Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter, Logos, in the spring of 2002.
As a full-time translator for the New Century Edition, I read and study Swedenborg’s Latin original and then attempt to recreate that Latin in English. In that process, I have come to find that, although both languages have words, phrases, and sentences, the rules and traditions in Latin are very different from the rules and traditions in English. The two languages are not merely different worlds; they are different galaxies.
The theory and practice of how to translate Swedenborg’s Neo-Latin were markedly different a century ago than they are today. The aim then seems to have been to use the portion of the English galaxy that was closest in all possible ways to the Latin galaxy, no matter how far from the center of the English galaxy that was. Now the aim is to go from the heart of the Latin galaxy to the heart of the English galaxy.
The English galaxy is much larger than the Latin galaxy. It has a much vaster vocabulary. All languages borrow from other languages to some extent, but English is extraordinary for its long history of wholesale importation of other languages’ vocabularies. For centuries, Latin held the erudite vocabulary for the world. The vernaculars were comparatively impoverished, especially in terms useful for expressing scientific or philosophical thoughts. Later, when English took on a new role as a scholarly language, it borrowed heavily from Latin to create its academic vocabulary.
Despite all its borrowed wealth, however, at its heart English has always remained an Anglo-Saxon language. Studies have shown that virtually all the most frequently used English words are Anglo-Saxon. The stars at the very heart of the English galaxy remain its short pithy words with “ght,” “th,” and so on, which are alien to the Latin tongue.
When the translators of the past went looking for an English word for concupiscentia, they were able to find one: English had already borrowed it in the form of concupiscence. The same goes for mussitatio/ mussitation, and so on. This substitution method must have seemed like a surefire way to translate faithfully. It certainly is one approach.
As faithful as it may have seemed, however, the Latinate vocabulary introduced a distortion. To take the examples just given, the Latin words concupiscentia and mussitatio are normal and easy for a Latin reader to understand because they are built up from common Latin roots. In English, however, the roots of concupiscence and mussitation are foreign, meaningless syllables. Therefore, an accessible word from the heart of the Latin galaxy became in the English galaxy a star far out on the rim where visitors hardly ever stray. Deep in the heart of the English galaxy are native expressions for these things, like “craving” for concupiscentia, and “mumbling” for mussitatio.
Beyond employing a remote vocabulary in their English translations, the translators of the past also tried to make English obey the rules and laws of Latin grammar and syntax. It is not only inadvisable to render Latin grammar in English, it is impossible. The result is not English. At best it is a hybrid language with no pedigree, difficult for English readers to comprehend.
The New Century Edition aims to translate Swedenborg’s Latin not into Latinate English but into the heart and soul of the English language—into a language faithful to the rules and traditions that are central to English.
For the purpose of illustration, let me quote the brief opening sentence of §39 in Heaven and Hell. The first version below was translated by John Ager, a well-respected translator of a century ago, who used a less Latinate style than other translators of Swedenborg at the time:
“Finally, a certain arcanum respecting the angels of the three heavens, which has not hitherto come into any one’s mind, because degrees have not been understood, may be related.”
Compare this with the current New Century Edition translation by George Dole:
“Lastly, let me disclose a particular secret about the angels of the three heavens that people have not been aware of until now because they have not understood levels.”
In this second rendition, the vocabulary is closer to the heart of English: “secret” rather than “arcanum,” “about” rather than “respecting,” “until now” rather than “hitherto.” In addition, the word order is markedly different. In the first rendition, twenty-two words separate the main subject from its verb; in the second, they are very close. Although there are just as many clauses in each rendition, in the first, the reader’s mind has to hold several pieces of information while awaiting the resolution of the main verb. The second feeds the reader information in a more familiar and English sequence, making it easier and more pleasant to read.
Those who are acquainted with George Dole know that the farther he has traveled in the galaxy of Swedenborg’s Latin, the humbler he has become about his own translations. But in my opinion, his new translation uses the center of the English galaxy more fully than any previous translation of Swedenborg.