Critical introduction to Budgell’s preface (Theophrastus’s Moral Characters)
Claire Boulard, Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3
Article mis en ligne le 16 décembre 2011 par Chantal Schutz
Imprimer cet article logo imprimer

‘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.

Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), whose 1592 Latin translation of the Characters provided much commentary on Athenian society, had popularized Theophrastus’s text and enabled Joseph Healey to work on the first English translation of the Characters [1] (1616) [2]. Concurrently, Joseph Hall adapted the Characters for an English context by stressing their moral purpose. [3] During the civil wars the characters were used in pamphlets, while also becoming the standard writing exercise for young gentlemen of school-going age. [4]

La Bruyère’s French translation was issued in 1688, featuring short contemporary portraits bearing classical names. This new version met with immediate success and was translated into English in 1698. It was entitled The Characters ; or, The Manner of The Age, Made English by Several Hands and The Characters of Theophrastus. Its subsequent editions (totalling six between 1698 and 1713) provide some evidence of contemporary interest in Theophrastus and, indeed, in La Bruyère’s adaptation. They also testify to contemporary French dominance in the field of translation.

Therefore, Eustace 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 translation also indicates a growing desire in England to break away from French dominated culture. In 1714, England had emerged victorious after years of military struggle with King Louis XIV’s France. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ provided the country with a decidedly ‘modern’ institution : the constitutional monarchy, which most Englishmen considered far superior to the absolutist monarchy of France. The Whig faction, to which Budgell belonged, proudly proclaimed the revolution a consequence of the ‘English character’ with its tendency towards liberty and independence. Budgell’s new translation, it would seem, was just one form of the ‘cultural patriotism’ that was emerging in England.

Budgell’s literary patron, the Whig Joseph Addison (1672-1719) had supported him by popularising Dryden’s new translation theories in his periodical The Spectator (1711-1714). Addison flatly rejected word-for-word translations, which he considered incompatible with the English language. [5] In essay number 229, he provided his readers with three translations of Sappho, a Latin translation by Catullus, a French one by Nicolas Boileau, and an English one by Ambrose Philips, so that readers could compare translation methods, as well as literary rendering. Following Dryden’s theories, he thus claimed to distinguish imitation from translation. [6] It is significant that he valued a minor English poet, Ambrose Philips, [7] over the leading French poet Boileau (1636-1711), [8] who sided with the Ancients in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Addison did not believe that Boileau’s translation reflected the passion of the original text faithfully, and therefore constituted an imitation. Conversely, Philips’s transcription answered the criteria of a true translation : “this translation is written in the very spirit of Sappho, and as near the Greek as the genius of our language will possibly suffer.” [9] Addison thus taught his readers to understand the subtle difficulties of translation. He agreed with Dryden’s idea that a good translator must have some poetic gift and be acutely sensitive to the words of the text so as to do them justice. This poetic ability would enable him to reveal the original beauty of the text. In The Spectator, Addison also borrowed from Dryden the assertion that a good translator must be a learned man. In Number 238 he rejected translations that did not stick to the original texts as untrustworthy and argued that the English could surpass the French in the quality of their translations. He also encouraged his readers to write their own translations, which he occasionally published in his periodical. [10]

Addison considered translation an amateur’s hobby, not a professional exercise in erudition. Translating a text was a genteel activity. However, it would be misleading to put Addison firmly on the side of the ‘Moderns’. Addison also defended the knowledge of ancient texts, which he wished to revive. He thus considered translation a useful tool to encourage gentility, by providing access to classical texts. By claiming that translations were the means of making classical literature modern, Addison reconciled Ancients and Moderns in the same moral, aesthetic and educational venture : promoting conversation and politeness. [11]

In the preface to his translation, Budgell is less diplomatic. In fact he explicitly sides with the Moderns when he explains his translation method. In the first place, he considers that to be ‘Modern’ is to be anti-French, disqualifying La Bruyère’s translation in two ways. La Bruyère is accused of outshining Theophrastus by his style, which is the translator’s major mistake as well as the sin of pride. “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.” For Budgell, Theophrastus’s main stylistic characteristics are fire and vivacity, which La Bruyère does not relate in his translation.

La Bruyère sided with the Ancients in the Querelle. This explains why his translation is framed by footnotes explaining the customs of the Athenians. These Budgell finds too numerous and too long : “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, [12] which are frequently longer than the sentence itself he would know the meaning of.” The notes, he claims, compel the reader to interrupt his reading of the text ; they distract him. As a consequence, they prevent him from fully enjoying the style of the text. “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.” [13] Budgell thus implies that such translation methods show the translator’s pedantry and affectation and deprive the text of its literary element.

Budgell agrees with Addison that translations are a good means to spread politeness. His translation, he claims, though devoid of pedantry, is nevertheless the fruit of serious and learned study, which distinguish it from travesty and adaptation. Unlike La Bruyère, Budgell does not include footnotes. His is a scholar’s job, since he has read Casaubon’s and Duport’s editions to improve his understanding of Theophrastus’s. Yet, his translation is for a cultivated and not a learned public. Its aim is simply to ‘enlighten’ the reader. “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.” Scholarship is correctly used in the work of translation when it is put at the service of the text, which should not vanish under the notes, and when it is put also at the service of the reader who must have an easy reading.

Like Addison, Budgell thinks that the spirit of the text is more important than the words. The comedy and drama as well as the Athenian context to the Characters must be rendered : “I have indeed still given a Grecian cast to the whole work”. And he adds : “[I] have been much more solicitous to preserve the spirit and humour of Theophrastus, than his words. Thus, Budgell’s translation has been guided by Casaubon’s and Duport’s interpretations, notably in its comic passages. So, Budgell defines translation as, primarily, being an interpretation founded on a good understanding of the original. “I have usually followed his [Casaubon’s] 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.” [14] Nevertheless, when Addison reviews Budgell’s translation in the periodical The Lover, he maintains that Budgell is no mere ‘faithful interpreter’ [15] who adapted the text ; he is a real translator. Budgell, he argues, avoids the word-for-word method, and “uses such particular elegances in his own tongue, as bear some analogy to those he sees in the original.” [16] He thus tries to respect the culture and language of both texts. In this, he follows the rules of French translation, which he succeeds in rivalling.

However, fidelity to the spirit of the text cannot be overstretched. The aim of translation is to reveal the perfections of the Ancients. But when their writings are not up to modern standards of beauty, the translator feels obliged to mend the taste as well as the language of the author. Indeed, it is in the name of the supreme law of politeness that Budgell justifies his own rewriting of the character entitled ‘The Sloven’ : “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 [sic], that the Politeness of the present Age would never have endured it.” [17] The vivid description of filth is largely attenuated and the shocking aspect of the character is expressed in appropriate language. A comparison between Budgell’s translation and the original by Theophrastus indeed indicates that Budgell erased all graphic and sordid details such as rotten teeth, or pimples, and replaced them with understatements and euphemisms. The character thus loses its provocative nature. But it shows that Budgell is a faithful disciple of Addison who praises this manipulation of the text in these words : “As this is every where [sic] a judicious and a reasonable liberty, I see no chapter in Theophrastus where it has been so much indulged and in which it was so absolutely necessary, as in the Character of the Sloven. I find the translator himself, tho’ he has taken pains to qualifie it, is still apprehensive that there may be something too gross in the description. The reader will see with how much delicacy he has touched upon every particular, and cast into shades every thing that was shocking in so nauseous a figure.” For Addison, a great promoter of politeness, as well as for Budgell, the reader must be the first to reap the benefits of translation.

The ‘Sloven’ highlights the limits of the new translation theories that Budgell follows. It also reveals how difficult it was to promote an ancient cultural model that was different in manners and customs from that of contemporary England. Budgell, as a Modern, prefers to produce une belle infidèle and to teach his reader propriety rather than be faithful to the Greek text. Lastly, the ‘Sloven’ shows how strong the desire to break away from French culture was. It is meaningful that Budgell should justify his own linguistic choices with these words : “and yet the French translation is not at all more delicate.” So La Bruyère’s translation, even though it is correct in its wording, is incorrect in that it compels the reader to read a coarse text. Budgell prefers to break away from the French rules of translation and from the requisites of a faithful, erudite translation to achieve his Whig venture of the middle classes into politeness. His is first and foremost a polite translation. [18]

In his review, Addison perceived the contradictions which were palpable in Budgell’s preface. He flew to his rescue by quoting Lord Roscommon’s verses drawn from his essay on poetic translation : “none yet have been with admiration read, / But who (beside their learning) were well-bred”. To measure it up, he also published both Budgell’s and La Bruyère’s version of the ‘Sloven’ in English translation so that readers might compare them. Addison then arranged it in such a way that any reader who praised La Bruyère’s translation for its faithfulness to Theophrastus would be dubbed a pedant as well as lacking taste and elegance. Those who defended French culture were, from then on, the coarse and unrefined.

Thus, Budgell’s translation of Theophrastus’s characters 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.

Primary Sources

Addison, Joseph Steele Richard, The Spectator, ed. D. F. Bond, Oxford : Clarendon, 1965, 5 vols.

Budgell, Eustace, The Moral Characters of Theophrastus. Translated from the Greek, London : Jacob Tonson, 1714.

Gally, Henry, The Moral Characters of Theophrastus translated from the Greek with Notes, London : John Hooke, 1725.

Hall, Joseph, Characters of Virtues and Vices in two Bookes, London : Eleazar Edgar and Samuel Macham, 1608

Healey, John, trad., Theophrastus, his Morall Characters, London : E Blount,1616.

La Bruyère, Jean de, Les Caractères, éd. Emmanuel Bury, Paris : Classiques de poche, 1995.

Steele, Richard, The Lover, in Steele’s Periodical Journalism 1714-1716, ed. Rae Blanchard, Oxford : Clarendon, 1959.

Secondary sources :

Boyce, Benjamin, The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642, Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard UP, 1947.

Kruse, Margot, « Un précurseur de La Bruyère : Joseph Hall et ses Characters of Virtues and Vices en France », CAIEF, n°44 (1992), p. 245-260.

Gillespie, Stuart, Hopkins David, ed., The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English, 1660-1790, Oxford : OUP, 2005.

Levine, Joseph M, The Battle of the Books : History and Literature in the Augustan Age, Ithaca : Cornell, 1991.

Parenty, Hélène, Isaac Casaubon, helléniste : des studia Humanitatis à la philologie, Genève : Droz, 2009.

Phillipson, Nicholas, « Politics and Politeness in the Reigns of Anne and the Early Hanoverians », in J. G. A. Pocock, ed., The Varieties of British Political Thoughts 1500-1800, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1993, p. 211-245.

Smeed, J. W., Theophrastan Character. The History of a Literary Genre. Oxford : Clarendon, 1985.

Venuti, Lawrence, "Neoclassicism and Enlightenment", in The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, ed. Peter France, Oxford : OUP, 2000, p. 55-64.

Notes :

[1] See Hélène Parenty, Casaubon, helléniste : des Studia Humanitatis à la philologie. Genève : Droz, 2009.

[2] John Healey, transl., Theophrastus, his Morall Characters, London, 1616. A second edition was issued in 1636.

[3] Joseph Hall (1574-1656) published Characters of Virtues and Vices in 1608. See Margot Kruse, « Un précurseur de La Bruyère : Joseph Hall et ses Characters of Virtues and Vices en France. » CAIEF, n°44 (1992), p. 245-260. Thomas Overbury’s Characters were also published (posthumously) in 1614. See also Benjamin Boyce, The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642. Cambridge, MA : Harvard UP, 1947.

[4] Read J. W Smeed, Theophrastan Character, the History of a Literary Genre. Oxford : Clarendon, 1985.

[5] See The Spectator n°209, ed. D. F. Bond, Oxford, Clarendon, 1965, 5 vols, Oct 30, 1711, vol. 2, p. 317-21.

[6] The Spectator n°229, Nov 22, 1711, vol. 2, p. 390-93.

[7] Philips (1674-1749) was also one of Addison’s protégés. He was then a pastoral writer. He sent different essays to The Spectator and The Guardian. In 1718-1721, he became one of the main contributors to another essay periodical The Free Thinker in which he published his own translations of Fénelon’s Fables and Dialogues of the Dead.

[8] In 1712, one year after Madame Dacier revived the Querelle between Ancients and Moderns with her preface to L’Iliade d’Homère traduite en français avec des remarques, (5 vols Paris, 1711), Boileau’s translation from the Greek of Traité sur le sublime de Longin (A Treatise of the Sublime from the Greek of Longinus with critical reflections, trans. Pierre Demaizeaux), in which he defended Homer against Perrault’s attacks, was translated into English. Addison’s remarks on Boileau are therefore to be read in this context of a quarrel that was being revived in England too. On the querelle in England, see Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Book s : History and literature in the Augustan Age, Ithaca : Cornell, 1991.

[9] The Spectator n°229, p. 392.

[10] In essay n°238, he published a correspondent’s translation.

[11] On literature, politeness and politics in England as related to Steele and Addison’s periodical strategy, see Nicholas Phillipson, ‘Politics and Politeness in the Reigns of Anne and the Early Hanoverians,., The Varieties of British Political Thoughts 1500-1800, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1993, pp. 211-245.

[12] La Bruyère’s original translation included many (mostly short) footnotes, commenting upon or simply elucidating Greek customs. See Emmanuel Bury’s edition, Les Caractères (Paris : Classiques de poche, 1995). La Bruyère’s notes were also translated in the margins of the English translation.

[13] Preface, sig. a4.

[14] Preface, sig. a4.

[15] The Lover n°39. Tuesday, May 25, 1714, ed. Rae Blanchard, Steele’s Periodical Journalism 1714-1716, Oxford, Clarendon, 1959, p. 136.

[16] Ibid., p. 136.

[17] Preface, n. p.

[18] This is what Henry Gally, the translator of the new English translation of the Characters blamed on him in 1725. He writes in his preface : “Mr. Budgell’s translation must be own’d to be polite : but politeness is not the only qualification that is required in such a translation. The learn’d Reader who understands the original, will consider it in a different view.” (The Moral Characters of Theophrastus translated from the Greek with Notes, London, Preface, p. xvii). This is the sign of the renewed split between erudition and elegance, fidelity of translation and interpretation. In his translation, Gally reintroduces numerous footnotes that comment on Theophrastus’s use of Greek terms, as well as Casaubon’s interpretations of those terms.

puce Contact puce Espace rédacteurs puce squelette puce RSS puce Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict
Site réalisé sous SPIP
avec le squelette ESCAL-V2