Which Translation?: Identifying the True Source of Patten Wilson’s Shahnameh Illustrations
Recent scholarship has stressed the influence of translation on late nineteenth-century literary and artistic developments (indeed, ‘Decadence and Translation’ was the theme of a Volupté special issue in 2020). Focusing on the British context, Annmarie Drury describes how English poetry at this time was ‘profoundly pervious, susceptible to historical-cultural currents arising from the territorial expansion and imperialist tensions that Britain experienced at the time’. Translators, in her phrase, ‘ministered to this susceptibility’, mediating foreign genres and prosodic forms that by their assimilation into anglophone literary culture both ‘tested’ and ‘transformed’ English poetry. Given the importance of translators at this time, and the potential ramifications of their decisions and methods in translation, an obvious question to ask when trying to gauge the reception of a single work of foreign literature by one individual British writer or artist is, ‘which translation were they using?’ Take the poetry of Sappho: until relatively recently, most translators of her ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ gendered the speaker’s beloved as male. But as early as 1835, the philologist Theodor Bergk proposed the opposite – a distinction of perhaps major significance for a contemporary reader into whose hands his translation happened to fall. Similarly, any scholar investigating a fin-de-siècle dramatist who was influenced by Ibsen is likely to consider which of the various English translations then available he or she consulted, and if both, then which was preferred. The subtle differences between Gosse’s and Archer’s versions are even the subject of a comic misunderstanding in J. M. Barrie’s 1891 farce, Ibsen’s Ghost, when it emerges that two characters in dialogue have been speaking their lines from variant play texts. If translational variants were conspicuous enough to be a subject for popular humour in the 1890s, then for us in the present they must be an object of serious enquiry.