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III. Entre allographie et auctorialité

Harington’s Preface to Orlando Furioso (Englished) and its echoes in recent translators’ prefaces

Chantal Schütz
p. 133-144


Partant de la préface écrite par Sir John Harington pour sa traduction en anglais du Roland Furieux de l’Arioste, parue en 1591, on examine ici les résonances qu’a pu trouver ce travail fondateur dans les préfaces de traductions plus récentes. L’analyse rappelle d’abord en quoi le traducteur a utilisé le paratexte et la préface de son édition pour se construire en tant que co-auteur plutôt qu’en traducteur. Puis est évoquée la manière dont Barbara Reynolds et David Slavitt, auteurs de traductions en vers relativement récentes, se servent de leur éloge appuyé de la traduction de Harington pour légitimer leur propre démarche, se positionnant par la même occasion à contre-courant de la tendance actuelle à la discréditation de cette traduction par la recherche universitaire.

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  • 1 All quotations from the preface are taken from Gregory Smith’s 1904 collection of Elizabethan essay (...)
  • 2 For instance, Spenser’s avowed aim to outdo Ariosto is mentioned in a 1580 letter by his friend Gab (...)

1“I would wish to be called rather one of the not worst translators than one of the meaner makers.”1 These are the words with which Sir John Harington presented his translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, first published in 1591, the earliest full-length translation of the work into English. While the false modesty of the statement is characteristic of early modern authorial prefaces (Belle, 2013: 59), what stands out is the opposition Harington draws between the act of translating, and thereby making an important work available to readers who could not access it in the original language, and the countless appropriations that were being carried out even as he wrote, including by such luminaries as Spenser or Shakespeare.2 This paper aims to examine not only the project articulated by Harington in his preface but also the resonance his groundbreaking work has found in the prefaces of some recent translations. The first part analyzes the use Harington made of the preface and para-textual apparatus to fashion himself as co-author as much as translator of the Orlando. The second part examines the way two of the most distinguished recent translators of Ariosto, Barbara Reynolds and David Slavitt, who both made the unlikely choice of rendering the Italian text in English verse, referred in eulogistic terms to Harington’s undertaking, partly to legitimize their own, thus positioning themselves against a growing trend among scholars to critique and debunk Harington’s “Englishing” of Ariosto.

Harington’s Orlando Furioso

The text and its readership

2The Italian text of the Furioso was originally published in 1516, while the definitive edition in 46 cantos appeared in 1532. It was then followed by a highly successful run on the whole continent throughout the sixteenth century—by 1600 it had gone through over 150 printings. Harington’s translation proved extremely successful too, with a second edition in 1607 and a third one in 1634, in spite of the fact it must have been a rather expensive book, printed as it was in folio format and lavishly illustrated. Indeed, Harington had commissioned plates copied from the Girolamo Porro illustrations of Francesco Franceshi’s 1584 edition (published in Venice), one of the most elaborate Italian editions of the sixteenth century. There were no new translations into English until 1755, which testifies to the authority the translation had acquired, in spite of its many abridgements, enlargements and adaptations.

3The cost involved in the production of the volume and its two subsequent editions poses the question of the readership of the book, to which no really satisfactory answer has been given. One explanation is that the book was designed as a medium of advancement for the author, an artefact designed to be presented as much as to be perused (Scott-Warren, 2001: 21-22). Paradoxically, this elaborate book was “presumably beyond the pockets of many who most had need of it” (Cauchi, 1983: 144) since it would have cost around 10 shillings, and up to 14 shillings once it was bound. While the book obviously sold well, many of the customers who could afford it were likely to have been able to read the original in Italian—this is supported by the fact that, in his defence of his own work, Harington challenges critics quite precisely to try and outdo his translation by going back to the original: “if I have done ill, I crave pardon; for sure I did it for the best. But if any being studious of the Italian, would for his better understanding compare them, the first six books save a little of the third, will stand him in steed” (Preface: 32).

4In fact, translating was the main tool used by learners to familiarize themselves with Italian (Lawrence, 2013: 5), and literary works such as Ariosto’s can be considered as both a means and an end in this process: students would translate Italian poetry in order to become fluent enough to read books like the Furioso. Although by the time Harington published his translation many instruction manuals had already been made available to the English public, they were mostly designed for beginners. The advanced learners were probably mostly male adults who had received private tuition and/or travelled to Italy. Hence it has been inferred that Harington’s edition was aimed at female readers, and maybe even at children, since many annotations and clarifications seem to have been designed for “less learned” readers (Cauchi, 1983: 144). Worded in terms that are much easier to understand than the translation per se, these notes and explanations can to a certain extent be considered alongside his preface as a running commentary on his work as translator. In Book 2, for instance, alongside the lines: “No (said the wind) my force shall so prevail, / Your bold attempts shall put you to some pain”, he notes that the author “makes the wind to speak by a figure called prosopopeia” (Ariosto, 1607: 11), simultaneously giving the key to the figure of style used by Ariosto and underlining his fidelity to the original. In Book 35, he explains why and how he has transposed an Italian phrase:

for the Moral, I will touch two special faults, which mine author reproves in men of the better sort, one is the great account they make of Parasites, Promoters, and Jesters, and such like; for their baseness and filthiness, likened to the ass and pork: and other is their venery and drunkenness, which he noteth by these words, anzi venere e bacco: I English it, by their own surfeiting and lust; because surfeiting contains both kinds of excess in meat and drink. (ibid.: 296)

“The Apologie”

5The preface that Harington composed, clearly modelled on Sir Philip’s Sidney’s then unpublished Apologie for Poetrie (Rich, 1940: 37), presents itself as a vindication of poetry in general and of Ariosto in particular. In the table of contents that is to be found on the first page of the volume, the whole of the Preface is referenced as “The Apologie”. It is almost 10,000 words long, and clearly divided into three parts, their subsections neatly highlighted thanks to marginal notes, e.g. “First therefore of Poetrie it selfe”. This first section, which comprises over half of the text, answers objections to the fact that poetry can be accused of lying (“Answer to the first of lying”), that it pleases only fools (“Now the second objection is pleasing of fools”) and that it deceives readers (“Now for the breeding of errors which is the third Objection”). In the second section, dedicated to Ariosto himself, Harington clearly answers the objections that have been made to the Italian author’s “lascivious” strain, to his alleged lack of respect for Aristotelian principles, and finally for confusing the readers because of his countless interruptions and digressions, which the translator counts in fact as “two peculiar praises of this writer above all that wrote before him in this kind”. Never allowing his own readers to lose the train of his reasoning, Harington concludes “thus much be spoken for defence of mine Author, which was the second part of my Apologie”. Finally, the third part of this Preface constitutes in effect a defence of Harington’s own translation, as well as a justification of the apparatus included in the book. Though this section of the Preface if by far the shortest, at less than 2,000 words, Harington has in fact integrated himself, along with his work as translator, into the very fabric of this preface’s title, on a par with the original creator, thanks to the ambiguous position of the word “Author” in the heading: “A Preface, or rather a Briefe Apologie of Poetrie, and of the Author and Translator of this Poeme”. The third part proceeds to extend this incorporation through various strategies that bolster his position as co-author rather than mere translator.

The “third part”

6From the very first words of the third part (Preface: 26-33), Harington substantiates the ambiguity of the title of the Preface and establishes an authorial persona designed to match Ariosto’s:

Now remains the third part of it, in which I promised to speak somewhat for myself, which part, though it have most need of an Apology both large & substantial, yet I will run it over both shortly & slightly, because indeed the nature of the thing itself is such that the more one doth say, the less he shall seem to say (ibid.: 26)

7These lines epitomize the dialectic of the Apologie, which repeatedly underlines the mediocrity of the translation only in order to immediately challenge the reader to do better, or remind him (or her) that the author has put a great deal of work and energy into his rendition. Proceeding like Ariosto by way of a series of inset stories to illustrate each of his points, Harington also makes it clear that he has submitted the unfinished translation to his friends for an appraisal, of which he is proud to inform us that it was positive in spite of a number of objections: “what several imperfections soever they find in this translation, yet taking all together they allow it, or at least wise they read it, which is a great argument of their liking.”(ibid.) Harington’s friends clearly also had access to some of the notes and explanations he was adding, since one of the objections that he claims they made directly concerns the paratextual apparatus. While this means Harington may well have inserted the third part as an afterthought (Cauchi, 1983: 139), it certainly explains its brevity, and also a difference in tone, since he is now speaking on his own behalf rather than in the abstract generality of poetry and epic. The third part thus reads like a more intimate version of the first, written almost in conversational or epigrammatic style, as though for the very friends he invited to read his translation. Hence, as in the first part, the structure of the third part is clearly announced then underscored thanks to marginal notes, but the rebuttals Harington articulates are of a more detailed nature, and refer to his own stylistic choices as opposed to those of well-known poets (as in the first part), or to Virgil and Ariosto (as in the second part).

8The beginning of the third part seeks to legitimize Harington’s standing as translator by invoking higher authorities such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, translators respectively of Petrarch and Virgil, and also Bartholomew Clark, translator of Castiglione’s The Courtier. More significant, though, is Harington’s appeal to the authority of “Sir Thomas More a man of great wisdom and learning, but yet a little inclined (as good wits are many times) to scoffing” (Preface: 27) to justify his translating the Furioso into rhyming octaves. Harington had been well known as an author of epigrams before his magnum opus, and the extended joke he incorporates about Thomas More functions like a legitimization of his own inclination to scoff, as much as a justification of his choice to use rhyming octaves:

[More,] when one had brought him a book of some shallow discourse, and pressed him very hard to have his opinion of it, advised the party to put it into verse. The plain meaning man in the best manner he could did so, and a twelve-month after at the least came with it to Sir Thomas, who, slightly perusing it, gave it this encomium, that now there was rime in it, but afore it had neither rime nor reason. (ibid.)

9Boasting that his own work has not only rime but also reason, Harington then underlines that the merit is not his, since he has borrowed the matter from Ariosto, once again blurring the lines between his role as author and as translator. Hence it is hardly surprising to hear him seemingly undermine his own project with a concluding quip that simultaneously exploits the trope of false modesty and trivializes the ability to write in verse: “for the verse I do challenge none, being a thing that everybody that never scarce baited their horse at the University take upon them to make” (ibid.).

The objections raised against Harington’s translation

10Having involved the reader as a foil for his own abilities as translator and versifier through this jocular dialogue, Harington is now in a position to answer four objections raised by his friends and thereby confirm his status as co-author. Harington claims that his friends berated him first for wasting his time translating such a “trifling work” (ibid.: 28). The second objection has to do with the use of “two syllabled and three syllabled rimes” and the third with his numerous “fantastical” notes. The fourth reproach, that he had cut and summarized Ariosto’s text in many places, is in fact one that has been levelled at Harington far more by posterity than by his contemporaries: as he himself claims, it is a fault “which I will tell myself, though many would never find it” (ibid. : 29).

11Harington points out that the first objection is in fact addressed in the first two parts of the Preface. He nevertheless takes time to reiterate a brief defence through a doubly self-referential anecdote: he tells the reader how a specific canto he was translating reminded him of his own academic path and of his move from Greek and Latin to Italian, from grave philosophers to light poets. Quoting the lines he has just translated, “where Melissa in the person of Rogero’s Tutor, comes and reproves Rogero”, he imagines his former tutor telling him:

was it for this that I read Aristotle and Plato to you, and instructed you so carefully both in Greek & Latin, to have you now become a translator of Italian toys?’ But while I thought thus, I was aware that it was no toy that could put such an honest and serious consideration into my mind. (ibid.)

12By simultaneously invoking his personal life and accomplishments, his musings as translator and a quotation from the very text he is presenting to the reader, Harington adds a building block to a persona that will be found again and again in the apparatus that accompanies the translation. Classical culture and Italian levity are amalgamated in the form of the “grave tutor” whose very evocation confers academic credit to the act of translation. This is precisely what the ancillary matters at the end of each canto reproduce, continuing in the English version the work begun earlier in the sixteenth century by Italian exegetes, but adding some very English touches and layers of interpretation.

Harington’s translating craft

13The second and fourth sections of the third part pertain more directly to Harington’s practice as a translator and are of greatest interest with regard to more recent discussions on the ways of translating Ariosto, a notoriously difficult author because of the many different language registers he uses. One of the biggest bones of contention, both then and now, is the transposition of the ottava rima form into English, which is addressed in the second section. In Harington’s defence of his choices, it is apparent that his practice as translator and annotator is spilling over into his work as author of the preface, since the passage in which he justifies his preference for polysyllabic meter is replete with allegorical and proverbial writing, to the point that it becomes difficult to understand for a twenty-first century reader:

Now for them that find fault with polysyllable meter, methink they are like those that blame men for putting sugar in their wine, and chide too bad about it, and say they mar all, but yet end with God’s blessing on their hearts. For indeed if I had known their diets, I could have saved some of my cost, at least some of my pain; for when a verse ended with civility, I could easier after the ancient manner of rime, have made see, or flee, or decree to answer it, leaving the accent upon the last syllable, than hunt after three-syllabled words to answer it with facility, gentility, tranquillity, hostility, scurrility, debility, agility, fragility, nobility, mobility, which who mislike, may taste lamp oil with their ears. (ibid.: 30)

  • 3 G. Gascoigne, 1907, Certayne notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English (...)

14Harington was particularly fond of proverbs and aphorisms, and the book not only highlights them in the text but also adds many in the margins (Rich, 1940: 62). Hence it is not surprising to find two at this point in the preface. Opening and closing with food-related allegories involving sweetened wine and lamp oil, the section has a Rabelaisian quality, with its suggestion of a monstrous synaesthesia engendered by the accumulatio of three-syllabled words. It is by using such ponderously Latinate words that Harington is able to mirror the polysyllabic rimes Ariosto favours, but many English readers seem to have had misgivings about these imported terms. In fact, the allusion to lamp-oil in this passage may well have to do with the “inkhorn controversy”, which opposed writers on the subject of words imported from other languages, which were said to “smell of the inkhorn”, especially the ones that were too long. The point was famously made by George Gascoigne in 1575: “The most ancient English words are of one syllable, so that the more monosyllables that you use the truer Englishman you shall seem, and the less you shall smell of the Inkhorn.”3

  • 4 P. Charron, [1608?], Of wisdome three bookes written in French by Peter Charro[n] Doctr of Lawe in (...)
  • 5 H. Estienne, 1607, A world of vvonders: or An introduction to a treatise touching the conformitie o (...)

15Lamp-oil and inkhorn are implements used by scribes and pedants, and many translators were keen to emphasize that they did not belong to the second category. They often underlined quite vehemently that they avoided the use of French (or Italian) because they did not want their version to come over as a translation. Samson Lennard, translator of Pierre Charron’s Of wisdome (1608) thus stated: “I have used a plain English phrase, because the gravity of the matter required it; and I love not to smell of the inkhorn: and of all others I have avoided the French, wherein it was written, because I would not have it seem to be a translation.”4 Similarly, the translator of Henri Estienne’s Book of Wonders (1607) wrote that “I have of purpose so tempered my style, as that it might content the judicious: […] leaving inkhorn phrases and tapster-like terms for the tavern; and affected strains of Oratory for the stage: and avoiding especially the French frippery, because I would not have it seem to be a translation.”5

16Harington, on the contrary, is at no pains to conceal his art as a translator or as a poet, and he firmly pushes the critics of his choices into the camp of the pedants, the lamp-oil eaters who claim not to want to employ imported words in order to protect the English language. Thus his proverbial allusions are used as a form of challenge to the reader, as he once again plays on the fluctuation between false modesty and provocation. To complete the picture, Harington again invokes the authority of a recognized author, his friend Sir Philip Sidney, who “not only uses [polysyllabic rhymes], but affects them: signify, dignify; shamed is, named is, blamed is; hide away, bide away” (Preface: 30). Yet in his typical epigrammatic style, he cannot resist criticizing Sidney in the very next sentence, and suggesting the poet should have used the form more sparingly, which inevitably leads the reader to apply the reproach to the author himself, turning the remark into a form of humorous self-castigation.

Harington’s “fantastical” notes

17Harington’s defence of his notes in his response to the third objection displays a similar ambivalence: while conceding that some vanity might be detected in his alluding to his family and friends in them, he invokes Plutarch and Homer to justify his candidness about his personal life. Once again the personal dimension of the notes contribute to the fashioning of the translator as co-author, since he claims that he has added far more than the Italian commentators did in the continental editions: “they were a work (as I may so call it) of supererogation” (ibid.: 31). By suggesting that he jotted them down immediately after having discussed his translation with friends he also involves the reader into the editing process: “True it is, I added some notes to the end of every Canto, even as if some of my friends and myself reading it together (and so it fell out indeed many times) had after debated upon them, what had been most worthy consideration in them, and so oftimes immediately I set it down.” (ibid.: 30) In fact, as Judith Lee underlines it, Harington’s inclusion of numerous marginalia, notes and explanations changed the experience of the reader, so that he or she was constantly aware that the world of the poem was a self-contained literary object. To her “the translator’s editorial judgment replaces the Poet’s imagination as the context for the reader’s experience” (Lee, 1983: 282), and it is a very personal voice that remains present throughout the book.

Harington’s cuts and deviations from the original text

18The answer to the fourth objection, about the liberties he took with the text, is particularly significant in that it underlines a difference of treatment that Renaissance translators considered as obvious when it came to the nature of the original text:

But yet I would not have any man except that I should observe his phrase so strictly as an interpreter, nor the matter so carefully, as if it had been a story, in which to vary were as great a sin as it were simplicity in this to go word for word. (Preface: 32)

19The very nature of Ariosto’s text, a poem, gives license not to go word for word, whereas a historical book (a “story”) would have required the translator (the “interpreter”) to show utter respect. Harington is in fact justifying the numerous cuts, conflations and reorganisations he has made in the poem. But he prides himself in having revealed this to the reader, who otherwise may not have noticed them. Part of the originality of Harington’s translation, then, relied on his purported honesty toward his reader. By not selling his adaptation as his own work and by calling his readers’ attention to his labours, especially in the interpretive apparatus he adds at the beginning and end of each canto, the Preface paradoxically also establishes the translator both as co-author and editor.

Reception and influence

20The reception of Harington’s translation has been extremely diverse: the playwright Francis Beaumont wrote that Ariosto, “instructed by M. Harington doth now speak as good English as he did Italian before”, yet Ben Jonson famously stated that “John Harington’s Ariosto, under all translations, was the worst” (Johnson-Haddad, 1994: 326). As Scarsi laments, it is Beaumont’s opinion that has withheld the test of time rather than Jonson’s (Scarsi, 2010: 16). Thus, Peter France notes in the Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation that Harington’s “translation is not merely dashing but precise, shadowing the inflections of the original with an attentiveness and intelligence few later translators have matched” (France, 2001: 481). Similarly, while he carefully analyzes the limitations of Harington’s work and talents, the editor of the most recent scholarly version of the text (1972) nevertheless claims that “even in an age famous for translation Sir John Harington’s Orlando Furioso Translated into English Heroical Verse stands out from its honoured fellows” (Ariosto, 1972: ix). An appraisal of the McNulty edition published in the Review of English Studies goes well beyond that statement, asserting that Harington “is remarkably faithful to the original, and his Orlando Furioso is one of the great monuments of the Elizabethan age. This edition should destroy once for all the stereotype of a light-weight dilettante” (Robertson, 1973: 329).

In praise of Harington: Barbara Reynolds and David Slavitt’s prefaces

21In the wake of this enthusiastic reception, some of the prefaces to the more recent translations of Ariosto’s Orlando begin not merely by paying lip service to Harington’s work, but by contributing to a veritable construction of the Ur-translator, a quintessentially English character whose wit and reputation are overlaid upon the unruly exuberance of the Italian text. Barbara Reynolds, who published a verse translation for Penguin between 1975 and 1977, writes in her introduction that “the most admired translator of the Furioso has long been Sir John Harington, the Elizabethan courtier” and goes on to quote Lytton Strachey’s delightful portrait of the virgin Queen’s godson:

whimsically Elizabethan, with tossed-back curly hair, a tip-tilted nose, a tiny point of beard, and a long ear-ring, falling in sparkling drops over a ruff of magnificent proportions… A courtier, a wit, a scholar, a poet, and a great favourite with the ladies. (Ariosto, 1975: 89)

22To Reynolds, “the success of [Harington’s] translation must in great part be attributed to the qualities of the English language of that period” (ibid.: 91). Her encomium of Harington’s art comes across as a repressed longing for a licence to use archaic phrasing. Rather than praising the author, she focuses on the language, stating that “the material lay to hand, like some gorgeous glittering brocade; it had only to be cut and fashioned to the shape of the original”, concluding that Harington’s work had been “as natural as picking flowers in a garden” (ibid.: 92). In other words, after having praised the translator she belittles him by attributing the beauty of the translation to its Elizabethan quaintness rather than to his translating skills.

23This encomium is both echoed and undermined by the sparse remarks made by the poet David R. Slavitt in his 2009 translation:

There are other English versions. The best is that of Sir John Harington, whose mother, Ethelreda, was an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. Sir John […] is best known for having invented the flush toilet. Apparently he annoyed the queen, who could have banished him for life but, in a friendlier way, sent him off to translate Orlando Furioso saying that he could return to court when the job was finished. She never expected to see him again. But he actually completed most of it, and his version is lively and witty, although not easy to get hold of. It is also rather… Elizabethan. (Ariosto, 2009: viii)

24With his characteristic humour, Slavitt underlines two very real problems about Harington’s translation. The first is that it requires familiarity with the Elizabethan idiom. The second is that it can only be read on the websites of two publishers, “Early English Books Online” or “Oxford Scholarship Online” (the McNulty edition’s present format). Both are exclusive, expensive and relatively difficult to read, since the spelling is not modernized. The translation can also be found in libraries in the 1962 Centaur Press edition or in the paper version of McNulty’s 1972 edition. Then again it can be accessed as a reasonably well transcribed free online edition (“Intercapillary Editions”, 2006), entirely free of notes or comments, in discreetly modernised spelling. However neither Centaur nor Intercapillary includes Harington’s preface, notes and explanations, which are such an important part of Sir John’s “setting forth of Ariosto”. The preface was published separately in G. Gregory Smith’s Elizabethan Critical Essays (1904) and has been available on the Bartleby website since 2012.

25The focus of the new translators, when they talk about Harington, is more on his actual tone and style than on his fidelity to the original (“his version is lively and witty” [Ariosto, 2009: viii]). They commend his humour and his ability to transpose the ottava rima stanzas into English. But they pay little attention to his preface and marginalia. On the contrary, recent scholarly critics tend to vilify him for “robbing Ariosto’s poem of much of its wit and liveliness” (Johnson-Haddad, 1994: 326)—a type of reproach that modern translators incline to level at each other. Thus Slavitt states that the “version in verse by Barbara Reynolds […] isn’t funny enough, or sprightly enough” (Ariosto, 2009: viii). Reynolds, on the other hand, makes fun of academics in a footnote that states, tongue in cheek, that “Mr McNulty takes the view that the Orlando Furioso is ‘a very serious work’. In this he is perhaps more influenced by Harington’s introduction and interpretation of the poem than by his translation, which captures a good deal of the poem’s gaiety” (Ariosto, 1975: 89). What Reynolds is suggesting is that too much focus on the translator’s voice might distract from the inherent qualities of the translation. Perhaps that is why Slavitt is so concise in his own introduction, which on the other hand does full justice to the humour of the work he is attempting to translate, of which he claims that “it wants to be fun in English” (Ariosto, 2009: viii). The very “silliness” of Ariosto’s text in contemporary eyes legitimizes Slavitt’s impishness, while his experience of transposing Virgil or Boccacio in “freestyle Poundian” mode (Baker, 2010: 356) and the mixed reception these texts have encountered seem to bolster his claims to a full mastery of levity: “excessive earnestness, I’m glad to say, is not a defect I’ve often been accused of” (Ariosto, 2009: viii). Yet it is precisely Slavitt’s “tendency to incorporate his own cheeky commentary into the fabric of a canonical author’s text” (Baker, 2010: 355) that likens his translation both to Ariosto’s original, where the narrative persona constantly intervenes to liken himself to his heroes and to deconstruct the conventions of epic and courtly love, and also to Harington’s translation, with its running commentary that firmly anchors it into the century and country in which it was completed.

Abridgements and octaves

26Slavitt has something else in common with Harington, who openly confessed that he had made extensive cuts to the Italian text: Slavitt only translated slightly more than half of what Ariosto wrote, invoking as a primary reason the economic viability of the project since “the production costs of an enormous and unwieldy volume (or volumes) would have made for a discouragingly expensive book, which would have defeated my purpose of broadening Ariosto’s Anglophone audience” (Ariosto, 2009: viii). This is quite hard to justify if one considers the reasonably manageable two-volume Penguin edition, and in view of the fact that Slavitt’s translation is also available in Kindle format. Above all, his translation in octaves is deeply embedded in the period that has produced it: there is no attempt, or temptation, to recreate an archaic language that might conjure up the period in which Ariosto was writing, and the freedom used both in form and lexicon gives it a distinctively twenty-first century tone. Slavitt defends his choice of the octave in much the same way as his predecessors: “ottava rima stanzas […] are easier in Italian than in English—but I do them anyway, because in English one can have rhymes that are more startling and impish than in Italian, as Byron shows us. This seems to me altogether in consonance with the spirit of the piece” (ibid.: vii).

27Concerning the choice of octaves and of the rhyming that this form imposes, Reynolds made more or less the same point, underlining the embarrassment rhymes tend to produce in readers, and defending her choice to use impure rhymes and assonance in order to maintain variety. Reynold’s preface concludes programmatically by prophesying a return of “the magical effect of rhyme”, invoking Auden, Dylan Thomas and Sir John Betjeman as well as “more venerable antecedents” like Dryden, Pope and Tennyson, against Milton’s claim that he had “released the heroic poem ‘from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ ”(Ariosto, 1975: 96). Perhaps Slavitt’s translation is a vindication of this prophecy.

Debunking the “Translator”

28Running counter to the positive appraisal of Harington’s work by new translators, a different trend can be noted among academics. Recent criticism has been targeted more specifically at the substitution of Ariosto’s “Poet” or “Narrator” by a more English persona, and at the moralizing that accompanies this substitution, directly related to Harington’s project of transforming the poem into an epic (Morini, 2004: 123 et Lee, 1983: 282). While Jane Everson suggests that much of Harington’s toning down of Ariosto was made in order not to arouse his royal patron’s anger or jealousy, Selene Scarsi takes him to task for having weakened and even censored Ariosto’s alleged “feminism”, claiming that critics have habitually discussed and studied Harington “without necessarily knowing Ariosto’s original” (Scarsi, 2010:16). She is scathing not only of scholars but of Harington himself, stating that “many critics talk of a supposed fidelity of spirit that even the most superficial look reveals to be unfounded” (ibid.: 17). She demonstrates at length how Queen Elizabeth’s supposedly devoted godson proceeds to eliminate or at best dilute all praise of women, even in the passages he does not choose to cut entirely.

29Yet much of that criticism seems to forget that Ariosto himself remodelled his work over the course of nearly twenty years and three different editions, losing some of the irony of his first version to reflect the anxiety that predominated as he completed the third one (Casadei, 2003: 68). There is no single or simple stance in Ariosto’s original, and it seems curiously anachronistic to criticize an early modern translator for adapting a work to suit his market and cultural environment. However there is no denying that Harington followed the common strategy of introducing moral interpretations in his paratext to justify or excuse the more licentious or humorous events recounted in the narrative.

30The moralizing introduced by Harington has disappeared from modern editions but has been replaced by attempts to justify new verse translations that rely on similar strategies. By invoking the wit and originality of the Italian, by pleading for a necessary updating of the language used in order to appeal to contemporary audiences, Reynolds and Slavitt formulate their own “Apology” of poetry and of Ariosto. However, this strategy is mostly limited to the prefaces. By celebrating Harington while at the same time relegating him to scholarly shelves, both Reynolds and Slavitt implicitly justify the relatively limited scholarly apparatus they provide. Readers may no longer need to be reminded that the book is an artefact and that neither the author nor the translator really believes in the marvellous elements. But they often lack the mythological, biblical and historical references necessary to understand the poem, considerably more so than Harington’s readers did, so that one can legitimately wonder whether it would not be necessary today to produce an edition that might use the possibilities of the hypertext to facilitate reading, much in the way that Harington did with his illustrations, introductory verses, indexes, marginalia and endnotes. In the end, the lack of mediation by the translator-editor can end up doing a disservice to the work translated and defeat its own purpose of broadening audiences.

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Corpus texts

Ariosto, Lodovico, 1607, Orlando furioso in English heroical verse, by Sr Iohn Haringto[n] of Bathe Knight, London, imprinted by Richard Field, for John Norton and Simon Waterson.

, 1972 [1591], Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso Translated into English Heroical Verse, trans. John Harington, edited by Robert McNulty, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

, 1975, Orlando Furioso—The Frenzy of Orlando : a Romantic Epic, trans. Barbara Reynolds, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

, 2009, Orlando Furioso : A New Verse Translation, trans. David R. Slavitt, Cambridge, Mass, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harington, John, 1904, “Preface, or rather a Briefe Apologie of Poetrie, and of the Author and Translator of this Poeme”, in Smith, G. Gregory (ed.), Elizabethan Critical Essays, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Works cited

Baker, Steve J., 2010, “Review of Orlando furioso. A new verse translation by David Slavitt”, Columbia University Academic Commons, (last accessed on 22 August, 2018).

Belle, Marie-Alice, 2013, “Elizabethan Defences of Translation: from Rhetoric to Poetics: Harington’s and Chapman’s ‘Brief Apologies’”, in Schmidt, Gabriela (ed.), Elizabethan Translation and Literary Culture, Berlin, De Gruyter, p. 43-80.

Casadei, Alberto, 2003, “The History of the Furioso”, in Beecher, Donald, Ciavolella, Massimo and Fedi, Roberto (eds.), Ariosto Today : Contemporary Perspectives, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, p. 55-70.

Cauchi, Simon, 1983, “The ‘Setting Foorth’ of Harington’s Ariosto” in Studies in Bibliography, vol. 36, p. 137-168.

Everson, Jane E., 2005, “Translating the Pope and the Apennines: Harington’s Version of the ‘Orlando furioso’” in The Modern Language Review, 1 July 2005, vol. 100 (3), p. 645-658.

France, Peter, 2001, The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Haddad, Miranda, 1994, “Englishing Ariosto: ‘Orlando Furioso’ at the Court of Elizabeth I” in Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 31, No. 4, p. 323-35.

Lawrence, Jason, 2013, Who the Devil Taught Thee So Much Italian ? : Italian language learning and literary imitation in early modern England, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Lee, Judith, 1983, “The English Ariosto: the Elizabethan Poet and the Marvelous” in Studies in Philology, vol. 80, No. 3, p. 277-99.

Marrapodi, Michele, Hoenselaars, A. J., 1998, The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama : Cultural Exchange and Intertextuality, Newark, University of Delaware Press.

Morini, Massimiliano, 2004, “Sir John Harington and the poetics of Tudor translation”, in Pincombe, Michael (ed.), Travels and Translations in the Sixteenth Century : Selected Papers from the Second International Conference of the Tudor Symposium (2000), Aldershot, Hampshire, Ashgate, p. 120-136.

Rich, Townsend, 1940, Harington and Ariosto, a Study in Elizabethan Verse Translation, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Robertson, Jean, 1973, “Review of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso Translated into English Heroical Verse by Sir John Harington (1591) by Robert McNulty”, The Review of English Studies, New Series, vol. 24, No. 95 (August 1973), p. 327-329.

Scarsi, Selene, 2010, Translating Women in Early Modern England : Gender in the Elizabethan Versions of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso, Farnham, Surrey, Ashgate.

Scott-Warren, Jason, 2001, Sir John Harington and the Book as Gift, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Strachey, Lytton, 1931, Portraits in Miniature and Other Essays, London, Chatto and Windus.

Teagarden, Lucetta, 1955, “Theory and Practice in English Versions of Orlando Furioso” in The University of Texas Studies in English, vol. 34, p. 18-34.

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1 All quotations from the preface are taken from Gregory Smith’s 1904 collection of Elizabethan essays, which is readily available online and has convenient paragraph numbering. However the spelling has been partly modernized in order to facilitate reading. It is referred to as Preface in the rest of the paper.

2 For instance, Spenser’s avowed aim to outdo Ariosto is mentioned in a 1580 letter by his friend Gabriel Harvey (Lawrence, 2013: 13), while Shakespeare’s debt to Ariosto is clear both in Much Ado About Nothing and in As You Like it.

3 G. Gascoigne, 1907, Certayne notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in Englishin J.W. Cunliffe (ed.), The Complete Works of George Gascoigne, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 468-9. The spelling has been modernized.

4 P. Charron, [1608?], Of wisdome three bookes written in French by Peter Charro[n] Doctr of Lawe in Paris, trans. S. Lennard, London, printed [at Eliot’s Court Press] for Edward Blount & Will: Aspley. The spelling has been modernized. Pierre Charron (1541-1603).

5 H. Estienne, 1607, A world of vvonders: or An introduction to a treatise touching the conformitie of ancient and moderne wonders or a preparatiue treatise to the Apologie for Herodotus. The argument whereof is taken from the Apologie for Herodotus written in Latine by Henrie Stephen, and continued here by the author himselfe. Translated out of the best corrected French copie. London, imprinted [by Richard Field] for John Norton The spelling has been modernized. Henri Estienne (1531-1598).

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Chantal Schütz, « Harington’s Preface to Orlando Furioso (Englished) and its echoes in recent translators’ prefaces »Palimpsestes, 31 | -1, 133-144.

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Chantal Schütz, « Harington’s Preface to Orlando Furioso (Englished) and its echoes in recent translators’ prefaces »Palimpsestes [En ligne], 31 | 2018, mis en ligne le 11 septembre 2018, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Chantal Schütz

This paper engages with the project articulated by Sir John Harington in the preface he added to his 1591 translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and examines the way his groundbreaking work resonates in the prefaces of some recent translations. After analysing the use Harington made of the preface and paratextual apparatus to fashion himself as co-author as much as translator of Orlando Furioso, it studies the eulogistic way two of the most distinguished recent translators of Ariosto, Barbara Reynolds and David Slavitt, refer to Harington’s undertaking—partly to legitimize their own—, and also the way these translators position themselves against a growing trend among scholars to critique and debunk Harington’s “Englishing” of Ariosto.

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