Translations of elderly literature – and place-names

‘I have endeavoured to make him speak that kind of English, which he would have spoken had he lived in England, and had written to this age.’

That’s what Dryden said as translator of Juvenal, but I find this a problem when it means speaking in the vernacular as it is spoken now.

A while ago I read Thomas More’s Utopia; this was in a translation from the original 1516 Latin (the title comes from the Greek, meaning ‘no place’, cf. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon). A couple of weeks ago I read Voltaire’s Candide, something I had wanted to do for a while, partly because I enjoy picaresque novels, but also I wanted to compare it with Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, as it is thematically very similar. Candide had been translated into modern English from the French of 1759, Rasselas was published that same year. And a year or two ago I read Lazarillo De Tormes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels (the former published anonymously in 1554, the latter being by Francisco de Quevedo, 1626).

All of these (apart from Rasselas) were translated into modern vernacular English, and it jarred somewhat. I can see it has to be done – if Candide was translated into a pseudo-English of Enlightenment England it would seem very artificial (although all translation is artifice); and if Utopia was rendered into the English of Henry VIII’s reign it wouldn’t improve its intelligibility one bit.

But much of the enjoyment gained from reading Samuel Johnson is due to the beautiful language which he wrote; and the plots of these early works can leave much to be desired, even when they have something original it’s been worked to death in subsequent centuries; these shortcoming are accentuated when it is presented in modern English.

Perhaps the only answer is that given by my 13-year-old daughter when I made comment while reading The Swindler – she suggested I learnt Spanish.

On a separate, but still language-orientated note, the problems of understanding what our forebears were meaning is never so obvious as in place-names, the origins of which I have an abiding interest in. Take, for instance, the common name ending –y or –ey, as in: Thorney = thorn enclosure (from haga); Rowney = rough enclosure (from gehœg); Hatherley = hawthorn clearing; Crawley = crow wood; Butterley = rich meadow producing good butter; Horsey = horse island (can also just mean an area of raised land not surrounded by water); Waveney = river through a quaking bog; Coldrey = charcoal stream; Robey = farm or village situated near a boundary mark; Willoughby = farm or village where willows grow; Middleton Stoney = is on stony ground; Wittery = tree where the wise men meet; Holme Lacy = French surname denoting ownership (holme can mean island, raised piece of land, water meadow, or island promontory as in Durham, which isn’t, as might at first appear, from the OE ham (cognate with modern ‘home’) or hamm (river meadow, land hemmed in by water, cultivated plot on the edge of woodland or moorland) but was originally Dunholm, dun here meaning ‘hill’ – but sometimes ‘valley’ as in dene).

The point is that it’s not necessarily possible to tell what names mean from the modern spelling. Some are obvious – Horsham comes from horse+ham, Milford = mill+ford; but Bookham = beech+ham – but Buckland = book+land, i.e. land held by charter.

English Place NamesThese are all examples of names explained in English Place Names by Kenneth Cameron; it is not by any means the first book I’ve read on the subject, but I still found it interesting and very readable, if a little repetitive at times, and having a tendency to too many lists (although I think that’s probably unavoidable in a book on this subject, they are impossible to assimilate and I found myself skimming through them). My biggest quibble with the book is the indexing: there is only an index of place-names, what would have been far more useful would have been an index of place-name elements, such as ham, hamm, ea, tun, by, ingas, ing, burh, and so forth, If I want to look up the derivation of a particular place-name I will look it up in A Dictionary of British Place Names, or my old Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names.

The first edition of this book was in 1961, the edition I have just read in 1996; parts of it were rewritten, parts revised, a part excised, and a part added. It would appear to be out of print and there are a lot of other books available on this subject, but this is still a good introduction to the interpretation of place-names.

I’m using a very flaky and intermittent mobile broadband connection, which keeps dropping into GPRS and then dropping out completely. I drove up to Leeds this morning with my daughter, moving some of her chattels into her next year’s student accommodation. She’s in a reasonably nice house, although the décor makes it obvious it has been inhabited by students; she has a much smaller room than last year, so I might well be taking some stuff back home again later in the week. She’s out to the pub for the evening with some of her housemates, leaving me here to write this with Johnsonian quantities of tea. Tomorrow I’m off to Cambridge to the AGM of ibooknet, the book-selling cooperative.

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One Response to Translations of elderly literature – and place-names

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