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William Mason (1725-1797) is one of the many 18th century clergymen who were also men of letters. He was interested in music and in the aesthetics of landscape painting. As a poet he wrote his most famous text on the art of gardens: The English Garden (4 volumes, 1772-1781), a didactic poem inspired by the Georgics. Mason learned Latin at the Hull Grammar School and painted as an amateur, a practice which probably led him to translate Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy’s Latin poem, De Arte Graphica. Dufresnoy’s ideas are not original in that they mostly repeat the theories on art developed during the Italian Renaissance. His poem however achieved posterity through its different translations, both in French and English. Among its English translators feature most notably John Dryden and Charles Jervas in collaboration with Alexander Pope.

Mason’s preface offers insights both on translation and on the translator’s task. The necessity of undertaking the translation of Dufresnoy’s poem is based on the usefulness of his text which works as compendium on the essential principles of the art of painting, a sort of manual for the painter and amateur. The difficulty of the translator’s task is emphasized through allusion to the painstaking line-by-line translation. Mason also mentions the time span between the beginning and the end of his work as a way of underlining the merits of letting the text lie. By mentioning previous translations, he also poses the question of the choice of verse or prose in the translation of poetry. Finally he maintains that translation is the business of men of letters and professionals of language but that it cannot be done without the contribution of an expert on the subject (Reynold in his case) for the footnotes.


The poem of M. Du Fresnoy, when considered as a Treatise on Painting, may unquestionably claim the merit of giving the leading Principles of the Art with more precision, conciseness, and accuracy, than any work of the kind that has either preceded or followed it; yet as it was published about the middle of the last century, many of the precepts it contains have been to frequently repeated by later writers, that they have lost the air of novelty, and will, consequently, now be held common; some of them too may, perhaps, not be so generally true as to claim the authority of absolute rules. Yet the reader of taste will always be pleased to see a Frenchman holding out to his countrymen the Study of Nature, and the chaste Models of Antiquity, when (if we except Le Sueur and Nicolo Poussin, who were Fresnoy’s contemporaries) so few Painters of that nation have regarded either of these architypes. The modern Artist also will be proud to emulate that simplicity of style, which this work has for more than a century recommended, and which, having only very lately got the better of fluttering drapery and theatrical attitude, is become one of the principal tests of Picturesque excellence.

But if the Text may have lost somewhat of its original merit, the Notes of Mr. Du Piles, which have hitherto accompanied it, have lost much more. Indeed it may be doubted whether they ever had merit in any considerable degree. Certain it is that they contain such a parade of common-place quotation, with so small a degree of illustrative science, that I have thought proper to expel them from this edition, in order to make room for their betters.

As to the poetical powers of my Author, I do not suppose that these alone would ever have given him a place in the numerous libraries which he now holds; and I have, therefore, often wondered that Mr. De Voltaire, when he gave an account of the authors who appeared in the age of Louis XIV should dismiss Fresnoy, with saying, in his decisive manner, that “his Poem has succeeded with such persons as could bear to read Latin Verse, not of the Augustan Age1. This is the criticism of a mere Poet. No body, I should suppose, ever read Fresnoy to admire, or even criticise his versification, but either to be instructed by him as a Painter, or improve as a Virtuoso.

It was this latter motive only, I confess, that led me to attempt the following translation; which was begun in very early youth; with the double view of implanting in my own memory the principles of a favourite art, and of acquiring a habit of versification, for which purpose the close and condensed stile of the original seemed peculiarly calculated, especially when considered as a sort of school exercise. However the task proved difficult, that when I had gone through a part of it I remitted of my diligence, and proceeded at such separate intervals, that I had passed many posterior productions thro’ the press before this was brought to any conclusion in manuscript; and, after it was so, it lay long neglected, and would certainly have never been made public, had not Sir Joshua Reynolds requested a sight of it, and made an obliging offer of illustrating it by a series of his own notes. This prompted me to revise it with all possible accuracy; and as I had preserved the strictures which my late excellent friend Mr. Gray had made many years before on the version, as it then stood, I attended to each of them in their order with that deference which every criticism of his must demand. Besides this, as much more time was now elapsed since I had myself perused the copy, my own eye was become more open to its defects. I found the rule which my Author had given to his Painter full of useful to a Writer,

            (Ast ubi consilium deerit sapientis amici

            Id tempus dabit, atque mora intermissa labori.)

And I may say, with truth, that having become from this circumstance, as impartial, if not as fastidious, to my own work, as any other critique could possibly have been, I hardly left a single line in it without giving it, what I thought, an emendation. It is not, therefore, as a juvenile work that I now present it to the public, but as one which I have improved to the utmost of my mature abilities, in order to make it more worthy its Annotator.

In the preceding Epistle I have obviated, I hope, every suspicion of arrogance in attempting this work after Mr. Dryden. The single consideration that his Version was in Prose were in itself sufficient; because, as Mr. Pope has justly observed, Verse and even Rhyme is the best mode of conveying preceptive truths, “as in this way they are more shortly expressed, and more easily retained2.” Still less need I make an apology for undertaking it after Mr. Wills, who, in the year 1754, published a Translation of it in Metre without Rhyme3


This Gentleman, a Painter by profession, assumed for his motto,

Tractant Fabrilia Fabri;

but however adroit he might be in handling the tools of his own art, candour must own that the tools of a Poet and a Translator were beyond his management; attempting also a talk absolutely impossible, that of expressing the sense of his Author in an equal number of lines, he produced a version which (if it was ever read through by any person except myself) is now totally forgotten. Nevertheless I must do him the justice to own that he understood the original text; that he detected some errors in Mr. Dryden’s Translation, which had escaped Mr. Jervas (afflicted, as it is said, by his friend Mr. pope) in that corrected Edition which Mr. Graham inscribed to the Earl of Burlington; and that I have myself sometimes profited by his labours. It is also from his Edition that I reprint the following Life of the Author, which was drawn up from Felibien and other Biographers by the late Dr. Birch, who, with his usual industry, has collected all they have said on Fresnoy’s subject.


  1. Du Frenoi (Charles) né à Paris 1611, peintre & poète. Son poème de la peinture a réussi auprès de ceux qui peuvent lire d’autres vers latins que ceux du siècle d’Auguste. Siècle de Louis XIV. Tom. I. []
  2. See his Advertisement before the Essay on Man. []
  3. I call it so rather that Blank Verse, because it was devoid of all harmony of numbers. The beginning. Which I shall here insert, is a sufficient proof of the truth of this assertion.

    As Painting, Poesy, so similar

    To Poesy be Painting; emulous

    Alike, each to her sister doth refer,

    Alternate change the office and the name;

    Mute verse is this, that speaking picture call’d.

    From this little specimen the reader will easily form a judgement of the whole. []


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This preface by Charles Lancelot Shadwell (1892) is part of the historical debate on the possibility of adapting foreign verses in English, be it Homer’s hexameter or, in this case, Dante’s terza rima. In order to reproduce the alignment of rhymes with syntactic pauses, Shadwell offers a translation based on the stanza of Marvell’s “Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” (1650).

After studying classics and law in Oxford, C.S. Shadwell spent most of his career in Oriel College, and was elected provost in 1905. His “experiment” in translating the Divine Comedy was his main literary production. 








THE difficulty, or rather the impossibility of adequately reproducing in any language the poetry of another, is one of the commonplaces of criticism and it has by no one been more forcibly stated than by Dante himself. “Nulla cosa”, he says, “per legame musaico armonizzata si puo della sua loquela in altra trasmutare sanza rompere tutta sua dolcezza e armonia” (Convito, i.7). The sweetness and music of a poem depend upon the conditions of its language; they cannot be transferred by mere imitation of the form of the original ; they can only be reproduced, if at all, by being conformed to the requirements of the new medium. The least literal of translations is that which follows the closest to the order of the words, the structure of the sentence, the arrangement of the period. The least harmonious of verse translations is that which is set to a foreign and unfamiliar metre.

In a prose translation, the task of representing the music of the original poem is not attempted, and the only problem is to give an exact equivalent for the matter and the language of the original. Translations of the Commedia of this kind have been published by Dr. Carlyle, by Mr. A.J. Butler, and Mr. C.E. Norton. In these, if an opinion may be offered, Dr; Carlyle’s version may claim to be the more literal, because of its greater boldness in substituting for modes of expression natural to the Italian language their appropriate English equivalents. But prose translation, even at its best, leaves half the problem unattempted ; the music, the cadences, of the poem are lost. Blank verse, such as Cary and Longfellow have given, is little better. No attempt is made to satisfy the ear with any effect corresponding to that produced by Dante’s recurring rimes; and in those parts of the poem where the matter is less elevated, and where the diction is simple, the absence of rime makes the translation tedious. To overcome this defect, and to reproduce for the English reader the form as well as the matter of the Commedia, Dante’s own meter, the terza rima, has been adopted by Mr. Cayley, by Dr. Plumptre, and, less exactly, by Mr; Ichabod Wright. But the terza rima in English, though, it succeeds in reproducing the rime, fails in two ways. In the first place, it is not an English metre: it has never been used by any English poet for original composition; its structure is unfamiliar; and the ear does not expect, and is not gratified by meeting with, the recurrent rimes. Secondly, the difficulty, always great, of finding three rimes suitable to the meaning, becomes much greater in translation; and it must frequently happen that the words which best reproduce the meaning have to be discarded in favour of weaker ones which fulfil the condition of the triple ending. The same causes necessitate the use of various forms of “padding”, of violent inversions and complications of grammatical structures, and of archaic and uncouth expressions employed without any justification in the original.

If English terza rima, which makes the closest attempt to reproduce both the matter and the form of the Commedia, is therefore unsuccessful, is any other form of rimed verse possible? In the translation here published, the metre chosen is that used by Andrew Marvell in his well-known Horatian Ode to Cromwell. This Ode is composed in stanzas, each stanza consisting of one pair of iambic eight-syllabled lines, and one pair of six-syllabled lines, thus:—

He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene,

But with keener eye

The axe’s edge did try ;

Nor called the gods with vulgar spite

To vindicate his helpless right,

But bowed his comely head

Down as upon a bed.

The following are some of the considerations which suggested the employment of Marvell’s poem as a model for an English version of the Commedia.

(1) Next to the triple rime, perhaps the most important characteristic of Dante’s verse is the arrangement into stanzas. Each terzina is, as a general rule, complete in itself, and forms one paragraph or period. Occasionally, but rarely, the sentence runs on into the next terzina. Nothing could be more unlike the Commedia than the versification of Byron’s Prophecy of Dante, professing to be written in terza rima, but allowing the break between the sentences to occur at random, at any part of any verse. Now, the division into stanzas, on which Marvell’s metre is based, is, like Dante’s, generally coincident with a pause in the sentence, where necessary, from one stanza into another. In taking Marvell’s poem as a model, the translator finds a common principle of structure which more than compensates for the change of the metre. The terzine of Dante fall naturally into the compass of the English stanza. It is not like breaking up the Odyssey into the stanzas of the Faery Queen, or the Aeneid into the ballad metre of Marmion.

(2) The capacity of the two stanzas is nearly equal. Marvell’s four lines are slightly less in space than Dante’s three, twenty-eight syllables to thirty-three; but making allowance for the greater number of monosyllabic nouns and verbs in English, the room for expressing the same quantity of thought is about the same. And, if the whole English stanza can be put in the place of the Italian terzina, the translator has the great advantage of being able, where necessary, to rearrange the matter of the paragraph within the limits of the stanza, instead of being obliged, as the translator into blank verse or terza rima generally finds himself, to give an equivalent for the original line by line.

(3) The change in Marvell’s stanza from the eight-syllable to the six-syllable couplet is peculiarly well adapted for introducing a subordinate clause, a reflexion, a simile, an illustration, a parenthetic statement of any kind, which depends on the preceding principal sentence but which can be detached from it without injury. Such is frequently the use to which Dante puts the last line of a terzina. In the eighth canto of the Purgatorio this is the case in six out of the first nine terzine:—

Lo dì ch’ han detto ai dolci amici addio.

Che paia il giorno pianger che si muore.

Como dicesse a Dio : D’ altro non calme.

Avendo glo occhi alle superne ruote.

Quasi aspettando pallido ed umile.

Tronche et private delle punte sue.


Compare to Marvell :—


Removing from the wall

The corslet of the hall.

As if his highest plot

To plant the bergamot.


(4) Lastly, there is a resemblance between the language of the two poets. Marvell, like Dante, can produce great effects by the use of very simple and homely words. Compare the lines:—

But bowed his comely head

Down as upon a bed ;




While round their armed bands

Did clap their bloody hands ;


with the following :—


Ma noi sem peregrin come voi siete.

A guisa di leon quando si posa.

On the other hand, they are alike in their employment, on occasions, of expressions outside the ordinary poetical vocabulary, as well as of images and ideas which belong to learning and science. There are many passages in the Commedia which may be compared with the following:—

Nature that hateth emptiness

Allows of penetration less,

           And therefore must make room

         Where greater spirits come.


or again with:—

            And to all states not free

               Shall climacteric be.

An apology ought perhaps to be offered, apart from the impatience of the translator to finish his task, for closing the present experiment at the end of the twenty-seventh canto of the Purgatorio. The concluding six cantos of the second Cantica constitute, from several points of view, a distinct section of the poem. They have nothing to do with the general allegory, the moral experience of the human soul, the process by which it can rise from earth to heaven. They do not even belong to the imaginary course of the purified soul after death. They earthly Paradise is a scene which is concerned solely with Dante’s personal story. Virgil disappears without a farewell. Statius is there but only in name: he takes no part in the action. No other souls are met with in their passage heavenward. The reconciliation of Dante with Beatrice, and the great pageant, revealing what was in store for the Church and the Empire, interrupt the course of the allegory; they form a personal episode, full of beauties of its own, but as distinct in thought and tone form the Purgatory proper, as that is from either of the two other divisions of the poem.

The translator owes his thanks to many friends, mostly members of the Oxford Dante Society, for help in various ways: to the late Dean of St. Paul’s, to Dr. Liddon, and Dr. Moore: to Mr. E. Poste, Mr. James Bryce, Mr. H.F. Tozer, and Mr. Earle, for constant assistance and advice: above all, to Mr. Walter Pater, whose contribution to this volume is only the last of many acts of kindness and encouragement without which the work would never have been completed.


Frewin Hall, Oxford.

9 Sept. 1892.


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The son of Gabriele Rossetti, specialist of the Divine Comedy and professor at King’College, and of Frances Polidori, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was brought up in the worship of Dante, who had a decisive influence both on his poetry and his painting. Started in 1845, at the same time as his translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova, his renditions of the early Italian poets represent the work of a lifetime. Published together for the first time in 1861 (then in a revised edition, Dante and his Circle, in 1874), the translations were well-received by reviewers. Bringing together for the first time the poets of the dolce stil nuovo around Dante’s canonical figure, this collection introduced the early Italian poets to the British public, leaving a durable mark on Victorian aesthetics and, later, on the modernist poets gathered around Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Advocating fidelity over literality, his translations place particular importance on the primary expression of the poem, specifically through the medium of metre. Looking for equivalences in the Italian text, D.G. Rossetti reproduces the syllabic nature of Italian in English, thus offering translations that can be read as poems in their own right.




I need not dilate here on the characteristics of the first epoch of Italian Poetry; since the extent of my translated selections is sufficient to afford a complete view of it. Its great beauties may often remain unapproached in the versions here attempted; but, at the same time, its imperfections are not all to be charged to the translator. Among these I may refer to its limited range of subject and continual obscurity, as well as to its monotony in the use of rhymes or frequent substitution of assonances. But to compensate for much that is incomplete and inexperienced, these poems possess, in their degree, beauties of a kind which can never again exist in art; and offer, besides, a treasure of grace and variety in the formation of their metres. Nothing but a strong impression, first of their poetic value, and next of the biographical interest of some of them (chiefly of those in my second division), would have inclined me to bestow the time and trouble which have resulted in this collection. Much has been said, and in many respects justly, against the value of metrical translation. But I think it would be admitted that the tributary art might find a not illegitimate use in the case of poems which come down to us in such a form as do these early Italian ones. Struggling originally with corrupt dialect and imperfect expression, and hardly kept alive through centuries of neglect, they have reached that last and worst state in which the coup-de-grace has almost been dealt them by clumsy transcription and pedantic superstructure. At this stage the task of talking much more about them in any language is hardly to be entered upon; and a translation (involving, as it does, the necessity of settling many points without discussion,) remains perhaps the most direct form of commentary.


The life-blood of rhymed translation is this,—that a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one. The only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty. Poetry not being an exact science, literality of rendering is altogether secondary to this chief aim. I say literality, —not fidelity, which is by no means the same thing. When literality can be combined with what is thus the primary condition of success, the translator is fortunate, and must strive his utmost to unite them; when such object can only be attained by paraphrase, that is his only path.


Any merit possessed by these translations is derived from an effort to follow this principle; and, in some degree, from the fact that such painstaking in arrangement and descriptive heading as is often indispensable to old and especially to “occasional” poetry, has here been bestowed on these poets for the first time. That there are many defects in these translations, or that the above merit is their defect, or that they have no merits but only defects, are discoveries so sure to be made if necessary (or perhaps here and there in any case), that I may safely leave them in other hands. The collection has probably a wider scope than some readers might look for, and includes now and then (though I believe in rare instances) matter which may not meet with universal approval; and whose introduction, needed as it is by the literary aim of my work, is I know inconsistent with the principles of pretty bookmaking. My wish has been to give a full and truthful view of early Italian poetry; not to make it appear to consist only of certain elements to the exclusion of others equally belonging to it.


Of the difficulties I have had to encounter,—the causes of imperfections for which I have no other excuse,—it is the reader’s best privilege to remain ignorant; but I may perhaps be pardoned for briefly referring to such among these as concern the exigencies of translation. The task of the translator (and with all humility be it spoken) is one of some self-denial. Often would he avail himself of any special grace of his own idiom and epoch, if only his
will belonged to him: often would some cadence serve him but for his author’s structure—some structure but for his author’s cadence: often the beautiful turn of a stanza must be weakened to adopt some rhyme which will tally, and he sees the poet revelling in abundance of language where himself is scantily supplied. Now he would slight the matter for the music, and now the music for the matter; but no, he must deal to each alike. Sometimes too a flaw in the work galls him, and he would fain remove it, doing for the poet that which his age denied him; but no,—it is not in the bond. His path is like that of Aladdin through the enchanted vaults: many are the precious fruits and flowers which he must pass by unheeded in search for the lamp alone; happy if at last, when brought to light, it does not prove that his old lamp has been exchanged for a new one,— glittering indeed to the eye, but scarcely of the same virtue nor with the same genius at its summons.


In relinquishing this work (which, small as it is,  is the only contribution I expect to make to our English knowledge of old Italy), I feel, as it were, divided from my youth. The first associations I have are connected with my father’s devoted studies, which, from his own point of view, have done so much towards the general investigation of Dante’s writings. Thus, in those early days, all around me partook of the influence of the great Florentine; till, from viewing it as a natural element, I also, growing older, was drawn within the circle. I trust that from this the reader may place more confidence in a work not carelessly undertaken, though produced in the spare-time of other pursuits more closely followed. He should perhaps be told that it has occupied the leisure moments of not a few years; thus affording, often at long intervals, every opportunity for consideration and revision; and that on the score of care, at least, he has no need to mistrust it. Nevertheless, I know there is no great stir to be made by launching afresh, on high-seas busy with new traffic, the ships which have been long outstripped and the ensigns which are grown strange. The feeling of self-doubt inseparable from such an attempt has been admirably expressed by a great living poet, in words which may be applied exactly to my humbler position, though relating in his case to a work all his own.


“Still, what if I approach the august sphere

Named now with only one name,—disentwine

That under current soft and argentine

From its fierce mate in the majestic mass

Leaven’d as the sea whose fire was mix’d with glass

In John’s transcendent vision,—launch once more

That lustre? Dante, pacer of the shore

Where glutted Hell disgorges filthiest gloom,

Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume—

Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope

Into a darkness quieted by hope—

Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God’s eye

In gracious twilights where His chosen lie,—

I would do this! If I should falter now!….”

(Sordello, by Robert Browning, B. i.)

SIR JOHN HARINGTON, “A Preface, or rather a briefe apologie of Poetrie, and of the Author and Translator of this Poeme” (1591)

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The third part of the Apology.

Now remains the third part of it, in which I promised to speak somewhat for myself, which part,  though it have most need of an Apology both large and substantial, yet I will run it over both shortly and slightly, because indeed the nature of the thing itself is such, that the more one doth say, the less he shall seem to say; and men are willinger to praise that in another man, which himself shall debase, than that which he shall seem to maintain. Certainly if I should confess or rather profess, that my verse is unartificial, the style rude, the phrase barbarous, the meter unpleasant, many more would believe it to be so than would imagine that I thought them so. For this same or self pleasing is so common a thing as the more a man protests himself to be from it, the more we will charge him with it. Wherefore let me take thus much upon me, that admit it have many of the forenamed imperfections, and many not named, yet as writing goes nowadays, it may pass among the rest; and as I have heard a friend of mine (one very judicious in the beauty of a woman) say of a Lady whom he meant to praise, that she had a low forehead, a great nose, a wide mouth, a long visage, and yet all these put together, she seemed to him a very well-favoured woman, so I hope, and I find already some of my partial friends, that what several imperfections so ever they find in this translation, yet taking all together they allow it, or at least wise they read it, which is a great argument of their liking.

Sir Thomas Moore, a man of great wisdom and learning, but yet a little inclined (as good wits are many times) to scoffing, when one had brought him a book of some shallow discourse, and pressed him very hard to have his opinion of it, advised the party to put it into verse. The plain meaning man in the best manner he could he did so, and a twelve-month after at the least, came with it to Sir Thomas, who slightly perusing it, gave it this encomium, that now there was rime[1] in it, but afore it had neither rime nor reason. If any man had meant to serve me so, yet I have prevented him; for sure I am he shall find rime in mine, and if he be not void of reason, he shall find reason to. Though for the matter, I can challenge no praise, having but borrowed it, and for the verse I do challenge none, being a thing that every body that never scarce baited their horse at the University take upon them to make. It is possible that if I would have employed that time that I have done upon this, upon some invention of mine own, I could have by this made it have risen to a just volume, and if I would have done as many spare not to do, flown very high with stolen feathers. But I had rather men should see and know that I borrow all, than that I steal any. And I would wish to be called rather one of the not worst translators, then one of the meaner makers. Specially since the Earle of Surrey, and Sir Thomas Wyatt, that are yet called the first refiners of the English tongue, were both translators out of Italian. Now for those that count it such a contemptible and trifling matter to translate, I will but say to them as M. Bartholomew Clarke an excellent learned man, and a right good translator, says in manner of a pretty challenge, in his Preface (as I remember) upon the Courtier, which book he translated out of Italian into Latin. You (says he) that think it such a toy, lay aside my book, and take my author in your hand, and try a leaf or such a matter, and compare it with mine. If I should say so, there would be enough that would quickly put me down perhaps; but doubtless he might boldly say it, for I think none could have mended him. But as our English proverb says, many talk of Robin Hood that never shot in his bow, and some correct Magnificat, that know not quid significat. For my part I will thank them that will amend any thing that I have done amiss, nor I have no such great conceit of that I have done, but that I think much in it is to be mended; and having dealt plainly with some of my plain dealing friends, to tell me frankly what they heard spoken of it (for indeed I suffered some part of the printed copies to go among my friends, and some more perhaps went against my will), I was told that these in effect were the faults were found with it.

Four faults found in this work.

Some grave men misliked that I should spend so much good time on such a trifling work as they deemed a Poem to be.  Some, more nicely, found fault with so many two syllable and three syllable rimes. Some (not undeservedly) reproved the fantasticalness of my notes, in which they say I have strained myself to make mention of some of my kindred and friends, that might very well be left out. And one fault more there is, which I will tell myself, though many would never find it, and that is: I have cut short some of his Cantos, in leaving out many staves of them, and sometimes put the matter of two or three staves into one. To these reproofs I shall pray you, gentle and noble Readers, with patience hear my defence,  and then I will end.

Answer to the first.

For the first reproof, either it is already excused, or it will never be excused; for I have, I think, sufficiently proved, both the art to be allowable, and this work to be commendable. Yet I will tell you an accident that happened unto myself. When I was entered a pretty way into the translation, about the seventh book, coming to write that where Melissa in the person of Rogero’s Tutor, comes and reproves Rogero in the fourth staff:

Was it for this, that I in youth thee fed
With marrow? etc. And again:
Is this a means, or ready way you trow,
That other worthy men have trod before,
A Caesar or a Scipio to grow? etc.

Straight I began to think, that my Tutor Samuel Fleming of King’s College in Cambridge, a grave and learned man, and one of a very austere life, might say to me in like sort: “Was it for this that I read Aristotle and Plato to you, and instructed you so carefully both in Greek and Latin? to have you now become a translator of Italian toys?” But while I thought thus, I was aware, that it was no toy that could put such an honest and serious consideration into my mind.

The second.

Now for them that find fault with polysyllable meter, methink they are like those that blame men for putting sugar in their wine, and chide too bad about it, and say they mar all, but yet end with God’s blessing on their hearts [2]. For indeed if I had known their diets, I could have saved some of my cost, at least some of my pain; for when a verse ended with civility, I could easier after the ancient manner of rime, have made see, or flee, or decree to answer it, leaving the accent upon the last syllable, than hunt after three-syllabled words to answer it with facility, gentility, tranquillity, hostility, scurrility, debility, agility, fragility, nobility, mobility, which who mislike, may taste lamp oil with their ears [3]. And as for two syllabled meters, they be so approved in other languages, that the French call them the feminine rime, as the sweeter: and the one syllable the masculine. But in a word to answer this, and to make them for ever hold their peaces of this point, Sir Philip Sidney not only uses them, but affects them: signify, dignify; shamed is, named is, blamed is; hide away, bide away. Though if my many blotted papers that I have made in this kind might afford me authority to give a rule of it, I would say that to part them with a one syllable meter between them would give it best grace. For as men use to sow with the hand and not with the whole sack, so I would have the ear fed, but not cloyed with these pleasing and sweet falling meters.

The third.

For the third reproof about the notes, sure they were a work (as I may so call it) of supererogation, and I would wish sometimes they had been left out, and the rather, if I be in such fair possibility to be thought a fool or fantastical for my labour. True it is, I added some notes to the end of every Canto, even as if some of my friends and myself reading it together (and so it fell out indeed many times) had after debated upon them, what had been most worthy consideration in them, and so oftimes immediately I set it down. And whereas I make mention here and there of some of mine own friends and kin, I did it the rather, because Plutarch in one place speaking of Homer, partly laments, and partly blames him, that writing so much as he did, yet in none of his works there was any mention made, or so much as inkling to be gathered of what stock he was, of what kindred, of what town, nor save for his language, of what country. Excuse me then if I in a work that may perhaps last longer then a better thing, and being not ashamed of my kindred, name them here and there to no man’s offence, though I meant not to make everybody so far of my counsel why I did it, till I was told that some person of some reckoning noted me of a little vanity for it – and thus much for that point.

The fourth.

For my omitting and abbreviating some things, either in matters impertinent to us, or in some too tedious flatteries of persons that we never heard of, if I have done ill, I crave pardon; for sure I did it for the best. But if any being studious of the Italian, would for his better understanding compare them, the first six books, save a little of the third , will stand him in steed. But yet I would not have any man except that I should observe his phrase so strictly as an interpreter, nor the matter so carefully, as if it had been a story, in which to vary were as great a sin as it were simplicity in this to go word for word [4]. But now to conclude, I shall pray you all that have troubled yourselves to read this my triple Apology, to accept my labours, and to excuse my errors, if with no other thing, at least with the name of youth (which commonly hath need of excuses) and so presuming this pardon to be granted, we shall part good friends. Only let me entreat you in reading the book ensuing, not to do me that injury, that a Potter did to Ariosto.

[1] Rime=rhyme

[2] Dent G266 « God’s blessing on your heart (for it). »

[3] Cf Ben Jonson Every Man out of his Humour; If you make no difference    Betwixt the scent of growing flowers and cut ones,    You have a sense to taste lamp oil, i’faith:, act II, scène 2, 122-4. In her forrnote, Helen Ostovich suggests « insensitivity ». Cf Dent, R.W., Proverbial Language in English Drama, Exclusive of Shakespeare, 1495-1616, an Index, Berkeley, 1984. : « ‘It smells of the candle (lamp, oil)’, suggesting too much plodding study to acquire understanding, and too little practical expérience ».

[4] Voir Morini5-6


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.


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.


The first part of the Mirrour of princely deedes and knighthood Wherin is shewed the worthinesse of the Knight of the Sunne, and his brother Rosicleer, sonnes to the great Emperour Trebatio, with the straunge loue of the beautifull Princesse Briana, and the valiaunt actes of other noble princes and knights. Now newly translated out of Spanish into our vulgar English tongue, by M.T. Continuer la lecture de MARGARET TYLER, “M.T. TO THE READER” (1578)