TRANSLATION AS TRANSFORMATION IN VICTORIAN POETRY by Annmarie Drury, Reviewed by Jason Rudy
 

TRANSLATION AS TRANSFORMATION IN VICTORIAN POETRY
By Annmarie Drury
(Cambridge, 2015) viii + 293 pp.
Reviewed by Jason Rudy on 2016-09-10.

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This book captures some of the many reasons why it's an exciting time to be a scholar of the British nineteenth century. Drury tackles the question of translation with methodological flexibility and a broad historical context. For Drury, translation opens Victorian poetry to the greater world. In the nineteenth century, she writes, "English poetry was profoundly pervious, susceptible to historical-cultural currents arising from... territorial expansion and imperialist tensions" (6). To read Victorian poetry from the perspective of translation, then, is to see "world literature in formation" (226).

Examining a range of translation strategies across the British nineteenth century, Drury shows that they entailed far more than dutifully changing one language into another. She considers, for example, how Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1859-1885) transforms the Welsh Mabinogion, which Charlotte Guest had translated into English prose between 1838 and 1845. Tennyson found inspiration in the Welsh "language, landscape, and culture" (70); he traveled to Wales, learned some of its language, and read Guest's translation with enthusiasm. But according to Drury, Tennyson's use of the Mabinogion as source material was "conflicted" (85), ultimately reflecting England's conflicted relationship with Wales. In the Idylls, then, and specifically in the sections titled "The Marriage of Geraint" and "Geraint and Enid," translation means roughly adaptation, the transformation of Welsh source material into English legend.

Drury offers a different framework for Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (first edition, 1859), which she finds a "loose rendering" (154) of the original. Rather than turning Khayyám literally into English, Drury contends, Fitzgerald aims to preserve "the basic import of the original while at the same time generating a novel stance for his speaker" (149). FitzGerald's Rubáiyát is more Persian than Tennyson's Idylls are Welsh, but neither faithfully replicates the original for English readers.

The meaning of translation becomes even more flexible in Drury's account of Robert Browning's "Caliban Upon Setebos," a dramatic monologue from the collection Dramatis Personae (1864). Treating the poem as a "pseudotranslation," a term commonly used in translation studies, Drury examines Browning's manuscript drafts to show how he invents Caliban's "strange language" by experimenting with syntax, diction, and punctuation (110). In effect, Drury argues, Browning "[taught] himself to hear" Caliban's new language so that he could eventually sound the consistent "voice" of the published poem (125, 122): a voice Browning thought distinct from that of Shakespeare's character. Drury's pages on Caliban showcase some of the most insightful close reading I've seen, for both the originality of its analysis and its support of a larger argument about "the clumsy, hard work of assembling a new language" (126). Drury is especially shrewd in distinguishing between Browning's "authorial-poet voice" and his "Caliban-voice" (115): while strict iambic pentameter, relaxed syntax, and elevated diction signal the former, inconsistent rhythm and peculiar syntax point to the latter. On the other hand, when Browning literally translated Aeschylus's Agamemnon (published in 1877), the result struck his contemporary readers as awful because too literal: proof, Drury argues, that Browning thought Greek "an inadequate model for English poetry" (135). Instead, she contends, he worked to stretch English itself, to make it "flexible and pervious" by innovatively using "diction, syntax, and meter" (141).

If Tennyson, FitzGerald, and Browning represent the canonical core of Drury's study (and indeed, the lion's share of its argumentative territory), its outer reaches include Michael Field, who was inspired by FitzGerald's Rubáiyát, and William Hichens, who translated Swahili poetry into English in the early twentieth century. For Drury, Hichens exemplifies the aftermath of Victorian translation, when "Victorianizing" became in the twentieth century "a deliberate strategy for domesticating, legitimizing, and idealizing" the foreign into the English (201). Through Hichens, Drury argues, Sayyid Abdalla Ali bin Nasir's early nineteenth-century poem Al-Inkishafi (which she impressively reads both in the original and in translation) becomes an English poem with aesthetic roots in the Victorian era. Like Tennyson's adaptation of the Mabinogion, Hichens's translation of Al-Inkishafi "admit[s] alterity to its atlas," but through a limiting, homogenizing framework (223). Though Hichens's work falls outside both the Victorian era and the British poetic mainstream, Drury makes a persuasive case for its relevance to the role of translation in Victorian poetry. Hichens's way of Englishing Swahili not only shows "an unacknowledged persistence of Victorian practices within poetic translation in the twentieth century" (193); it also clarifies the formal practices that had, by the early twentieth century, come to constitute Victorian poetic translation.

Besides shedding light on specific translation practices, Drury adds her voice to an already rich conversation about the place of English within a broader global literary marketplace. For example, Saree Makdisi's Making England Western: Occidentalism, Race and Imperial Culture (Chicago 2014) shows how "Englishness" developed through engagements with the world outside Great Britain, and Aamir R. Mufti's Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures (Harvard 2016) critiques the emergence of English as a universalizing language. To some degree Drury's project is narrower, since she chiefly highlights a handful of British poems, but her various analyses augment Makdisi and Mufti in important ways. However much they aimed to domesticate foreign elements, Drury argues, the Victorian poets she considers respected difference in their translations and adaptations. They seem to have asked themselves not whether the exotic had a place in British poetry, but to what degree it should be incorporated, and how (225).

Looking ahead to that last question, Drury initially locates her work at the point "where translation studies and historical poetics intersect" (3), which is why she treats prosody as historically contingent. In other words, rather than reverting to ahistorical, New Critical formalism, she makes poetic form converse with historical and cultural developments, reading prosody as a vibrant marker of national identity. Here Drury's book takes its place with Meredith Martin's The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930 (Princeton 2012), reviewed elsewhere on this site, and Mary Ellis Gibson's Indian Angles: English Verse in Colonial India from Jones to Tagore (Ohio University 2011), both of which read poetry as central to nineteenth-century cultural identification in England and India respectively. For Drury as for Martin and Gibson, poetic form suggests a complex and generative range of cultural implications.

What Drury adds to this already rich conversation about culture, history, and poetic form is the concept of translation. In translated poetry, she argues, "[p]roblems of prosody always connect to problems of ontology" (24). Grasping the nuances of poetic form, that is, means facing questions of historical origin, development, and transmission. More than that, Drury argues, a simple "opposition of exotic and domestic -- of 'foreignizing' versus 'domesticating'" ultimately generates a misleading dichotomy: far more nuance might, and should, be located in between (190). Drury thus makes an important contribution to our emerging understanding of historical poetics. I hope other scholars consider her methods and continue the work of making Victorian poetry a more complex and world-conscious field of study.

Jason Rudy is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park.


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