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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: May 2006

14 - Aphra Behn’s French translations


In the mid 1680s, Aphra Behn started translating from French into English at speed. She had been to France early in 1683 on a trip which, although undocumented, appears to have allowed her to perfect her knowledge of French. In the seventeenth century, the translation of the classics was recognized as a prestigious activity, but this was not the case with the translation of contemporary authors. Almost all theoretical texts about translation were specifically concerned with Latin and Greek, as for instance Cowley's short preface to his Pindarique Odes (1656), where he gave a particularly felicitous expression to the seventeenth-century paradigm contrasting literal, or 'servile', translation, and free (or 'libertine' as he has it) translation. In his influential preface to Ovid's Epistles (1680), Dryden replaced this dichotomy with a ternary model, famously setting forth the three ways open to a translator as 'metaphrase' or word-for-word translation, 'paraphrase', or translation 'with a latitude', and finally 'imitation', in which the translator 'assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion'. It is most likely Behn was familiar with this text, as she herself, while claiming she could not read Latin, contributed an Ovidian translation to the collective volume. However, as Elizabeth Spearing writes, 'consideration of late seventeenth-century theories of translation in relation to the works of Aphra Behn is of limited usefulness', as she dealt with mostly unchartered territory by translating very contemporary authors from the vernacular. This allowed her to make the original texts her own in a variety of ways, and, as will be apparent, she utilizes the whole range of strategies Dryden had outlined - which calls into question his neat categories and forces us to revise the status of translation in the seventeenth century.

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The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn
  • Online ISBN: 9780511999192
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