THERE have been two translations of Montaigne’s Essays: that of John Florio, first published in 1603, and that of Charles Cotton, about 1670. The Florio translation was reissued in 1613 and 1632, but no other edition of it appeared until late in the nineteenth century. Within the past forty or fifty years it has been reprinted a number of times, but always without modification of the language.
The Cotton translation, on the other hand, has been “edited” by various hands, notably by William Hazlitt and O. W. Wight, and more recently by William Carew Hazlitt, by all of whom it has been considerably changed to suit their conceptions of Montaigne’s meaning.
It was while assisting in the production of the Riverside Press limited edition, in folio, of the Florio translation, some twenty-odd years ago, that the present translator became convinced of its entire inadequacy, in many places, as a faithful interpretation of Montaigne’s thought, and of its failure to reproduce what may, for lack of a better word, be called the essayist’s style.
“Florio, the first English translator and the one of late most frequently reprinted, has a freedom and fluency that is often called ‘Elizabethan’; but it is a fatal freedom and fluency for a translator; and it has little of Elizabethan weight and fullness of meaning; his abundance is constantly redundance; he has a tiresome use of clumsy compounds and is fond of useless synonyms, while with Montaigne one word is seldom the ‘synonym’ of another; each added word is an added thought. To illustrate this fully would take too