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“Exquisite classics in simple English prose”: Theory and Practice in the Poets’ Translation Series (1915-1920)

Elizabeth Vandiver

Whitman College

This paper discusses an almost forgotten set of early Modernist translations of classical texts: The Poets’ Translation Series, published in 1915-16 and 1919-20. The paper analyzes the Series’ stated goals and the unstated assumptions about translation theory that those goals imply, and argues that these unassuming little pamphlets delineated and engaged with issues that would become crucial in 20th-century translation. 

In 1915-16, The Egoist Press published six pamphlets under the title The Poets’ Translation Series (hereafter PTS). This first series included Anyte, Sappho, choruses from Iphigenia in Aulis, Leonidas of Tarentum, Ausonius’ ‘Mosella’, and selected Renaissance Italian Latin poets. The series editor was Richard Aldington, with H. D. as, in effect, a second editor (Zilboorg). A second set of translations was delayed when Aldington went on active service, but six more pamphlets finally appeared in 1919-20.

The PTS’s place in the history of 20th-century translation remains understudied. Zilboorg focuses on the role the PTS played in Aldington’s and H.D.’s personal lives and poetic development rather than on the translations as such.  Rohrbach is primarily interested in H.D.’s reception of Sappho; her discussion of the PTS itself is cogent but very brief. The two biographies of Aldington merely note the series’ existence (Doyle; Whelpton). Gregory considers the PTS in her discussion of the importance of translation in H.D.’s own work, but her focus is not on the PTS itself. Even Yao mentions the PTS only in passing. None of these scholars discusses the assumptions and theories about translation that underlie the Series.

This paper examines those assumptions and theories, stated and unstated. Most notably, the announcement for the first PTS series specifically rejects the idea that meticulous scholarship in the source language is necessary or even desirable for a successful translation of poetry. The translators, all poets themselves, “will take no concern with glosses, notes, or any of the apparatus with which learning smothers beauty. They will endeavour to give the words of these Greek and Latin authors as simply and as clearly as may be. . . . [The translations] will form a small collection of unhackneyed poetry, too long buried under the dust of pedantic scholarship” ([Aldington] 1915). In actual fact, the PTS translations were riddled with elementary howlers, as Mackail did not hesitate to point out in his TLS reviews of the series.  The PTS thus raises many of the same issues as Pound’s Cathay and Homage to Sextus Propertius.

An equally important assumption made by the PTS is that form is incidental to poetry. The 1919 announcement of the second series says that its purpose is to provide “an opportunity of reading some of the lesser-known but yet exquisite classics in simple English prose. . . . We are interested in these authors for their poetry and for nothing else” ([Aldington] 1919). Thus, the series assumes that, whatever constitutes the “poetry” of the originals, that essence can be fully rendered in “simple English prose”; and indeed, with the notable exception of H.D.’s choruses from Euripides, almost all of the PTS translations are in prose.

Paradoxically, Aldington insisted that the PTS translations were in fact lexically as well as poetically accurate; he responded with indignation and scorn when lexical and semantic errors in the translations were pointed out to him. Certain that their status as a poets gave them an innate ability to reproduce classical texts “simply and clearly,” Aldington and H. D. consistently claimed that they were following the language of the Greek originals closely and accurately.  In their view, they were rescuing a tradition, not inaugurating a method. While the PTS was in fact pioneering a style of translation that meant even minimal knowledge of the source language was no longer necessary, its creators claimed to be representing that language more fully than any scholar could.

Session/Panel Title

A Century of Translating Poetry

Session/Paper Number


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