A Hero of Translation

Jean Findlay
C.K. Scott Moncrieff (in spectacles), who was wounded in World War I, at the Ducane Road specialist leg hospital, London, 1917

In July 1903, when he was thirteen, Charles Scott Moncrieff took the entrance exams for Winchester, traditionally the most scholarly of the English public schools. One of the things he was asked to do during the three days of the examination was to translate the following eight lines from the fifteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Omnia mutantur, nihil interit: errat et illinc
huc venit, hinc illuc, et quoslibet occupat artus
spiritus eque feris humana in corpora transit
inque feras noster, nec tempore deperit ullo,
utque novis facilis signatur cera figuris
nec manet ut fuerat nec forma servat eandem,
sed tamen ipsa eadem est, animam sic semper eandem
esse, sed in varias doceo migrare figuras.

His remarkably beautiful rendition of these verses, which his proud mother later copied into her diary, reads:

Everything is changed but nothing perishes. The spirit wanders, going hence, thither, coming thence, hither and takes possession of any limbs it pleases. With equal ease it goes from beasts into human bodies and from us into beasts, nor in any length of time does it fail. And as wax is easily moulded in new shapes, nor remains as it had been before, nor keeps the same form, but yet is itself the same; so do I teach that the soul is ever the same, but migrates into different shapes.

Only a boy extraordinarily sensitive to the rhythms of language, who had not only remembered but responded to English poetry and the syntactical splendors of the King James Bible, could have composed this passage. Not surprisingly, Scott Moncrieff’s translations from Latin and Greek in the examination that year were awarded higher scores than anyone else’s, for it turns out that the astutely ingenious, poetic use of language for which he is celebrated in his great translation of Proust was his from an early age.

Although Jean Findlay writes that in the years after World War I “translation in Britain did not occupy a significant place in literary culture,” a number of important translations were in fact made during the reign of George V by people like Arthur Waley, Constance Garnett, H.T. Lowe-Porter, and Ezra Pound, as well as Scott Moncrieff. Whether or not translations were adequately recognized in the literary world, what is important to remember is that schoolboys of Scott Moncrieff’s public school world spent a very great part of their days memorizing and translating.

Shortly after World War II, before beginning college, I spent a year studying at Shrewsbury School in Shropshire, where the noble tradition of literae humaniores, by now much etiolated in most such schools, was in its final flourishing. We spent most of our time in class translating from Greek or Latin, and…

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