In describing A.E. Houseman’s distinction as a translator, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson once beautifully described Houseman’s knack for restoring life to long neglected classics of the Western cannon. (I’m going to quote it at length, hold on…)
In Wilson estimation, works of Greek and Roman classical poetry by the likes of Ovid or Virgil were given nothing less than new life via Houseman’s ‘minute and accurate mastery of language’ coupled with his ‘first hand knowledge of how poets express himself.’ That’s fierce praise. And Houseman had his work cut out for him! Centuries of aesthetic indifference by lesser scholars or mere scribes had practically buried the identity, the vitality, the very pulse of the works. Wilson writes,
To this rescue of the Greek and Roman poets from the negligence of the Middle Ages, from the incompetence and insensitivity of the scholars, A.E. Houseman brought an unremitting zeal which may almost be described as a passion. It has been said of the theorems of Newton that they cause the pulse to beat faster as one follows them. but the excitement and satisfaction afforded by the classical commentary of Houseman must be unique in the history of scholarship. Even the scraping of the rust from an old coin is too tame an image to convey the experience of perusing one of this arguments to its climax. It is as if, from the ancient author, so long dumb with his language itself, his very identity blurred or obliterated, the modern classicist were striking a new spark of life—as if the poet could only find his tongue at the touch across Time of the poet. So far is Houseman the scholar a giver of life—yet is only as recreator. He is only, after all, again, discovering things that were already there. His findings do not imply a new vision.
Which is just about as perfect an encapsulation of what a good and proper translator should ultimately accomplish as I’ve ever read. Wilson makes Houseman’s cloistered, decades-long work as the Kennedy Professor of Latin at Trinity College in Cambridge feel like one of scholarly grandeur, with Houseman not simply tenured, but more expansively, a “giver of life,” reviving works near extinction so that they could once again be discovered in something resembling their original state by the modern reader. And never before had there been so many readers! Such a magical, sudden onslaught of readers! (see: modern university system.)
We tip our hats to Edmund Wilson and his own powers as a writer and “giver of life.”