Department of English

Professor James D. Garrison publishes "A Dangerous Liberty: Translating Gray's Elegy"

Mon, August 24, 2009


About A Dangerous Liberty: Translating Gray's Elegy 

Thomas Gray's An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard enjoyed extraordinary popular success in Europe, where it was widely translated, imitated, adapted, and in various ways assimilated into the continental literatures. The history of the Elegy's circulation on the continent demonstrates the importance of the poem to the romantic generation of European poets, while appreciation of this history serves to illuminate modern critical approaches to the poem's often uncertain or ambiguous meaning.

Attracting the attention of major writers across the continent from Chateaubriand in France to Zhukovsky in Russia, the Elegy evoked a range of responses evident in the variable forms the translations take, in the different ways they sort out the difficulties of Gray's English, and in the distinctive interpretations they lend to the poem. The sheer number of translations, which peaked in the period right after the French revolution, resulted in the publication of polyglot anthologies of the Elegy later in the nineteenth century, and in the early twentieth fostered--especially in France and Italy--sustained scholarly assessment of Gray's place in European literary history. The large number of translations into French and Italian, on which such scholarly assessment is based, announce a wide variety of approaches to the poem's meaning, and this variety of interpretations is confirmed by translations into other European languages. These translations are remarkable, moreover, for the ways in which they anticipate the broad outlines of later critical debate over the poem's meaning in Britain and the United States. Translations into German, Russian, and Spanish illustrate different thematic dimensions of the Elegy--personal, religious, political--even as their authors struggle with the interpretive uncertainties that have attended the poem since it was first published in 1751. As these translators enounter ambivalent sytax, diction, or reference in the poem, they are compelled to make interpretive choices that reveal the different possibilites of individual passages; taken together, their versions disclose the dominant ways in which uncertainties have been addressed, or, as is sometimes the case, obscured or evaded.

Often said to be "the most popular poem in English," Gray's Elegy has been read, recited, and memorized by generations of students and general readers. Taken as an avenue for discovering how the poem has been appreciated outside of the English-speaking world, the European translations afford opportunities to read the Elegy with fresh eyes, to revisit famous lines and phrases--as well as critical conundrums--and to find there something new and often unexpected.

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