WILLIAM KENRICK, “PREFACE TO ELOISA BY J.J. ROUSSEAU” (1761)

ELOISA : BY J.J. ROUSSEAU, PREFACE By the Translator [William Kenrick], 4 vols. London : Griffiths, Becket and De Hondt, 1761.

 

Read the French translation

Download the bilingual version of the text (pdf)

William Kenrick (1729/30-1779) was a typical eighteenth-century hackwriter. He is the author of verse satires and plays (some of which were successful), he was a contributor to and editor of several periodicals, he gave public lectures on Shakespeare, he is the author of a dictionary of the English language. His translations are probably his most significant work. He was both very energetic and learned but liked controversy too much and fell out with many people he worked with. He even tried to pick a quarrel with Samuel Johnson over the latter’s edition of the works of Shakespeare. His arrogance and self-confidence come across in the preface to his translation of La Nouvelle Héloïse, which also shows him to be a thoughtful translator from French, a language which he had a very good command of, having spent some time in France in the 1750s.

Preface

It is by no means my design to swell the volume, or detain the reader from the pleasure he may reasonably expect in the perusal of this work: I say reasonably, because the author is a writer of great reputation. My whole intention is to give a concise account of my conduct in the execution of this arduous task; and to anticipate such accusations as may naturally be expected from some readers: I mean those who are but imperfectly acquainted with the French language, or who happen to entertain improper ideas of translation in general.

            If I had chosen to preserve the original title, it would have stood thus: Julia, or the New Eloisa, in the general title-page; and in the particular one, Letters of two Lovers, inhabitants of a small village at the foot of the Alps, collected and published, &c. Whatever objection I might have to this title, upon the whole, my principal reason for preferring the name of Eloisa to that of Julia, was, because the public seemed unanimous in distinguishing the latter, and I was the more easily determined, as it was a matter of no importance to the reader.

            The English nobleman who acts a considerable part in this romance, is called in the original, Lord Bomston, which I suppose Mr. Rousseau thought to be an English name, or at least very like one. It may possibly sound well enough in the ears of a Frenchman; but I believe the English reader will not be offended with me for having substituted that of Lord B— in its room. It is amazing that the French novelists should be ignorant of our common names, and the titles of our nobility, as they are of our manners. They seldom mention our country, or attempt to introduce an English character, without exposing themselves to our ridicule. I have seen one of their celebrated romances, in which a British nobleman, called the Duke of Workinsheton, is a principal personage[1]; and another, in which the one identical lover of the heroine is sometimes a Duke, sometimes an Earl, and sometimes a simple Baronet; Catombridge[2] is, with them, an English city: and yet they endeavour to impose upon their readers by pretending that their novels are translations from the English.

            With regard to this Chef d’œuvre of Mr. Rousseau, it was received with uncommon avidity in France, Italy, Germany, Holland, and, in short, through every part of the Contiment where the French language is understood. In England, besides a very considerable number first imported, it has been already twice reprinted; but how much soever the world might be delighted with the original, I found it to be the general opinion of my countrymen, that it was one of those books which could not possibly be translated with any tolerable degree of justice to the author: and this general opinion, I own, was my chief motive for undertaking the work.

            There are, in this great city, a considerable number of industrious labourers, who maintain themselves, and perhaps a numerous family, by writing for the booksellers, by whom they are ranged in separate classes, according to their different abilities; and the very lowest class of all, is that of Translators. Now it cannot be supposed that such poor wretches as are deemed incapable of better employment, can be perfectly acquainted either with their own or with any other language: besides, were they ever so well qualified, it becomes their duty to execute as much work, in as little time, as possible; for, at all events, their children must have bread: therefore it were unreasonable to expect that they should spend their precious moments in poring over a difficult sentence in order to render their version the more elegant. This I take to be the true reason why our translations from the French are, in general, so extremely bad.

            I confess, the idioms of the two languages are very different, and therefore that it will, in some instances, be impossible to reach the sublime delicacy of expression in an elegant French writer; but in return, their language is frequently so vague and diffuse, that it must be entirely the fault of the English translator if he does not often improve upon his original: but this will never be the case; unless we sit down with a design to translate the ideas rather than the words of our author.

            Most of the translations which I have read, appear like a thin gause spread over the original: the French language appears, through every paragraph; but it is entirely owing to the want of bread, the want of attention, or want of ability in the translator. Mr. Pope, and some few others, have shewn the world, that not only the ideas of the most sublime writers may be accurately expressed in a translation, but that it is possible to improve and adorn them with beauties peculiar to the English language.

            If in the following pages, the reader expects to find a servile, literal, translation, he will be mistaken. I never could, and never will, copy the failings of my author, be his reputation ever so great, in those instances where they evidently proceed from want of attention. Mr. Rousseau writes with great ease and elegance, but he sometimes wants propriety of thought, and accuracy of expression.

            As to the real merit of this performance, the universal approbation it has met with is a stronger recommendation than any thing I could say in its praise.

 

[1] Workinscheton: Charlotte-Marie-Anne Charbonnier de La Guesnerie, Mémoires de miledi B… Par madame R… 4 vols. Amsterdam et Paris, 1760.

[2] The confusion over titles and the place name are to be found in Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, Lettres de mistriss Fanni Butlerd à milord Charles Alfred de Caitombridge, comte de Plisinthe, duc de Raflingth, écrites en 1735 ; traduites de l’anglois en 1756, par Adélaïde de Varançai. Amsterdam, 1757.


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