Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Emory Women Writers Resource Project

An Essay on Translated Prose, an electronic edition

by Aphra Behn [Behn, Aphra, 1640-1689]

source publisher:
collection: Early Modern through the 18th Century

Table of Contents

Display page layout

An Essay on Translated Prose

Translated Prose.

THE general Applause this little Book of the Discovery of several Worlds has met with, both in France and England in the Original; made me attempt to translate it into English. The Reputation of the Author, (who is the fame that writ, The Dialogues of the Dead,) the Novelty of the Subject in vulgar Languages, and the Author's introducing a Woman as one of the Speakers in these five different Discourses, were further Motives for me to undertake this little Work; for I thought an English woman might adventure to translate any thing, a French Woman may be suppos'd to have spoken: But when I had made a Tryal, I found the Task not so easy as I believ'd at first. Therefore, before I say any thing, either of the Design of the Author, or of the Book itself, give me leave to say something of Translation of Prose in general: As for | | 2 for Translation of Verse, nothing can be added to that incomparable Essay of the late Earl of Roscommon, the nearer the Idioms or turn of the Phrase of two Languages agree, 'tis the easier to translate one into the other: The Italian, Spanish and French, are all three at best Corruptions of the Latin, with the mixture of Gothick, Arabiek, and Gaulish Words. The Italian, as it is nearer the Latin, is also nearest the English; for its mixture being compos'd of Latin, and the Language of the Goths, Vandals, and other Northern Nations, who over-ran the Roman Empire, and conquer'd its Language with its Provinces, most of these Northern Nations spoke the Teutonick, or Dialects of it, of which the English is one also: and that's the reason, that the English and Italian learn the Language of one another sooner than any other; because not only the Phrase, but the Accent of both do very much agree; the Spanish is next of kin to the English, for almost the same reason; because the Goths, and Vandals having over-run Africk, and kept possession of it for some hundred of Years, where mixing with the Moors, no doubt, gave them a great Tincture of their Tongue. These Moors afterwards invaded and conquer'd Spain; besides Spain was before that, also invaded and conquer'd by the Goths, who possess'd it long after the time of the two Sons of Theodosius the Great, Arcadus and Honorius. The French, as it is most remote from the Latin, so the Phrase and Accent differs most from the English: It may be, it is more agreeable with the Welsh, which is near a-kin to the Basbriton and Biscag | | 3 ne Languages, which is deriv'd from the old Celtick Tongue, the first that was spoken amongst the ancient Gauls, who descended from the Celts.

The French therefore is of all the hardest to translate into English. For Proof of this, there are other Reasons also: And first, the nearer the Genious and Humour of two Nations agree, the Idioms of their Speech are the nearer; and every Body knows there is more Affinity between the English and Italian People, than the English and the French, as to their Humours; and for that Reason, and for what I have said before, it is very difficult to translate Spanish into French; and I believe hardly possible to translate French into Dutch. The second Reason is, The Italian Language is the fame now as it was some hundred Years ago, so is the Spanish, not only as to the Phrase, but even as to the Words and Orthography; whereas the French Language has suffer'd more Changes this hundred Years past, since Francis the First, than the Fashions of their Cloths and Ribbons, in Phrase, Words, and Orthography: So that I am confident a French Man a hundred Years hence will no more understand an old Edition of Froisard's History, than he will understand Arabick. I confess the French Arms, Mony and Intriques have made their Language very universal of late, for this they are to be commended: It is an Accident, which they owe to the Greatness of their King, and their own Industry; and it may fall out hereafter to be otherwise. A third Reason is, as I said before, That the French being a Corruption of the Latin, French Au | | 4 Authors take a Liberty to borrow whatever Words they want from the Latin, without farther Ceremony, especially when they treat of Sciences. This the English do not do, but as second-hand from the French. It is Modish to Ape the French in every thing: Therefore, we not only naturalize their Words, but Words they steal from other Languages. I wish in this and several other things, we had a little more of the Italian and Spanish Humour, and did not chop and change our Language, as we do our Cloths, at the Pleasure of every French Taylor.

In translating French into English, most People are very cautious and unwilling to print a French Word at first out of a new Book, till Life has render'd it more familiar to us; and therefore it runs a little rough in English, to express on French Word, by two or three of ours; and thus much, as to the Ease and Difficulty of Translating these Languages in general. But, as to the French in particular, it has as many Advantages of the English, as to the Sound, as ours has of the French, as to the Signification; which is another Argument of the different Genius of the two Nations. Almost all the Relatives, Articles, and Pronouns in the French Language, end in Vowels, and are written with two or three Letters. Many of their Words begin with Vowels; so, that when a Word after a Relative, Pronoun or Article, ends with a Vowel, and begins with another, they admit of their beloved Figure Apostrophe, and cut off the first Vowel. This they do to shun an ill Sound; and they are so Musical | | 5 Musical as to that, that they will go against all the Rules of Sense and Grammar, rather than fail; as for Example, speaking of a Man's Wife they say. Son Epouse; whereas in Grammar, it ought to be Sa Epouse; but throw a French Man into a Fit of a Fever, so to hear one say, by way of Apostrophe S'Epouse, as this makes their Language to run smoother, so by this they express several Words very shortly, as, qu'entend je? In English, What do I hear? In this Example, three Words have the sound but of one, for sound prevails with them in the beginning, middle and end. Secondly, Their Words generally end in Vowels, or if they do not, they do not pronounce the Consonant, for the most part, unless there be two together, or that the next Word begins with a Vowel. Thirdly, By the help of their Relatives, they can shortly, and with ease resume a long preceeding Sentence, in two or three short Words; these are the Advantages of the French Tongue, all which they borrow from the Latin. But as the French do not value a plain Suit without a Garniture, they are not satisfied with the Advantages they have, but confound their own Language with needless Repetitions and Tautologies; and by a certain Rhetorical Figure, peculiar to themselves, imply twenty Lines, to express what an English Man would say, with more Ease and Sense in five; and this is the great Misfortune of translating French into English: If one endeavours to male English Standard, it is no Translation. If one follows their Flourishes and Embroideries, it is worse that French Tin-sel | | 6 sel. But these Defects are only comparatively, in respect of English: And I do not say this so much, to condemn the French, as to praise our own Mother-tongue, for what we think a Deformity, they make think a Perfection; as the Negroes of Guinney think us as ugly, as we think them. But to return to my present Translation:

I have endeavour'd to give you the true Meaning of the Author, and have kept as near his Words as was possible; I was necessitated to add a little in some places, otherwise the Book could not have been understood. I have used all along the Latin word Axis, which is Axle-tree in English, which I do not think so proper a Word in a Treatise of this nature; but 'tis what is generally understood by every Body. There is another Word in the two last Nights, which was very uneasie to me, and the more so, for that it was so often repeated, which is Tourbillion, which signifies commonly a Whirl-wind; but Monsier Des Chartes understands it in a more general Sense, and I call it a Whirling; the Author hath given a very good Definition of it, and I need say no more, but that I retain'd the Word unwillingly, in regard of what I have said in the beginning of this Preface.

I know a Character of the Book will be expected from me, and I am obliged to give it, to satisfie myself for being at the Pains to Translate it; but I wish with all my heart I could forbear it; for I have that Value for the ingenious French Author, that I am sorry I must write what some may understand to be a Satyr against | | 7 against him: The Design of the Author is to treat of this part of Natural Philosophy in a more familiar Way than any other hath done, and to make every Body understand him: For this End, he introduceth a Woman of Quality as one of the Speakers in these five Discourses, whom he feigns never to have heard of any such thing as Philosophy before. How well he hath perform'd his Undertaking you will best judge when you have perused the Book: But if you would know before-hand my Thoughts, I must tell you freely, he hath failed in his Design; for endeavouring to render this part of Natural Philosophy familiar, he hath turn'd it into Ridicule; he hath pushed his wild Notion of the Plurality of Worlds to that height of Extravagancy, that he most certainly will confound those Readers, who have not Judgement and Wit to distinguish between what is truly solid (or, at least, probable) and what is trifling and airy: and there is no less Skill and Understanding required in this, than in comprehending the whole Subject he treats of. And for his Lady Marquiese, he makes her say a great many very silly things, tho' sometimes she maked Observations so learned, that the greatest Philosophers in Europe could make no better. His way of Arguing is extreamly fine, and his Examples and Comparisons are for the most part extraordinary, just, natural, and lofty, if he had not concluded with that of a Rose, which is very irregular. The whole Book is very unequal; the first, fourth, and the beginning of the fifth Discourses are incomparably the best. He ascribes all to Na-ture, | | 8 ture, and says not a Word of God Almighty, from the beginning to the end; so that one would almost take him to be a Pagan. He endeavours chiefly two things; one is, that that there are thousands of Worlds inhabited by Anmals, besides our Earth, and hath urged this Fancy too far: I shall not presume to defend his Opinion, but one may make a very good use of many things he hath expressed very finely, in endeavouring to assist his wild Fancy; for he gives a magnificent Idea of the Vastness of the Universe, and of the Almighty and Infinite Power of the Creator, to be comprehended by the meanest Capacity. This he proves judiciously, by the Appearances and Distances of the Planets and fixed Stars; and if he had let alone his learned Men, Philosophical Transactions, and Telescopes in the Planet Jupiter, and his Inhabitants not only there, but in all the fixed Stars, and even in the Milky-way, and only stuck to the Greatness of the Universe, he had deserved much more Praise.

The other he endeavours to defend and assert is, The System of Conpernicus. As to this, I cannot but take his part, as far as a Woman's Reasoning can go. I shall not venture upon the Astronomical Part, but leave that to the Mathematicians; but because I know, that when this Opinion of Copernicus (as to the Motion of the Earth, and the Sun's being fixed in the Center of the Universe, without any other Motion, but upon his own Axis) was first heard of in the World, those who neither understood the old System of Ptolemy, nor the new one of Copernicus, said, That this | | 9 this new Opinion was expresly contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and therefore not to be embraced; nay, it was condemned as Heretical upon the fame account: After it had been examined by the best Mathematicians in Europe, and that they found it answer'd all the Phoenomena's and Motions of the Spheres and Stars better than the System of Ptolemy; that it was plainer, and not so perplexing and confused as the old Opinion; several of these learned Men therefore embraced this; but those that held out, when they saw all Arguments against Copernicus would not do, they had recourse to what I said before, that this System was expresly against the Holy Scriptures. Amongst this Number is the learned Father Tacquit, a Jesuit, who, I am told, has writ a large Course of Mathematics, and particularly, of Astronomy, which is deservedly much esteemed. In the end of this Treatise, he cites several Texts of Scripture; and particularly, the 19th Psalm, And the Sun standing still at the Command of Joshua. If I can make it appear, that this Text of Scripture is, at least, as much for Copernicus as Ptolomy, I hope it will not be unacceptable to my Readers: Therefore, with all due Reverence and Respect to the Word of God, I hope I may be allowed to say, That the Design of the Bible was not to instruct Mankind in Astronomy, Geometry, or Chronology, but in the Law of God, to lead us to Eternal Life; and the Spirit of God has been so condescending to our Weakness, that through the whole Bible, when any thing of that kind is mentioned, the Expressions are always | | 10 always turned to fit our Capacities, and to fit the common Acceptance, or the Appearances of things to the Vulgar. As to Astronomy, I shall reserve that to the last, and shall begin with Geometry; and though I could give many Instances of all three, yet I shall give but one or two at most. The Measure and Definitions of Solomon's Molten-brass Sea; in I Kings 7.23. the words are these, And he made a Molen Sea, ten Cubits from one brim to the other, it was round all about, and his heighth was five Cubits, and a Line of thirty Cubits did compass it round about: That is to say, the Diameter of this Vessel was a Third of its Circumference: This is indeed commonly understood to be so, but is far from a Geometrical Exactness, and will not hold to a Mathematical Demonstration, as to the just Proportion between the Diameter and Circumference of a Circle. In the next place, as to Chronology, I could give many Instances out of the Bible, but shall only name two that are very apparent, and easie to be understood by the meanest Capacity: See I Kings 6.1. the words are these, And it came to pass, in the four hundred and fourscorth Year after the Children of Israel were come out of the Land of Egypt, in the fourth Year of Solomon's Reign over Israel, in the Month Zif, which is the second Month, he began to build the House of the Lord. Compare this Text, and number of Years with Acts 13. 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22; which is the beginning of St. Paul's Sermon to the Jews of Antioch, and the number of Years therein contained; the words are these: The God of this People of Israel chose our Fathers, and exalted the People when | | 11 when they dwelt as Strangers in the Land of Egypt, and with an high Hand brought he them out of it. And about the time of forty Years suffered he their Manners in the Wilderness. And when he had destroyed seven Nations in the Land of Canaan, he divided their Land to them by Lot. And after that, he gave unto them Judges, about the space of four hundred and fifty Years, until Samuel the Prophet. And afterwards they desired a King, and God gave them Saul, the Son of Kish, a Man of the Tribe of Benjamin, for the space of forty Years. And when he had removed him, he raised up unto them David to be their King.

King David the Prophet reigned seven Years in Hebron, and thirty three Years in Jerusalem; and for this see I Kings 2.11. To this you must add the first three Years of his Son Solomon, according to the Text I have cited, in I Kings 6.1. Put all these Numbers together, which are contained in St. Paul's Sermon at Antioch, with the Reign of King David, the first three Years of Solomon, and seven Years of Joshua's Government, before the land was divided by Lot, which is expresly set down in Acts 13.19. the number of the Years will run thus: Forty Years in the Wilderness, the seven Years of Joshua, before the dividing the Land by the Lot; from thence, till Samuel, four hundred and fifty Years; forty Years for the Reign of Saul, forty Years for the Reign of David, and the first three Years of Solomon; all these Numbers added together, make five hundred and eighty Years; which Computation differs an hundred Years from that in I Kings 6.1. which is but four hundred and eighty. It is | | 12 is not my present Business to reconcile this Difference; but I can easily do it; if any Body think it worth their Pains to quarrel with my Boldness, I am able to defend my self.

The second Instance is, as to the Reign of King Solomon; for this, see I Kings 11.42. where it is said, he reigned but forty Years over Israel. Josephus says expresly, in the third Chapter of his eighth Book of Antiquities, that King Solomon reigned eighty Years, and died at the Age of ninety four. I would not presume to name this famous Historian in Contradiction to the Holy Scriptures, if it were not easie to prove by the Scriptures, that Solomon reigned almost twice forty Years. The Greek Version of the Bible, commonly call'd the Septuagint, or seventy two Interpreters, has it most expresly in 2 Kings 2. But the first Book of Kings, according to our Translation in English, says, That Solomon sat upon the Throne of his Father David, when he was twelve Years of Age. But for Confirmation, be pleas'd to see I Chron. 22.5 [?] and 29.1. where it is said, ThatSolomon was but young and tender for so great a Work, as the building of the Temple. Rehoboam the Son of Solomon was forty one Years old, when he began to reign; see I Kings 14.21. How was it possible then that Solomon could beget a Son, when he was but a Child himself, or of a eleven Years of Age according to theSeptuagint? This Difficulty did strangely surprize a Primitive Bishop, by Name, Vitalis, who proposed this Doubt to St. Jerome, who was strangely put to it to return an Answer; and the Learned Holy Father is forc'd, at last, to say, That the Letter of the | | 13 the Scripture does often kill, but the Spirit enlivens. The Difficulty is still greater than what Vitalis proposed to St. Jerome in his Epistle: Rehoboam was the Son of Naamah an Amonitish Stranger-woman, as you may see in IKings 14.13. Now it is clear, that Solomon did not abandon the Law of God, nor give himself to strange Women till the end of his Reign, see I Kings 9. Where he had so many strange Wives and Concubines, besides his lawful Queen, the King of Egypt's Daughter; and I hope this will convince and rational Man, that the Scripture names only the first forty Years of the Reign of King Solomon, which was the time, wherein he did what was Right in the sight of the Lord; which I think is Demonstration, that the Holy Scripture was not design'd to teach Mankind Geometry, or instruct them in Chronology. The Learned Anthony Godean, Lord and Bishop of Venice, seems to have been sensible of this great Difficulty; for in his Learned Church-history, his Epitom from Adam to Jesus Christ, writing the Life of Solomon, he says, He was twenty three Years old when he began his Reign. Upon what Grounds, or from what Authority I know not; but this agrees better with the Age of Solomon's Son Rehoboam; but it doth not remove the Difficulty, so well as what I have said.

I come now in the last place to perform what I undertook, which is to prove, That the Scripture was not design'd to teach us Astronomy, no more than Geometry or Chronology: And to make it appear that the two Texts cited by Father Tacquer, viz. that of Psal. 19.4, | | 14 4, 5, 6, and Josh. 10. 12; &t. are at least as much for Copernicus his System, as they are forPtolomy's. The Words of the 19th Psalm are, In them hath he set a Tabernacle for the Sun, which is as a Bridegroom coming out of his Chamber; and rejoyces as a strong Man to run his Race, &c.

That these Words are Allegorical is most plain. Does not the Word Set import Stability, Fix'dness and Rest, as much as the Words run his Race, and come forth of his Chamber, do signifie Motion, or turning around? Do not the Words Tabernacle and Chamber express Places of Rest, and Stability? And why may not I safely believe, that this makes for the Opinion of Copernicus, as well for that of Ptolomy? For the Words of the Scriptures favour one Opinion as much as the other. The Texts of the Sun's standing still at the Command of Joshua, are yet plainer for Copernicus, in Josh. 10. and the latter part of v. 12. the Words are these: Sun stand still on Gibeon, and thou Moon on the Valley of Ajalon, &c.

The best Edition of the English Bible, which is printed in a small Folio by Buck, in Cambridge, has an Asterism at the Word stand, and renders it in the Margent, from the Hebrew, Be thou silent: If it be so in the Hebrew, be thou silent makes as much for the Motion of the Earth, according to Copernicus, as for the Motion of the Sun according to Ptolomy, but not to Criticize upon Words, consider this miraculous Passage, not only the Sun is commanded to stand still, but the Moon also, And thou Moon on the Valley of Ajalon The reason the Sun was commanded to stand still, was to the end the | | 15 the Children of Israel might have Light to guide them, to destroy their Enemies. Now when by this Miracle they had the Light of the Sun, of what Advantage could the Moon be to them? Why was she commanded to stand still upon the Valley of Ajalon? Besides, be pleased to consider, the Holy Land is but a very little Country or Province: The Valley of Ajalon is very near Gibeon, where Joshua spoke to both Sun and Moon together to stand still above, in places so near each other, it is Demonstration, that the Moon was at that time very near the Sun; and by consequence was at that time either a Day or two before her Change, or a Day or two at most after New Moon; and then she is nearer to the Body of the Sun, as to appearance, so could not assist the Children of Israel with Light, having so little of her own: It was then for some other reason that the Moon stood still; and for some other reason that it is taken notice of in Holy Scripture. Both Systems agree that the Moon is the nearest Planet to the Earth, and subservient to it, to enlighten it, during the Night, is absence of the Sun. Besides this, the Moon has other strange Effects, not only on the Earth itself, but upon all the living Creatures that inhabit it; many of them are invisible, and as yet unknown to Mankind; some of them are most apparent; and above all, her wonderful Influence over the Ebbing and Flowing of the Sea, at such regular Times and Seasons, if not interrupted by the accident of some Storm, or great Wind. We know of no Relation or Cor- | | 16 Corresponding between the Sun and Moon, unless it be what is common with all the rest of the Planets, that the Moon receives her Light from the Sun, which she restores again by Reflection. If the Sun did move, according to the System of Ptolemy, where was the necessity of the Moon's standing still? For if the Moon had gone on her Course, where was the loss or disorder in Nature? She having, as I demonstrated before, so little Light, being so very near her Change, would have recovered her Loss at the next Appearance of the Sun, and the Earth could have suffered nothing by the accident; whereas the Earth moving at the same time, in an annual and diurnal Course, according to the System of Copernicus, would have occasioned such a Disorder and Confusion in Nature, that nothing less than two or three new Miracles, all as great as the first, could have set the World in Order again: The regular Ebbings and Flowings of the Sea must have been interrupted, as also the Appearing of the Sun in the Horizon, besides many other Inconveniencies in Nature; as, the Eclipses of the Sun and Moon, which are now so regular, that an Astronomer could tell you to a Minute, what Eclipses will be for thousands of Years to come, both of Sun and Moon; when, and in what Climates they will be visible, and how long they will last, how many Degrees and Digits of those two great Luminaries will be obscured: So that I doubt not but when this stupendious Miracle was performed by the Almighty and Infinite Pow-er | | 17 er of God, his Omnipotent Arm did in an instant stop the Course of Nature, and the whole Frame of the Universe was at a stand, though the Sun and Moon be only named, being, to vulgar Appearance, the two great Luminaries that govern the Universe. This was the space of a Day in Time, yet can be call'd no part of Time, since Time and Nature are always in motion, and this Day was a stop of that Course. What is there in all this wonderful stop of Time, that is not as strong for the System of Copernicus, as for that of Ptolemy? And why does my Belief of the Motion of the Earth, and the Rest of the Sun contradict the Holy Scriptures? Am not I as much obliged to believe that the Sun lodges in a Tabernacle? (as in Psalm 19.) Are not all these Allegorical Sayings? In the abovenamed Edition of the English Bible of Buck's at Cambridge see Isa. 8. 38. where the Shadow returned ten Degrees backwards, as a Sign of King Hezekiah's Recovery, and there follow these Words, And the Sun returned ten Degrees; but on the Margin you will find it from the Hebrew, The shadow turned ten Degrees by the Sun; and this is yet as much for Copernicus as Ptolemy. Whether God Almighty added ten Degrees or Hours to that Day, or by another kind of Miracle, made that Shadow to return upon the Dial of Ahaz, I will not presume to determine; but still you see the Hebrew is most agreeable to the new System of Copernicus.

Thus I hope I have performed my Undertaking in making it appear, that the Holy Scri- | | 18 Scriptures, in things that are not material to the Salvation of Mankind, do altogether condescend to the vulgar Capacity; and that these two Texts of Psal. 19. and Josh. 10. are as much for Copernicus as against him. I hope none will think my Undertaking too bold, in making so much use of the Scripture, on such an Occasion: I have a Precedent, much esteemed by all ingenious Men; that is, Mr. Burnet's Book of Paradise, and Antedeluvian World, which incroaches as much, if not more, on the Holy Scriptures. But I have another Reason for saying so much of the Scriptures at this time: We live in an Age, wherein many believe nothing contained in that Holy Book, others turn it into Ridicule: Some use it only for Mischief, and as a Foundation and Ground for Rebellion: Some keep close to the literal Sense; and others give the Word of God only that Meaning and Sense that pleases their own Humours, or suits best their present Purpose and Interests. As I quoted an Apistle of St. Jerometo Vitalis before, where that great Father says, That the Letter kills, but the Spirit enlivens; I think it is the Duty of all good Christians to acquiesce in the Opinion and Decrees of the Church of Christ, in whom dwells the Spirit of God, which enlightens us to Matters of Religion and Faith; and as to other things contained in the Holy Scriptures relating to Astronomy, Geometry, Chronology, or other liberal Sciences, we leave those Points to the Opinion of the Learned, who, by comparing the several Copies, Translations, Versions, and Edi | | 19 Editions of the Bible, are best able to reconcile any apparent Differences; and this with all Submission to the Canons of general Councils, and Decrees of the Church. For the School-men agitate and delate many things of a higher Nature, than the standing still, or the Motion of the Sun or the Earth. And therefore, I hope my Readers will be so just as to think, I intend no Reflection on Religion by this Essay; which being no Matter of Faith, is free for every one to believe, or not believe, as they please. I have adventur'd to say nothing, but from good Authority: And as this is approved of by the World, I may hereafter venture to publish somewhat may be more useful to the Publick. I shall conclude therefore with some few Lines, as to my present Translation.

I have laid the Scene at Paris, where the Original was writ; and have translated the Book near the Words of the Author. I have made bold to correct a Fault of the French Copy, as to the heighth of our Air or Sphere of Activity of the Earth, which the French Copy makes twenty or thirty Leagues, I call it two or three, because sure this was a Fault of the Printer, and not a Mistake of the Author. For Monsieur Des Cartes, and Monsieur Rohalt, both assert it to be but two or three Leagues. I thought Paris and St. Denis fitter to be made use of as Examples, to compare the Earth and Moon to, than London and Greenwich; because St. Denis having several Steeples and Walls, is more like Paris than Greenwich is to London: Green- | | 20 Greenwich has do Walls, and but one very low Steeple, not to be seen from the Monument without a Prospective-glass. And I resolv'd either to give you the French Book into English or to give you the Subject quite changed and made my own; but having neither Health nor Leisure for the last, I offer you the first, such as it is.