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The Good Advice of an Old Literary Sinner

AUTHORS of moderate capacity have unceasingly harassed the public; and have at length been remembered only by the number of wretched volumes their unhappy industry has produced. Such as an author was the Abbé de Marolles, the subject of this article, otherwise a most estimable and ingenious man, and the father of print-collectors.

This Abbé was a most egregious scribbler; and so tormented with violent fits of printing, that he even printed lists and catalogues of his friends. I have even seen at the end of one of his works a list of names of those persons who had given him books. He printed his works at his own expense, as the booksellers had unanimously decreed this. Menage used to say of his works, “The reason why I esteem the productions of the Abbé is, for the singular neatness of their bindings; he embellishes them so beautifully, that the eye finds pleasure in them.” On a book of his versions of the Epigrams of Martial, this Critic wrote, Epigrams against Martial. Latterly, for want of employment, our Abbé began a translation of the Bible; but having inserted the notes of the visionary Isaac de la Peyrere, the work was burnt by order of the ecclesiastical court. He was also an abundant writer in verse, and exultingly told a poet, that his verses cost him little: “They cost you what they are worth,” replied the sarcastic critic. De Marolles in his Memoirs bitterly complains of the injustice done to him by his contemporaries; and says, that in spite of the little favour shown to him by the public, he has nevertheless published, by an accurate calculation, one hundred and thirty-three thousand one hundred and twenty-four verses! Yet this was not the heaviest of his literary sins. He is a proof that a translator may perfectly understand the language of his original, and yet produce an execrable translation.

In the early part of his life this unlucky author had not been without ambition; it was only when disappointed in his political projects that he resolved to devote himself to literature. As he was incapable of attempting original composition, he became known by his detestable versions. He wrote above eighty volumes, which have never found favour in the eyes of the critics; yet his translations are not without their use, though they never retain by any chance a single passage of the spirit of their originals.

The most remarkable anecdote respecting these translations is, that whenever this honest translator came to a difficult passage, he wrote in the margin, “I have not translated this passage, because it is very difficult, and in truth I could never understand it.” He persisted to the last in his uninterrupted amusement of printing books, and his readers having long ceased, he was compelled to present them to his friends, who, probably, were not his readers. After a literary existence of forty years, he gave the public a work not destitute of entertainment in his own Memoirs, which he dedicated to his relations and all his illustrious friends. The singular postscript to his Epistle Dedicatory contains excellent advice for authors.

“I have omitted to tell you, that I do not advise any one of my relatives or friends to apply himself as I have done to study, and particularly to the composition of books, if he thinks that will add to his fame or fortune. I am persuaded that of all persons in the kingdom, none are more neglected than those who devote themselves entirely to literature. The small number of successful persons in that class (at present I do not recollect more than two or three) should not impose on one’s understanding, nor any consequence from them be drawn in favour of others. I know how it is by my own experience, and by that of several amongst you, as well as by many who are now no more, and with whom I was acquainted. Believe me, gentlemen! to pretend to the favours of fortune it is only necessary to render one’s self useful, and to be supple and obsequious to those who are in possession of credit and authority; to be handsome in one’s person; to adulate the powerful; to smile, while you suffer from them every kind of ridicule and contempt whenever they shall do you the honour to amuse themselves with you; never to be frightened at a thousand obstacles which may be opposed to one; have a face of brass and a heart of stone; insult worthy men who are persecuted; rarely venture to speak the truth; appear devout, with every nice scruple of religion, while at the same time every duty must be abandoned when it clashes with your interest. After these any other accomplishment is indeed superfluous.”

Editor’s Notes

 ¶ This article is revised from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. In the opening paragraph of the 1793 version of the piece, D’Israeli names a couple of other authors before introducing the Abbé:

Such authors were, Sir Roger L’Estrange and Philemon Holland, who have become notorious for mangling the beautiful compositions id the ancients by their cruel translations…