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Translating without an original: a literary scandal as big as The Beatles

No second chances.

These three words serve as a translator’s koan. They loom largest in the minds of literary translators, who set out to replicate, in another language, the double entendres, the textures of daily life, the scent of summer air that characterize a single location in time and space, as well as the people who inhabit it.

No second chances — and so the first translation of a literary text is perilous, dictating the way global readers will view a text for years to come. Even mild verbal slip-ups or syntactical missteps can invite condemnation so powerful, the original text never fully recovers its readership.

After their work’s faults begin to surface, the first translators typically don’t fare much better.

A terrible beauty is born

Between 1760 and 1763, when he was only in his mid-twenties, James Macpherson (1736–96) produced translations of the poems of Ossian, an epic cycle that has alternately been deemed the faithful continuation of Gaelic oral poetry and a forgery. What modern readers would consider a minor scandal of mistranslation was, at the time, a truly global spectacle, with some scholars calling the translation and the hype surrounding it the biggest cultural phenomenon to predate The Beatles.

Before accusations of mistranslation and outright fabrication began to swirl, Macpherson was a Gaelic scholar and schoolmaster, living a life of near anonymity in the Scottish Highlands, amidst the scrubby hills of Ruthven.

The journey from poet manqué to literary sensation was swift and uncalculated. Translating ancient Scottish verses hadn’t crossed the junior scholar’s mind, but after reciting the Gaelic songs he had internalized as a child, Macpherson worked quickly to produce an English version for his listener, John Home. Home found himself moved by the poem’s bellowing rhythms, and by the sensitive warriors whose feats were celebrated as well.

What started as a one-off translation turned into a sprawling epic cycle, comprising over a dozen installments, in which Ossian, a blind bard, celebrates the life and battles of Fingal, an ancient Scottish warrior. And it was nothing short of a revelation.

Indeed, it was as if an entire body of literature had flowered overnight — and with impeccable timing! Macpherson had given his Scottish readership a national hero, hailed by some as the “Homer of the North,” when they needed one most. In Scotland, morale among the ethnic Scottish had sunken to its lowest, after the defeat of the Jacobite forces at the Battle of Culloden, which marked the end of the efforts to restore the (originally Scottish) House of Stuart. Whereas manuscripts attesting to a robust Irish oral tradition enjoyed relatively wide circulation in Macpherson’s Great Britain, there was virtually no text to which Scottish readers could turn for validation of their heritage, which faced the increasing strain of the dominant Anglophone culture.

Although Ossian took on heightened local significance, there was nothing provincial about the work’s reach. The poems proved to be one of the first literary blockbusters and, doubtless, one of the most widely read translations of all time. Among The Poems of Ossian’s most illustrious admirers were Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon, who allegedly carried the poem with him into battle. Gaelic names like Oscar and Selma owe their popularity almost singlehandedly to Macpherson’s translations. While there’s no single factor behind the poetry’s success, it’s safe to say the Gaelic warriors’ compelling combination of firepower and powerful rhetoric resonated with 18th-century readers living in the wake of the Enlightenment and on the eve of major revolutions in the Western world.


The biggest scandal you’ve never heard of

Let us confess, that no Gentleman, or Sharper, ever knew less of the Trade of an able Imposter, than the most memorable Mr. James Macpherson.

Charles O’Conor, Irish antiquarian

No sooner had the the young translator published his work than he faced intense criticism amid mounting questions of authenticity. What were his sources? Why couldn’t he produce manuscript evidence of the poems? What business did Fingal have appearing in a Scottish epic, as he had been more typically associated with Irish folklore?

In his mission to rehabilitate Scottish honor and, perhaps, to elevate his own standing as a poet-translator, Macpherson likely strayed from the source material — and into dangerous territory, alternately deleting and inserting passages, refining or exaggerating ancient rites as he saw it politically or poetically apt. But it was as clear then as it is now that Macpherson did draw heavily on Scottish folklore, presenting a hero who was at his core a Scottish Gael, not the Romantic mollycoddle some have made him out to be. The scant archival record can be easily attributed to the poem’s origins in oral poetry.

If Macpherson’s translations were colored by his predilections and politics, his critics’ harshest words came from a place no less personal. Irish readers saw Macpherson’s Fingal as a hero hijacked for the Scottish nationalist cause, even as Gaelic scholars vouched for a common mythological heritage.

In the English context, it would have been dangerous even to concede that the epic existed. At the time, such a concession could have been tantamount to an endorsement of Scottish sovereignty. Major English critics of the day, including Samuel Johnson, fixated on the question of the poem’s limited archival record, as if to suggest that, in translating without an original, Macpherson unwittingly revealed there was no such thing as Scottish originality. If the warriors Ossian sang of were fabricated, originally described in English, it would have proved only further the superiority of the Anglophone literary tradition.

Unfortunately for the young translator, fifteen minutes of fame gave way to centuries of notoriety as a literary forger, with Johnson and lesser faultfinders having the final word — even though the “Report of the Committee of the Highland Society, Appointed to Inquire into the Nature and Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian,” published in 1805, concluded that Macpherson had constructed the epics from authentic fragmentary text.

No second chances, you know.


Everything is personal

I’m a translator. I’m all too aware of the naysayers who would rather see a world-class text languish in obscurity than allow a single word’s obscurest association to be lost in translation — and, for God’s sake, recuperated in a breathlessly detailed footnote!

The case of Macpherson’s Ossian is a curious and dispiriting one for non-bilingual translators such as myself, especially because it involved a translator with a deep, hereditary relationship to both his original and target languages (though the extent of Macpherson’s fluency in Scottish Gaelic isn’t fully known). If ever there were a translator well-poised to be a neutral mediator between two languages, it would be James Macpherson.

If we bracket the question of Macpherson’s source material, another one emerges, cutting closer to the bone. Where did it all go so wrong for the Gaelic scholar? How did his name become shorthand for inauthentic, geopolitically charged translation?

In Is That a Fish in Your Year?, the translation theorist David Bellos gives us an answer, if not an easy way out of the authenticity debacle: “It’s not poetry that’s lost in translation. It’s community.”

Community, here, probably refers to the usual suspects. The traditions of the original language’s culture, which so often lack straightforward equivalents in the target language. Idiomatic expressions that reflect long-standing cultural practices. (I’m thinking, now, of the baww of Arabic poetry: the hide of a young camel that provides cruel comfort to a female camel that has lost her foal. In Arabic poetry, the baww is often invoked by warriors when they come upon scenes of great destruction. How would you translate baww into English? Fool’s foal? Bitter hide?) Community refers to what the naysayers might call “irrecuperables” and what many translators relegate to those footnotes.

Certainly, aspects of Ossian’s Gaelic language and culture had no direct translation into English. But what if community referred not just to the people and relationships that go into a literary work, but to the local readers who can vouch for its authenticity? That’s one resource the target language almost always lacks: a receptive audience. Indeed, a global readership is never guaranteed and almost always skeptical, as a large number of Macpherson’s readers clearly were.

Which brings us to the originality problem. Literary translators face a conflict that’s best illustrated by the dual and dueling meanings of the word original, which is used to describe both the shared language at the origin of community life and the unique qualities of an individual author’s voice. When native speakers approach a text written in their language, they can recognize it both as one of a kind and as one of their own. Non-native readers, meanwhile, see something very different: a text that is two of a kind, and the product of a cultural context totally dissimilar to their own.

Although the figure of the Brooklyn hipster takes us far afield from translation theory, it’s apt: Who named a johnny-come-lately from Portland, Oregon, the arbiter of the City’s best soup dumplings?

Welcome to the machine

Still looking for that way out?

Join the club! Even the best translator has her verbal tics, the filter of her own syntax, idioms, and experience. Typically, we have relied on the appraisals of other translators to determine whether a translated text is authentic. Translations that bear the imprimatur of many translators do indeed lend a sense of security.

Would the concept of a crowd-sourced translation bring us closer still to an authentic translated text?

The most famous community-translated text is, alas, the stuff of legend. For the translators of the Septuagint, the earliest extant Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the stakes couldn’t be any higher: they had to prove their translation contained only God’s word — not their own. The story goes that 72 Jewish scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, independently arrived at identical Greek texts. What further proof could you need? The translation had been produced with God’s blessing.

To be fair, since the scholars were working in isolation, we’re looking at the literary product of a communion, rather than a community in its strictest sense. But as a model of consensus-based translation, the episode gives translators and readers alike something to hope for.

If the Septuagint was a sort of translation ex machina — the product of divine intervention — crowd-sourced methods of machine translation might be our best shot in a secular world.

By analyzing bilingual corpora to determine what a plurality of human translators have deemed equivalent in the number of language pairs, MT might offer multiple translators the ability to speak with one voice. For now and for the foreseeable future, such consensus is far from perfect, but perhaps perfectible, as the technology continues to incorporate more and more texts.

Thank you, J-Mac

My joy shall be in midst of thousands;
my soul shall alighten through the gloom of the fight!

Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem, Book I, trans. James Macpherson

Let us return to a very human character, James Macpherson, incapable of generating consensus in his own lifetime but worthy of redemption more than two hundred years later. Indeed, as the question of authenticity lost its personal edge and the work its global audience, Macpherson’s image has been at least partially rehabilitated. The soul of his work helps to quell the defeatism and apologism that so often characterize translation studies.

There are no second chances — but I believe there’s an endless capacity for retranslation. The more translators who take on the challenge, the closer we’ll come to an accurate, consensus-building translation.

While we need respectful literary translation at every stage, the crises of access and interest are just as urgent. There can be no authenticity without a first translation. We shouldn’t merely forgive James Macpherson. We should thank him for starting a conversation.

The author encourages you to read the works of Margaret M. Smith, Michael McCraith, Paul F. Moulton, James Porter, and Robyn Creswell, without which this article would not exist.

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