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James Freeman Clare on Poetry and Untranslatable Words

James Freeman Clarke, "Untranslatable Words" in Every-day Religion ().

Every one knows that strictly speaking most words are almost untranslatable. It is always hard to find an exact equivalent for any word which has much meaning. There are no exact synonyms for such words in their own language and nothing precisely corresponding to them in another. But this difficulty is immensely increased when these words have any subtle aroma any particular charm any delicate sentiment attached to them. Then they become absolutely untranslatable. The very quality which distinguishes them disappears when they are transferred into a different phrase. This makes the desperate nature of the attempt to translate poetry from one language into another for a large part of the charm of poetic language lies in the subtle associations connected with each word. We read Virgil or Horace in the best English translations and wonder how they can ever have been considered such great writers. Their peculiar aroma has evaporated while they were being poured from one receptacle into another. The reverse takes place which was suggested in the parable for the old wine has burst the new bottles and the wine has been spilled.

Hence it happens that foreign words are so often transported bodily from one language into another or left untranslated when quoted for any purpose. Words which cannot be translated from the Latin, Greek, French, German are adopted into English and naturalized. Thus every language is enriched by the best phrases of every other. This no doubt often leads to pedantry conscious or unconscious. Foreign words are used when English ones would do as well or better So we have introduced the German word hand book when we already had a word with precisely the same meaning manual and with a better sound But generally these immigrations from foreign parts enrich our own literature.

Sometimes words are left untranslated because they seem untranslatable. Shakspeare has done this as when the dying Cæsar reproaches Brutus with the words. “And thou, too, Brutus!” Shakspeare has left it in the Latin Et tu, Brute! Then die Cæsar.” There seems something incongruous in putting a Latin and an English clause together in the same line But Shakspeare no doubt found something in the Latin to which no English words not even his own could do justice The English and German Bibles as translations are as nearly perfect as anything can be. I mean as a whole and in their impression on the mind.

There are errors no doubt which ought to be corrected but the simplicity pathos sublimity of the language cannot be surpassed In these great Teutonic tongues strength and tenderness blend as in the original writings Unfortunately the language which was spoken by Jesus and his disciples in Galilee has disappeared There is no gospel extant in the words which were uttered on the lake shore or in Capernaum A few fragments however of that old speech remain in the New Testament certain words so full of tender and heavenly associations that they were left untranslated in the Greek gospels and still remain untranslated in our English Testament Of these I will mention five four of thein uttered by Jesus and one by Mary Magdalene Two of these were expressions of power one was a cry of anguish another was an utterance of ununspeakable tenderness the last of the most ardent faith We read that Jairus the ruler of the synagogue came to Jesus earnestly praying him to come and heal his little daughter who was at the point of death Jesus comes to the house goes into the room with only three of his disciples Peter James and John and the father and mother of the little girl who was twelve years old Having put out those whom he found in the room he called saying Maid arise This is what Luke says who of course was not present Matthew