Age would never have endured it; and yet the French Translation is not at all more Delicate. I shall make no Apology for this, and only wish that Chapter, as much as I have often soften’d is, may pass uncensored among my Well-bred Readers.

It is evident, from the Introduction to the following Characters, that Theophrastus had a Design to have treated all the Vertues and Vices; but not beginning, as he himself tells us, till he was ninety nine Years Old,[5] it is probable that he did not live long enough to finish his Work. There are the Titles only of two more chapters found in some old Manuscripts.

The Readers will see most exquisite touches of Humour, with an exact Copy of Nature, in every Character; and I believe I may venture to affirm, that if several of them were well worked up, and brought upon the British Theatre, they could not fail of Success. Theophrastus indeed may not be improperly called the Father of Comedy; Menander the Comick Poet was his Disciple, and as Pomphilas informs us, was obliged for a great part of his Humour to the Conversation and Writings of his Master.[6]

The same Author says that Theophrastus himself was very much delighted with Comedies; and we may observe that among the lost Works of our Author there were two Treatises, the one concerning Comedy, and another of the Nature of Ridicule.

Every one knows that Terence formed himself upon Menander, and had doubtless also an Eye to the Writings of this Philosopher. The Characters of Gnatho and Thraso in particular, which are looked upon as the two most humorous in Terence, are very excellent Copies of the Flatterer and Vainglorious Coward in Theophrastus.[7]

The Plan of Theophrastus is extremely narrow, none but so great Genius could have succeeded in it, since, as Monsieur Bruyere observes, he has made use in all his Characters but of one single Figure, namely Description or Enumeration.

There are some Characters which at first sight may possibly seem to be the same, but whoever observes them narrowly, will find that Theophrastus no where so finely discovers his perfect Knowledge of humane Nature as in the different Circumstances that compose those several Characters. Instances of this are to be met with in the three sorts of Avarice, the two impertinent Men, &c. The nicety of his Discernment in this particular is so very conspicuous, that one cannot sufficiently regret the loss of that Work which I find among the Catalogue of his Writings, recorded by Diogenes Laertius, under the Title (‘Aςετών διαροeαζ) The differences of Virtues.[8]

I cannot conclude this Preface without observing that the learned Casaubon, and Mr. Needham of Cambridge (who has lately put out a very neat Edition of Theophrastus), are both of Opinion, that several of these Characters are confounded and mixed together, that some of them are imperfect, and that we have lost the Titles of others. Their Reason is, that they frequently find under one Title several Circumstances which they cannot conceive so properly to belong to it. With Submission, I cannot help being of a different Sentiment; and think that this seeming Perplexity may very easily be accounted for. Theophrastus was the Spectator of the Age he lived in: he drew the Pictures of particular Men; and while he was describing for Example, a Miser, having some remarkable offender of this kind in his Eye, he threw in a Circumstance or two, which, tho’ they might not possibly be proper Examples of Avarice, served to make the Picture of the Man Compleat. A Character therefore in Theophrastus may be compared to a Looking-glass that is placed to catch a particular Object; but cannot represent that Object in its full Light, without giving us a little Landskip of every thing else that lies about it.

[1] One in French, one in English] Budgell refers to Jean de La Bruyère’s translation of Theophrastus’s Characters along with his own modern characters. La Bruyère’s first edition received the royal privilege in 1687 and was published in 1688. It met immediate success: eight editions were issued between 1688 and 1694. It was translated into English under the title The Characters or the Manner of the Age, made English by several hands and the Characters of Theophrastus Translated from the Greek and a prefatory discourse to them by Monsieur de la Bruyère in 1698. (1713, 6th ed).

[2] it is wholly done from the French ] The title  of the 6th subsequent edition to this English version is misleading suggesting that Theophrastus ‘s characters were translated into English from the Greek. As Budgell rightly points out in the preface, they were in fact a translation from the French rendering by La Bruyère.

[3] The reader is obliged to peruse one or two notes]  Indeed, La Bruyère’s original translation included many  -mostly short- footnotes commenting upon or simply elucidating Greek customs. La Bruyère’s notes were also translated in the margins of the English translation.

[4] Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614)’s edition of Theophrastus’s Characters was considered as the authoritative scholarly edition to use  for a translation.  Casaubon had translated 22 of Theophrastus’s Characters into Latin in 1592 to which he added five newly discovered characters in his 1599 edition. Moreover he completed his authoritative edition with a 270 pages long Latin commentary on the text. James Duport (1606-1679), Greek Professor at Cambridge and later Master of Magdalen College Cambridge, had given public lectures on Theophrastus’s first fifteen Characters. His manuscript lectures were published in 1712 by Peter Needham, another Greek Cambridge scholar, in Theophrastou Charackteres Ethikoi. Theophrasti Characteres ethici. Graece & Latine Cum notis ax emenddationibus Isaaci Casauboni & aliorum, (1712), 618 pp.

[5] See Theophrastus’s short preface to his Characters.

[6] Budgell here draws on Diogenes Laercius’s chapter on Theophrastus. Diogenes Laercius reports that Pamphilus mentions Theophrastus’s love for comedy in his 13th book of his Commentaries. Budgell may have read Diogenes Laertius’s translation into English published in 1688 and reissued in 1698 with the title: The Lives, Opinions, and Remarkable Sayings of the Most Ancient Philosophers made English by several Hands, 1688,  book V, p. 348.

[7] Budgell compares characters n° 2 and 21 with the characters in Terence’s play The Eunuch. Terence’s comedies were widely available in English since 1694 thanks to the historian Laurence Echard’s translation: Terence’s Comedies made English (London, 4th ed 1713).

[8] Diogenes Laertius, The Lives, Opinions, and Remarkable Sayings of the Most Ancient Philosophers made English by several Hands , 1688, p. 356.

Citer ce billet
TTT (2017, 6 septembre). EUSTACE BUDGELL, “PREFACE TO THE MORAL CHARACTERS OF THEOPHRASTUS” (1714). Le traducteur traduit. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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