The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

RLS, translator

with 4 comments

I am always impressed by those translators who can produce a phrase in the target language that is syntatically different from the source text, but which immediately impresses you as ‘just right’. An example would be the Chinese translator of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who took Willie Lowman’s very American expresson ‘Yeah. I’ll put it to him straight and simple.’ and turned it into the Chinese phrase ‘I’ll tell him: Open door, see mountain’.

A teacher once told me of an translation class for advanced Italian students in which they were faced with the sentence ‘Did not Our Lord die for us upon the cross?’. After various attempts to translate this with a question, all of which seemed too direct or even querulous in Italian, someone hit upon ‘Anche il nostro Signore è morto per noi sulla croce’ (‘Even Our Lord died for us upon the cross’)—which everyone found ‘just right’.

Stevenson and translation

Stevenson several times complained of unimaginative literal translations. In his copy of the Robert Arnauld’s French translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Yale), which he read in February 1884, he wrote in the margin ‘Arnauld is a common ass, he misses every merit of his author; I speak as a writer by trade’ (L4, 239). In the following month he comments on ‘a dreadful French crib’ of Tacitus, ‘which helps me along and drives me mad’ (L4, 247).

In 1874 he had planned to write an essay on ‘Bohn’s Cribs’, the literal translations of Greek and Latin classics, which no doubt would have developed his ideas on the matter. (The title is in a list of essay titles in Notebook A 265, back sequence p. 11; Beinecke 684 1, 37.) One of the Bohn’s Library translations he owned was Theodore Buckley’s translation of the Iliad, sold at the Safford sale 1926, since untraced. According to the auction catalogue, against Buckley’s ‘fertile and populous Phthia’, Stevenson has added an alternative translation: ‘big-clodded, man-producing Phthia’.

We have also seen in his translations of odd phrases in his edition of Montaigne how he tended to avoid literal choices: for example, he glosses Montaigne’s ‘les corps raboteaux [rough, uneven, bumpy, rugged] se sentent’  (Vol. 3, p. 33)—which Cotton had translated as ‘Rough bodies make themselves felt’—as ‘knotty surfaces are sensible‘. Although here he produced a ‘knotty’ Stevensonian translation, but he was also capable of elegant finesse when translating odd sentences and phrases.

In his copy of Poe’ Works (NYPL, Berg Collection), Stevenson was clearly challenged by Poe’s comment in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (vol. I, p. 421), ‘Je les Ménageais—for this phrase there is no English equivalent’: at the foot of the page he has added ‘I humoured them: Aint’t that good enough English, E. A. P.?’ (Pollin and Greenwood, ELT 37.iii (1994): 327).

Pierre Jean de Béranger

One such example appears in his Enyclopædia Britannica article on the French poet and songwriter, Pierre Jean de Béranger (who would have appealed to Stevenson for his praise of the humble Bohemian life and his condemnation of respectable hypocrisy). When he was making notes from Béranger’s Correspondance he came across this sentence in a letter:

Je suis un bon petit poète, habile ouvrier, travailleur consciencieux, à qui de vieux airs et le coin où je me suis confiné ont porté bonheur, et voilà tout !

and decided to copy it out and translate it at the same time:

Screenshot 2014-10-03 11.59.39

Stevenson’s notes for ‘Béranger’, Beinecke GEN MSS 664 box 25 folder 607-8 (B6013)

I am a good little bit of a poet, a clever craftsman and conscientious <hard l> worker, to whom old airs and <the chimney corner ^to which he has confined himself^>, he says to Chateaubriand.
Corresp. II. 63.
a modest choice of subjects—le coin où je me suis confiné.

Here we can see how he changed his first more literal translation of ‘the chimney corner to which he has confined himself’ to the completely different, but just right, ‘a modest choice of subjects’.

In the Encyclopædia article, he uses this revised version:

‘I am a good little bit of a poet,’ he says himself, ‘clever in the craft, and a conscientious worker, to whom old airs and a modest choice of subjects (le coin où je me suis confiné), have brought some success.’

Although he also includes the French phrase as well, no doubt because of its untranslated connotations of modest domesticity, I find his ‘modest choice of subjects’ a remarkably elegant translation.

Notice that the original contains no equivalents of ‘modest’, ‘choice’ or ‘subjects’. Stevenson has arrived at his translation by translating ‘le coin où je me suis confiné’ (‘the small space I have confined myself to’), as ‘a choice of subjects’, and then added the connotations of the same phrase—’coin’ (‘small, unpretentious space’), and ‘où je me suis confiné’ (‘beyond which I have chosen not to go’)— in the single word, ‘modest’.

This is the sort of translation that could never be made by a translation programme: it combines an understanding of the original with the audacity to leave the original structure behind—a first step in achieving an equivalent formulation of witty concision.


Note also how he skilfully translates ‘un bon petit poète, habile ouvrier, travailleur consciencieux’ as ‘a good little bit of a poet, […] clever in the craft, and conscientious worker’.

Here, Béranger’s ‘habile ouvrier, travailleur consciencieux’ consists of two sequences of adjective and noun—but varied in their order: adjective-noun, noun-adjective. As this is not possible in English, and Stevenson’s original literal choice in his notes (‘a clever craftsman and conscientious worker’) has a dull repetetiveness, he has introduced a compensatory variedness by changing ‘a clever craftsman’ into the adjectival ‘clever in the craft’.

This also produces one of Stevenson’s phrasal inventions that are new but look traditional and idiomatic (‘clever in the craft’) together with a sentence sequence with the ‘breaks and turns’ that give his own prose its distinctive quality.

Written by rdury

03/10/2014 at 2:02 pm

Posted in Beinecke Library, Essays, Translation

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4 Responses

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  1. I offer his not completely finished translation of Martial’s In Lupum. A half a gill is one quarter of a pint:

    Beyond the gates thou gav’st a field to till;
    I have a larger on my window-sill.
    A farm, d’ye say? Is this a farm to you,
    Where for all woods I spay one tuft of rue,
    And that so rusty, and so small a thing,
    One shrill cicada hides it with a wing;
    Where one cucumber covers all the plain;
    And where one serpent rings himself in vain
    To enter wholly; and a single snail
    Eats all and exit fasting to the pool?
    Here shall my gardener be the dusty mole.
    My only ploughman the . . . mole.
    Here shall I wait in vain till figs be set,
    And till the spring disclose the violet.
    Through all my wilds a tameless mouse careers,
    And in that narrow boundary appears,
    Huge as the stalking lion of Algiers,
    Huge as the fabled boar of Calydon.
    And all my hay is at one swoop impresst
    By one low-flying swallow for her nest,
    Strip god Priapus of each attribute
    Here finds he scarce a pedestal to foot.
    The gathered harvest scarcely brims a spoon;
    And all my vintage drips in a cocoon.
    Generous are you, but I more generous still:
    Take back your farm and stand me half a gill!

    John F. Russell

    05/10/2014 at 3:49 pm

    • Thanks for this—I’d forgotten to mention the verse translations in my brief overview of Stevenson as translator: I leave this whole question to be developed at length by someone else.

      Of course poetic translations of poetry increase the difficulty of translation several fold, and Martial (XI.18) adds another difficulty in his last lines since he refers to Latin words, which is going to make tranlsation into another language difficult:

      Errasti, Lupe, littera sed una:
      Nam quo tempore praedium dedisti,
      Mallem tu mihi prandium dedisses.

      ‘You made a mistake, Lupus, but only by one letter: when you gave me a farm (praedium), I would have preferred you to give me a dinner (prandium).’ Understandably, Stevenson abandons the search for an equivalent play on words and just has ‘Take back your farm and stand me half a gill’.


      05/10/2014 at 5:28 pm

  2. Richard,

    “a modest choice of subjects for “le coin où je me suis confiné” is a bad translation, as a translation. As a matter of fact it’s not a “translation” and RLS knew it since the french expression followed just after it. He was surely afraid that his translation was clumsy or that the expression was not clear enough for the readers of the article, as taken from its context, as it was a FIGURATIVE expression and not immediately plain to the mind.
    The phrase “a modest choice of subjects” is a good expression and conveys the meaning of the french, but not the form of the french nor the figure.
    In this context (the article) RLS want to be clear and so gave two versions. The “interpretation” and the original version.



    27/10/2014 at 5:45 pm

    • If you are interested in translations by RLS, there is many passages translated from french in “travels with a donkey” and in the Ronin article.


      27/10/2014 at 5:52 pm

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