John Dryden, Theories of Translation (20th July 2016)

Next Meeting: 20th July 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

John Dryden was born on the 9th August 1631, and died on the 1st May 1700, at the age of 68. He was a hugely successful playwright, critic, poet, and translator who dominated the English literary scene in the later seventeenth century. Dryden became the first Poet Laureate in 1668 and was fiercely loyal to the Stuart kings, even though their reign was not always smooth. After the deposition of James II in 1688 Dryden refused to swear the oath of allegiance to William and Mary and so fell out of favour. He was stripped of the Poet Laureateship, although Christopher Hollis has argued that this was because Dryden was not willing to work for a regime in which he did not believe, rather than because of the new royals did not want his services.[1]

Without the salary that accompanied the title of Poet Laurette Dryden turned to translation as a source of income. He translated, among others, The Satires of Juvenal (1693), The Lives of Plutarch (1693), and The Works of Virgil (1697). The full list of translations from Fables Ancient and Modern is as follows:

  • Palamon and Arcite: or, The Knight’s Tale
  • Meleager and Atalanta, out of the Eighth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Sigismonda and Guiscardo, from Boccace
  • Baucis and Philemon, out of the Eighth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Pygmalion and Statue, out of the Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Cinyras and Myrrah, out of the Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • The First Book of Homer’s Ilias
  • The Cock and the Fox: or, The Tale of the Nun’s Priest
  • Theodore and Honoria, from Boccace
  • Ceyx and Alcyone
  • The Flower and the Leaf: or, The Lady in the Arbour. A Vision (wrongly attributed to Chaucer)
  • The Twelth Book of Ovid His Metamorphoses
  • The Speeches of Ajax and Ulysses. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XIII
  • The Wife of Bath Her Tale
  • Of the Pythagorean Philosophy. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XV
  • The Character of a Good Parson; Imitated from Chaucer, and Inlarg’d.
  • Cymon and Iphigenia, from Boccace

Interspersed with the translations are literary compositions completely of Dryden’s own design:

  • To Her Grace the Duchess of Ormond
  • To my Honour’d Kinsman, John Driden of Chesterton
  • The Monument of a Fair Maiden lady, Who dy’d ay Bayh, and is there Interr’d

Dryden’s translations of Chaucer were used by future poets as a way into Chaucerian translation, and were the authoritative editions for many years afterwards. Dryden saw himself as being within a continuing tradition of great writers, and worked to present himself as exactly that, with strong links to the literary past. He was the first to dub Chaucer as ‘the father of English literature’ and wrote that ‘Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets’ in An Essay on Dramatic Poesie (1668).

Questions for discussion

  1. How does Dryden’s theory – or perhaps theories – of translation change over time?
  2. Do we agree with Dryden’s theory that translation should be an essence capturing exercise, rather than an exact science? Does this endanger the integrity of the text?
  3. Does it seem likely that Dryden’s views on translation changed, or did he see a way in which looser translation could be used to build a canon?
  4. In what ways is Dryden attempting to construct a canon, with himself as the latest in that line?
  5. Is it problematic that the same man building the canon is also the primary mediator of that canon to the general public? Dryden kick started an age of translation into vernacular English, and also adapted a number of Shakespeare plays including The Tempest (1667) and All for Love (1677), an imitation of Antony and Cleopatra.
  6. What techniques does Dryden use in these extracts that we might recognise as being medieval? Do any of the techniques seem especially Chaucerian?
  7. Dryden chose to translate The Knight’s Tale, The Tale of the Nun’s Priest, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and gave us The Character of a Good Parson; Imitated from Chaucer, And Inlarg’d. What does the choice of tales tell us about the canon Dryden is trying to construct? Is it relevant that at least two of these tales are among the most romance like within Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?
  8. For those who know the other texts translated in Fables Ancient and Modern, can the selection from Chaucer be linked to these other, more classical, texts? Where does The Flower and the Leaf fit into this selection?


[1]Hollis, Christopher, Dryden (New York: Hookell House Publishers LTD., 1974), p. 151


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