Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books:
Do contemporary approaches to translation tell us something about our times?
Samuel Johnson was the first to offer a brief history of attitudes to translation, observing how some periods produce many translations, others very few, and how each period tends to privilege different criteria when translating. He notes that the Greeks did not translate texts from the Egyptians, that eminent Romans tended to learn Greek and experience it directly rather than make or read Latin versions, that “the Arabs were the first nation who felt the ardour of translation,” when they conquered parts of the Greek empire and sought to acquire their new subjects’ knowledge for themselves.
Moving to modern times, Johnson analyzed different approaches before and after the Restoration in 1660. The writers before the Restoration, he decided, “had at least learning equal to their genius”; when tackling classical texts, if they couldn’t “exhibit their graces and transfuse their spirit,” they made up for it by translating a great deal, and they “translated literally, that their fidelity might shelter their insipidity or harshness.” The wits of the Restoration, on the other hand, Johnson claims, having “seldom more than slight and superficial views,” hid “their want of learning behind the colours of a gay imagination” hoping “that their readers should accept sprightliness for knowledge, and consider ignorance and mistake as the impatience and negligence of a mind too rapid to stop at difficulties, and too elevated to descend to minuteness.”
From the Romantic period onward, such observations on how other times and cultures have translated became commonplace, with both English and German critics remarking on how remorselessly the French reduced any foreign text, however idiosyncratic, to their own way of writing.