In its happiest efforts, translation is but approximation; and its efforts are not often happy. A translation may be good as translation, but it cannot be an adequate reproduction of the original. It may be a good poem; it may be a good imitation of another poem; it may be better than the original; but it cannot be an adequate reproduction; it cannot be the same thing in another language, producing the same effect on the mind. And the cause lies deep in the nature of poetry. “Melody,” as Beethoven said to Bettina, “gives a sensuous existence to poetry; for does not the meaning of a poem become embodied in melody?” The meanings of a poem and the meanings of the individual words may be produced; but in a poem meaning and form are as indissoluble as soul and body; and the form cannot be reproduced. The effect of poetry is a compound of music and suggestion; this music and this suggestion are intermingled in words, to alter which is to alter the effect. For words in poetry are not, as in prose, simple representatives of objects and ideas: they are parts of an organic whole — they are tones in the harmony; substitute other parts, and the result is a monstrosity, as if an arm were substituted for a wing; substitute other tones or semitones, and you produce a discord. Words have their music and their shades of meaning too delicate for accurate reproduction in any other form; the suggestiveness of one word cannot be conveyed by another. Now all translation is of necessity a substitution of one word for another: the substitute may express the meaning, but it cannot accurately reproduce the music, nor those precise shades of suggestiveness on which the delicacy and beauty of the original depend. Words are not only symbols of objects, but centres of associations; and their suggestiveness depends partly on their sound.
(George Henry Lewes, The Life and Works of Goethe. London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1908, p. 483).
To civilize meant at one time to wean a savage people from their rudeness. Dr. Johnson would not admit the word “civilization” into his dictionary, though Boswell “with great deference” thought it “better in the sense opposed to ‘barbarity’ than ‘civility.'” Two days earlier, after a discussion on Lord Monboddo’s opinions on the superiority of the savage life, the word “civilities” is used repeatedly by Boswell in the sense of “courtesies.” lf civility were indeed all, there has been but little civilizing among us since Johnson’s time. At one end of the social scale, the respectful salute of the laboring peasant is the exception and not the rule, probably for the logical reason that his respect for “the quality” has diminished. At the other end, what civilities have not vanished? Deportment as a fine art dropped out with the use of the snuff-box and of the subjunctive mood. But the word “civility” was defined by Johnson as freedom from barbarity; and he was justified in refusing “civilization” because it is not to be found in the works which he cited. Johnson’s conservatism and Boswell’s liberalism justified each in his own opinion. The need for the expression “civilization” was in the balance on March 23, 1772. and Boswell was probably right in judging that the time had come for adopting it. Differentiation between civility and civilization was needed when people realized that they could have material progress without an associated intellectual advance; something accomplished, something done, without any corresponding development of mind, morals or manners. The battue, the rubber-cored golf-ball, the halfpenny newspaper and a University degree in Engineering serve as samples of civilization in this sense.
(Alexander Pelham Trotter, “The Tide of Civilization,” The Living Age, Vol. CCXXXVIII, 1903, pp. 379–380).
Form without a foundation, style without thought — what a poor thing it is! […] The value of the style is exactly equal to the value of the thought. That is the central truth.
Errors of judgment occur in this matter because people believe that there is no style where there is no “poetic style.” They make an exception in favor of Pascal only to count up his antitheses and range them on glazed paper like precious stones. But that is only the shadow of Montaigne. The true Pascal radiates such a light that antitheses are drowned in it and become invisible…
If nothing lives in literature except by its style, that is because works well thought out are invariably well written. But the converse is not true. Style alone is nothing. It will even happen — for in aesthetics as in love all things are possible — that style which makes certain works live for a time, will cause others to perish prematurely. Cymodocea died smothered under her too rich and heavy robe.
The sign of the man in any intellectual work is the thought. The thought is the man. And style and thought are one.
(Remy de Gourmont; quoted in Ludwig Lewisohn, A Modern Book of Criticism. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919, pp. 36–37).
The dying out of religious practices from the life of the people tends more than anything else to the impoverishment of their speech. For the last three hundred years spoken English has been filled with Biblical allusions, and if the Bible ceases to be read in the schools we must expect these to die out, as the proverbs of the saints died out after the Reformation.
(“The Whitewashing of English,” The Living Age, Vol. CCLII, 1907, p. 186).
Lest I should forget to mention it, I put down here a rebuke which, later in his life, Sir Walter once gave in my hearing to his daughter Anne. She happened to say of something, I forget what, that she could not abide it — it was vulgar. “My love,” said her father, “you speak like a very young lady; do you know, after all, the meaning of this word vulgar?” “‘Tis only common; nothing that is common, except wickedness, can deserve to be spoken of in a tone of contempt; and when you have lived to my years, you will be disposed to agree with me in thanking God that nothing really worth having or caring about in this world is uncommon.”
(John Gibson Lockhart, The Life of Sir Walter Scott, Vol. 8. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, 1902, p. 26).
A friend of mine once passed through a very poor neighbourhood, and saw a man issue from a four-roomed house with a roll of some material under his arm. He was stayed by his wife, who endeavoured by many arguments to dissuade him from pawning what articles he had taken away. After an angry, tumultuous dialogue, he broke from her, and turned to the crowd which had of course assembled. “What I want to know,” he exclaimed, “is this. Is a man a king in his own castle, or is he an antediluvian?” For some years, at intervals, I have tried to discover what this word meant, but in vain. It has remained as secret as a hieroglyph, and undecipherable.
(Morley Roberts, “Agitators and Demaguogues,” Murray’s Magazine, Vol. VII, 1890, p. 676).
The fact is that a knowledge of grammar and an ability to make a word for word translation are not in themselves sufficient to enable a person to enter into the spirit of a language or to assimilate the thoughts of the people who read and write it. One might even go further and say that the more a translation is scrupulously literal the less likely it is to be faithful or to reveal the true nature of the original thought, because the correspondence between terms of expression belonging to two different languages is far from exact.
(René Guénon, Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines. London: Luzac & Co., 1945, p. 18).