How Wise Was Montaigne?

Michel de Montaigne: The Essays

translated and edited by M.A. Screech
Penguin/Allen Lane, 1,283 pp., $60.00

Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the 'Essays'

by M.A. Screech
Penguin, 194 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne; drawing by David Levine

Dr. Screech has done us a great service by producing a meticulous translation of the Essays in plain, contemporary English, and with no avoidance of those frank or obscene terms that Montaigne was not afraid of using. Of course, a twentieth-century translator cannot, in the nature of things, reproduce the quaint period flavor which gives such charm to the original English version of 1603 by Florio, but Florio was not always accurate, and it was inevitable that his work would be supplemented by subsequent translators. In 1685, Charles Cotton produced a version which shared the field with Florio’s up to the end of the nineteenth century, both of them benefiting perhaps from the assumption that their archaic style gave them a sort of authenticity.

But since the turn of this century, there have been three or four new translations, either partial or complete, the most remarkable being that of Donald Frame (1957). It is so thorough and scholarly that one might have thought it would discourage other attempts for a very long time to come. Dr. Screech does not explain why he considered it necessary to undertake the immense labor once again (he makes no mention of the previous versions), but he has some features which make his translation seem closer to present-day taste than Donald Frame’s, even though the latter is only thirty-five years old.

Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style, as can be seen from the following characteristic sentence, in which Montaigne is criticizing Cicero and Pliny the Younger:

But this surpasses all baseness of heart in persons of such rank: to have wanted to derive some great glory from mere babble and talk, to the point of publishing their private letters written to their friends; and even though some of these failed to be sent, they were published nonetheless, with this worthy excuse, that the writers did not want to lose their labor and their vigils.

Screech’s version is racier and more immediately intelligible:

But what surpasses all vulgarity of mind in people of such rank is to have sought to extract some major glory from chatter and verbiage, using to that end even private letters written to their friends; when some of their letters could not be sent as the occasion for them had lapsed, they published them all the same, with the worthy excuse that they did not want to waste their long nights of toil!

Screech’s treatment of the scores of Latin and other quotations, with which the text is studded, also seems preferable. Whereas Frame identifies them only by the names of their authors, and runs them, as it were, into the body of the text by translating them into English and, in the case of poetry, into a uniform kind of English verse, Screech gives the original as…

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