These are no unknown or insignificant personages, but the greatest lords and princes of the Church. They loved and admired and protected Rabelais, and put no restrictions in his way. Why should we be more fastidious and severe than they were? Their high contemporary appreciation gives much food for thought. There are few translations of Rabelais in foreign tongues; and certainly the task is no light one, and demands more than a familiarity with ordinary French. It would have been easier in Italy than anywhere else. Italian, from its flexibility and its analogy to French, would have lent itself admirably to the purpose; the instrument was ready, but the hand was not forthcoming.
Neither is there any Spanish translation, a fact which can be more easily understood.
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The Inquisition would have been a far more serious opponent than the Paris' Sorbonne, and no one ventured on the experiment. Yet Rabelais forces comparison with Cervantes, whose precursor he was in reality, though the two books and the two minds are very different. They have only one point in common, their attack and ridicule of the romances of chivalry and of the wildly improbable adventures of knight-errants. But in Don Quixote there is not a single detail which would suggest that Cervantes knew Rabelais' book or owed anything to it whatsoever, even the starting-point of his subject.
Perhaps it was better he should not have been influenced by him, in however slight a degree; his originality is the more intact and the more genial. On the other hand, Rabelais has been several times translated into German.
In the present century Regis published at Leipsic, from to , with copious notes, a close and faithful translation. The first one cannot be so described, that of Johann Fischart, a native of Mainz or Strasburg, who died in He was a Protestant controversialist, and a satirist of fantastic and abundant imagination. In appeared his translation of Rabelais' first book, and in he published the comic catalogue of the library of Saint Victor, borrowed from the second book. It is not a translation, but a recast in the boldest style, full of alterations and of exaggerations, both as regards the coarse expressions which he took upon himself to develop and to add to, and in the attacks on the Roman Catholic Church.
According to Jean Paul Richter, Fischart is much superior to Rabelais in style and in the fruitfulness of his ideas, and his equal in erudition and in the invention of new expressions after the manner of Aristophanes. He is sure that his work was successful, because it was often reprinted during his lifetime; but this enthusiasm of Jean Paul would hardly carry conviction in France. Who treads in another's footprints must follow in the rear. Instead of a creator, he is but an imitator.
Those who take the ideas of others to modify them, and make of them creations of their own, like Shakespeare in England, Moliere and La Fontaine in France, may be superior to those who have served them with suggestions; but then the new works must be altogether different, must exist by themselves. Shakespeare and the others, when they imitated, may be said always to have destroyed their models. These copyists, if we call them so, created such works of genius that the only pity is they are so rare.
This is not the case with Fischart, but it would be none the less curious were some one thoroughly familiar with German to translate Fischart for us, or at least, by long extracts from him, give an idea of the vagaries of German taste when it thought it could do better than Rabelais. It is dangerous to tamper with so great a work, and he who does so runs a great risk of burning his fingers.
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England has been less daring, and her modesty and discretion have brought her success. But, before speaking of Urquhart's translation, it is but right to mention the English-French Dictionary of Randle Cotgrave, the first edition of which dates from It is in every way exceedingly valuable, and superior to that of Nicot, because instead of keeping to the plane of classic and Latin French, it showed an acquaintance with and mastery of the popular tongue as well as of the written and learned language.
As a foreigner, Cotgrave is a little behind in his information. He is not aware of all the changes and novelties of the passing fashion. The Pleiad School he evidently knew nothing of, but kept to the writers of the fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth century. Thus words out of Rabelais, which he always translates with admirable skill, are frequent, and he attaches to them their author's name.
So Rabelais had already crossed the Channel, and was read in his own tongue. Somewhat later, during the full sway of the Commonwealth—and Maitre Alcofribas Nasier must have been a surprising apparition in the midst of Puritan severity—Captain Urquhart undertook to translate him and to naturalize him completely in England. Thomas Urquhart belonged to a very old family of good standing in the North of Scotland. After studying in Aberdeen he travelled in France, Spain, and Italy, where his sword was as active as that intelligent curiosity of his which is evidenced by his familiarity with three languages and the large library which he brought back, according to his own account, from sixteen countries he had visited.
On his return to England he entered the service of Charles I. Next year, after the death of his father, he went to Scotland to set his family affairs in order, and to redeem his house in Cromarty. But, in spite of another sojourn in foreign lands, his efforts to free himself from pecuniary embarrassments were unavailing.
At the king's death his Scottish loyalty caused him to side with those who opposed the Parliament. Formally proscribed in , taken prisoner at the defeat of Worcester in , stripped of all his belongings, he was brought to London, but was released on parole at Cromwell's recommendation. After receiving permission to spend five months in Scotland to try once more to settle his affairs, he came back to London to escape from his creditors. And there he must have died, though the date of his death is unknown.
It probably took place after , the date of the publication of the two first books, and after having written the translation of the third, which was not printed from his manuscript till the end of the seventeenth century. His life was therefore not without its troubles, and literary activity must have been almost his only consolation. His writings reveal him as the strangest character, fantastic, and full of a naive vanity, which, even at the time he was translating the genealogy of Gargantua—surely well calculated to cure any pondering on his own—caused him to trace his unbroken descent from Adam, and to state that his family name was derived from his ancestor Esormon, Prince of Achaia, B.
A Gascon could not have surpassed this. Gifted as he was, learned in many directions, an enthusiastic mathematician, master of several languages, occasionally full of wit and humour, and even good sense, yet he gave his books the strangest titles, and his ideas were no less whimsical. His style is mystic, fastidious, and too often of a wearisome length and obscurity; his verses rhyme anyhow, or not at all; but vivacity, force and heat are never lacking, and the Maitland Club did well in reprinting, in , his various works, which are very rare.
Yet, in spite of their curious interest, he owes his real distinction and the survival of his name to his translation of Rabelais. The first two books appeared in The original edition, exceedingly scarce, was carefully reprinted in , only a hundred copies being issued, by an English bibliophile T heodore M artin , whose interesting preface I regret to sum up so cursorily. At the end of the seventeenth century, in , a French refugee, Peter Antony Motteux, whose English verses and whose plays are not without value, published in a little octavo volume a reprint, very incorrect as to the text, of the first two books, to which he added the third, from the manuscript found amongst Urquhart's papers.
The success which attended this venture suggested to Motteux the idea of completing the work, and a second edition, in two volumes, appeared in , with the translation of the fourth and fifth books, and notes. Nineteen years after his death, John Ozell, translator on a large scale of French, Italian, and Spanish authors, revised Motteux's edition, which he published in five volumes in , adding Le Duchat's notes; and this version has often been reprinted since.
The continuation by Motteux, who was also the translator of Don Quixote, has merits of its own. It is precise, elegant, and very faithful. Urquhart's, without taking liberties with Rabelais like Fischart, is not always so closely literal and exact. Nevertheless, it is much superior to Motteux's. If Urquhart does not constantly adhere to the form of the expression, if he makes a few slight additions, not only has he an understanding of the original, but he feels it, and renders the sense with a force and a vivacity full of warmth and brilliancy.
His own learning made the comprehension of the work easy to him, and his anglicization of words fabricated by Rabelais is particularly successful.
The necessity of keeping to his text prevented his indulgence in the convolutions and divagations dictated by his exuberant fancy when writing on his own account. His style, always full of life and vigour, is here balanced, lucid, and picturesque. Never elsewhere did he write so well.
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And thus the translation reproduces the very accent of the original, besides possessing a very remarkable character of its own. Such a literary tone and such literary qualities are rarely found in a translation. Urquhart's, very useful for the interpretation of obscure passages, may, and indeed should be read as a whole, both for Rabelais and for its own merits. Holland, too, possesses a translation of Rabelais. They knew French in that country in the seventeenth century better than they do to-day, and there Rabelais' works were reprinted when no editions were appearing in France.
This Dutch translation was published at Amsterdam in , by J. Only a Dutch scholar could identify the translator, and state the value to be assigned to his work. Rabelais' style has many different sources. Besides its force and brilliancy, its gaiety, wit, and dignity, its abundant richness is no less remarkable. It would be impossible and useless to compile a glossary of Voltaire's words. No French writer has used so few, and all of them are of the simplest. There is not one of them that is not part of the common speech, or which demands a note or an explanation.
Rabelais' vocabulary, on the other hand, is of an astonishing variety. Where does it all come from? As a fact, he had at his command something like three languages, which he used in turn, or which he mixed according to the effect he wished to produce.