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 Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Special Issue on Translation No.5 May, 2016                             Pp.361-364    



Book Review

Translation as Transformation in Victorian Poetry


Author : Annmarie Drury

Title of the Book: Translation as Transformation in Victorian Poetry

Publication Date: 2015

Publisher: United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press

Pages: 160

Reviewers: Wen Jun & Yu Yongqin
Foreign Language Department, Beihang University, Beijing, China


Although the term “Victorian” seems to be associated with repression and social conformity in politics, the Victorian age is quite an era for poetry where many poetic ideals develops significantly and exert far-reaching influences. Why the twentieth century translator William Hichens’ translations of Swahili poems sound comfortably Victorian and he so persistently translates into this particular kind of English, and why the quatrains of Edward FitzGerald appear so frequently and are worthy of quite so much note—two questions point to the persistence of Victorian modes of thought well beyond the period called “Victorian”, and they are what Translation as Transformation in Victorian Poetry aims to address.

Under the general goal of clarifying “our picture of Victorian translators, especially poetic translators, in their time to reveal their pervasive legacy across the twentieth century”(p.4), the specific aims of this book are three-fold. Firstly, it examines the way the expansion of translation whose languages included is not part of the tradition English literature but of its own traditions tests and transforms English poetry. Secondly, it reveals and demonstrates historically specific translation culture by studying the relationship between poetry as a literary form and historical realities of Britain’s imperial undertakings. Lastly, it examines the role of translators as key agents of assimilation and proposes a methodology to interpret poems enacting intercultural negotiations, thereby extending Victorian “transcultural” literary studies.

The book is divided into five chapters (p.17-192) and consists of introduction (p.1-16), epilogue (p.224-226), notes (227-268),bibliography (p.269-287) and index(p.288-293). Chapter one can be considered as a general introduction to Victorian culture of translation. It studies a broad range of periodicals to reveal the essayists thinking about Victorian translation, with the central focus on Dryden, and isolates from some magazines and newspaper writings six characteristics of Victorian thought about translation. Chapter two focuses on Tennyson’s usage and adaptation of Guest’s translation as a kind of domestication, the ambivalent contradiction in the quality of his work and the illustrated editions of Guest’s translation in other form extending the transforming process of the translation identity. Chapter three manifests Browning’s innovation strategies. Chapter four shows the influence of Rubaiyat and FitzGerald’s aesthetic of accident. Chapter five discusses the enduring role of Victorian translation practices with the case of Hichens and his translation of Swahili poems.

John Dryden continually attracts Victorian writers on translation and is both a theorist and practitioner of translation. From certain differences in emphasis between Dryden and Victorian presentations of Dryden, the author illustrates the Victorian perspectives on translation where Dryden scarcely addresses but that Victorians ask over and over.

From massive magazines and newspaper writings, the author identifies six persistent habits of thought in Victorian approaches to the art. The practice of comparative evaluation of translation for better understanding of the original poems, centrality of poetic meter in the Victorian translation debate and its connection with national identity, the habitual conception of translations as cultural emissaries, the metaphor of translators as collectors with discriminating eyes, and translatorly experiments and the emergence of translation informants.

The close examination starts from Guest’ translation and Tennyson’s domestication and adaptation of her translation. Tennyson’s faithfulness of references helps to discover a uniquely conflicted quality in Tennyson’s identity as a poet rather than a translator. Although long interested in Wales and specially attached to it, Tennyson ended up trying to eliminate most of the Wales elements in the translation and contributes to the Englishness process. In this sense, “his appropriation of the Mabinogion was conflicted” (p.80) and “Tennyson’s erasure of Welshness” is “a complex personal and public denial” (p.80), and “a denial of ancient literary achievement” (p.81). Also, the re-creation of the textual elements into a photograph functions as part of the transformation of the Englishness process.

The book shows the reason underlying the Guest’s translation aiming to elevate the Wales culture and Welsh and analyses why Tennyson changes his intention with the time passing by and his inner contradiction. Those invisible histories hidden behind words help readers to understand the formation of translation and poems and also the struggle of translators and poets. Things that exist should have their possibilities, and what the readers can do is to probe the possibilities to better understand the works.

Chapter three mainly focuses on Browning’s innovation effort in terms of translatory experiments, poetry writing and translation. He laments on the poets who resort to ancient culture, claiming the poets aspire to be “a hoary novelty, a fundamentally antiqued genius”(p.101). Browning says that poetry must “become something new” (p.102).

He put his idea into practice in the translation of Greek and his original poetry, especially “With Gerard de Lairesse” from his Parleyings, which shows that English poets must discover new language forms. In his own poems “Caliban Upon Setebos”, “An Epistle”, and “Muleykeh”, he links English poetry to exoteric figures of strong linguistic and cultural differences. Each of the three poems enjoys special “linguistic drama” or “argument distinct from the thematic issues that conventionally dominate its interpretation” (p.15). The eccentricity he adds in syntax, meter and diction, Browning’s usage of pseudo-translation as a vehicle of innovation, and tests in voice, fluidity and hybridity all render Browning’s poems special expressive power, fulfilling his aim to pursue the “strangeness” and “originality” in English.(p.137)

These illustrations focus on the strangeness bearing limited analysis. Browning’s efforts in innovation broaden the view of students, teachers and scholars and provide new perspective in studying new materials from the language, linguistic forms and the intention of the poets and translators.

“The Rubaiyat and its Compass” manifests FitzGerald’s aesthetic of accident and the decisive role of chance,and the transformation of the Rubaiyat from Persian to Englishness. It mentions the long-neglected legacy of Rubaiyat in America and the influence of the parodies in the Rubaiyat. The author analyzes the Rubaiyat  sentence by sentence and stanza by stanza to prove FitzGerald’s aesthetic of accident.

Beyond the stanza form, the Rubaiyat stimulates the development of a poetics of disguise in the late Victorian poetry, which refers to “poet’s creation of a lyric voice that his or her poem imputes to a source outside the poet’s self.” (p.169)The American parodies of theRubaiyafurther disseminating and recreatingFitzGerald’s poems and help to recreate the American identity.

The popularity of Rubaiyatserves in America as a tool for creating American identity and the American parodists’ gesture of materialization of images, the domesticating and concretizing should be considered as a shift from Victorian translation practice to the modern translation.

Chapter five uses the case study of Hichens and his translation of Swahili poems to manifest the enduring effect of Victorian translation practice. It illustrates the method he uses to render his translation sound Victorian, and many drafts and unpublished papers indicate that he regarded the Victorianizing as “a deliberate strategy for domesticating, legitimizing and idealizing Swahili literature for English-speaking audience”.The chapter also mentions the importance of meter and Hichens’ role as collector-translator, and the key informant of Hichens.

The most distinctive characteristic of the book is the detailed analysis of abundant translation examples and their original texts. By examining the linguistic form and its underlying factors at social, economic, historical and individual levels, the author presents a meticulous, detailed and standard approach to the study of poems and translation. Through discussion of the translation, readers are able to learn the way to analyze the poem from different perspectives.

While construing the original materials, she introduces a multiplicity of different opinions and many prevailing beliefs at that time, thus enriching the book considerably in terms of depth and breadth. She also takes the liberty to disagree with some of the views and entertain her own opinions, which afford much food for thought to readers.

In addition, the book presents an impressive citation of poems and Victorian translations for further reference and study in the discussions, displaying the broad range of knowledge and erudition of the author.

However, the language and complexity of content in the book are difficult for beginners who hope to learn about translation in Victorian poetry. Although ordinary readers may, sometimes, get distracted in the deluge of citations of poems, poets, translators and their works, those who are familiar with Victorian poems and poets will find the book quite a thought-provoking reading.

Overall, Translation as Transformation in Victorian Poetry is a great introduction to the translation of Victorian poetry and its influences beyond its historical periodicalization. With fresh and abundant materials, the book investigates the mutual impact of poetic and translation cultures in Victorian Britain and serves, in a broader sense, as a telling proof of why the Victorian translation is world literature.



ShaoBin & Zhu Anbo, The Argument about the Translation of Rubaiyat, Journal of Beijing Second Foreign Studies Universy, 2009(06),55-56

Reviewed by: Wen Jun & Yu Yongqin
Foreign Language Department, Beihang University, Beijing, China