Translating Translations

The story goes that Thomas Osborne, an English bookseller of the 18th century, found a lyric poem in French. It made such an impression on him that he commissioned a translation of it into English.

But there was a catch. Osborne did not realize that he was translating a translation. The lyric poem was Milton's Paradise Lost.

On first impression this story is an insult to Osborne's thoroughness. How would an English bookseller not know a translation of a premiere English work? Remove the layer of ridicule, however, and interesting parallels start to form.

How many times do we translate a translation without realizing it? This anecdote of Osborne was taken from Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness. Who knows where Basbanes got the story from and who that person got the story from. Not a translation from a different language but a translation from a different context.

Transmission across contexts over time is important. It allows an idea to propagate. I probably would have been ignorant of Osborne if it were not for Basbanes' telling. On the other hand, transmission can allow a story to morph into chimerical proportions. This Osborne anecdote is described by Basbanes as an “undocumented piece of gossip.” What we are left with is something that tows the line between apocryphal and truth.

But here is where translations of a translation are useful. They allow us to focus on aspects of a story without focusing on a story's validity. Sure, the Osborne story could be gossip, but it has acted as a fulcrum for exploring other ideas. * * And if the story were true, I am all the more curious to see Osborne's commissioned translation next to Milton's original. Who knows what similarities and differences would be uncovered? That is what we do when we write on the web. Everything we find interesting should be translated into our own context through our writing. Because who knows what service we bring to others by transmitting these ideas. They might not find that author or that concept otherwise.

I cannot help but think of a scenario where a person, not knowing Paradise Lost or Milton, comes across Osborne's translation first. Sounds a bit like navigating the web.