Sir Thomas Urquhart: The Cromartian

Josh Billings delves into the life of the famed 17th-century translator of Rabelais in the latest installment of his series

Read all previous posts in Josh Billings’ Lives of the Translators here.

Translation is supposed to be an impersonal art, but one of the interesting things about studying translators’ lives is that it gives us a chance to see how patterns from their biographies reappear, like watermarks, in the works from which they’ve allegedly removed themselves.

Some of this reflection can be explained by affinity (translators translate authors they like), or chance, or an overactive critical imagination. At the same time, in many cases the parallels between a translator’s life and craft are obvious enough to make us think that something else is going on—something closer to the public soul-searching and -solving that we like to think occurs in more explicitly confessional arts.

A good example of this can be found in the great translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel by the 17th-century Scottish translator Sir Thomas Urquhart. A man of incredible energy, Urquhart spent the majority of his life dealing with the debts that his father had accumulated on their ancestral estate of Cromartie. His original books sink like barges under the weight of their pedantry; but his Pantagruel soars on a spume of high comedy, freed by its source material into a pitiless celebration of language’s unwillingness to pay back what it owes.

Some people are born to debt, and some achieve it; but Sir Thomas was released into debt, like a zoo animal returned to the wild. An heir to one of Scotland’s most illustrious properties, he watched his father decimate a fortune that it had taken his ancestors centuries to hoard. Reading this, we imagine the usual story of irresponsible paternity. We imagine Urquhart senior wenching it up like Fyodor Karamazov as his heirs watched in horrified amazement. But according to Thomas, his father’s squandering had less to do with self-indulgence than with a sort of wild generosity:

Of all men living [father] was the justest, equallest, and most honest in his dealings, and his humor was, rather than to break his word, to lose all he had, and stand to his most undeliberate promises, what ever they might cost; which too strict adherence to the austerest principles of veracity, proved oftentimes damageable to him in his negotiations with many cunning sharks, who knew with what profitable odds they could scrue themselves in upon the windings of so good a nature.

Fathers are lessons; so the younger Sir Thomas grew up knowing what it cost to “keep one’s word”—that is, not just to preserve one’s conscience, but to persist in speaking as if one’s elevated language reflected the world, instead of creating an ideological couch-fort in which to hide from it. When the elder Urquhart died in 1642, Thomas wrote that “All he bequeathed unto me, his eldest Son, in matter of worldly means, was twelve or thirteen thousand pounds sterling of debt…” To that we could add: an acute desire to bridge the gulf between language and life that had swallowed his inheritance.

He set to work immediately, publishing two books: a treatise on trigonometry, and a three-volume collection of poetic epigrams. The results were disappointing. If the best epigrams suggest a harmony between sound and sense, then Urquhart’s displayed language’s kudzu-like capacity to ornament. If anything, their combination of fortune-cookie truths and florid expression illustrated the unintentional comedy that can result when the form of a poem reaches for a profundity that its content doesn’t deserve. In “When a True Friend May Be Best Known,” for example, we are essentially informed that Friends Stick Together:

As the glow-worme shines brightest in the darke

And frankincense smells sweetest in the fire;

So crosse adventures make us best remarke

A sincere friend from a dissembled lyer;

For some, being friends to our prosperity,

And not to us, when it failes, they decay.

As for the treatise on trigonometry, Urquhart’s 19th-century biographer, John Wilcock, writes that “No one is known to have read it, or have been able to read it.” Like an evil version of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the Trissoteras buried its subject under a mountain of esoteric vocabulary. It added, to the formidable task of understanding trigonometry, the almost impossible task of understanding Sir Thomas Urquhart (“Cathetobasall is said of the concordances of loxogonosphericall moods, in the datas of the perpendicular and the base, for the finding out of the maine quaesitum”). The result was a relentless chant—one in which the inventions of 17th-century mathematics were less clarified for the reader than dumped on his head.

Having failed to move language closer to life, Urquhart grabbed the other end of the problem, by joining the large army of Scottish Royalists that was marching on Oliver Cromwell’s parliament. Like many noblemen, he worshipped the idea of hereditary inheritance; plus, he thought that the re-instated King Charles I might return the favor by erasing his debts. But the parliamentary victory at Worcester dashed this particular daydream, dissolving the Royalist forces and sending Urquhart himself to the Tower of London.

There—with help from a few of the more sympathetic guards—Urquhart began writing his Pantoponohathon, a book whose entire purpose was to prove his right to Cromartie by tracing the family line back to Adam. His petition must have found the right ear, for after a year imprisonment, Urquhart was granted a five-month leave from prison to return to Scotland and put his affairs in order. His creditors were in the middle of seizing his estate, but in a dramatic last minute reversal he showed up just in time to prevent the seizure.

His last original book was the Logopandecteision, an opus as self-conscious as it is oblivious. In it, Urquhart attempts to outline his design for a perfect human language—though as usual, his mind and writing ability fail to deliver on his massive ambitions. Here is the befuddled Wilcox: “[In the Logopandecteision] Urquhart rambles off… into autobiographical details, and the only connection between them and the Universal Language is that they show the difficulty that prevented their author from carrying out his plan.” In other words, the Logopandesteision is not a book about language: it’s a book about failure. Or rather, it’s just a failure, since in order to be “about” failure, Urquhart’s book would have to display, somewhere, a sense that his digression was a choice (see: Tristram Shandy), rather than a way to distract the reader from the fact that the author really had no idea what he was talking about.

If Urquhart’s writing life had ended with the Logopandecteision, he would probably be remembered even less than he is now. But sometime between his imprisonment and his death in 1660, he read a book that must have seemed both strange and strangely familiar to him. That book was The Adventures of Pantagruel, by the 16th-century French author François Rabelais.

The biographies of the two men resemble one another in certain key ways. Both spent their lives in fields that nominally had nothing to do with writing (Urquhart as a soldier, Rabelais as a monk and, later, physician). Both were translators (Rabelais published versions of Hippocrates and Galen). Rabelais’s last words were reported to have been “I have nothing, I owe a great deal, the rest I leave to the poor”—a sentence that suggests how familiar he must have been to the indebtedness that Urquhart struggled with his entire life.

Most importantly, both writers loved words—and not just any words either, but the big ones. Here for example is Rabelais from his introduction to Pantagruel:

Comme bien faire scavoit Homere paragon de tous philoges, et Ennie pere des poetes latins, ainsi que tesomigne Horate, quoy qu’un malautru ait dict, que ses carmes sentoyent plues le vin que l’huile, autant en dist un Tielupin de mes livres, mais bren pour luy. L’odeur du vin o combine plus est friant/riant/priant/plus celeste, & delicieux que d’huile.

The passage is a mess. Rabelais invokes the precedents of Homer and Quintus Ennius, but he mixes his praise by chattily mentioning Ennius’s love of wine. His punctuation reads like shorthand; his vocabulary is spiced with casual profanity (the old French “bren,” meaning bran, scales, feces). The prose scampers forward with the robust waddle of a friar chasing a chicken through a market square—and then it is exactly this sense of impulsiveness, as if language had become distracted and even intoxicated with its own momentum (to the point of forgetting the normal rules of grammar, propriety, tact) that makes Rabelais so unique.

Another way to say this is that language in Pantagruel comes alive because it forgets what it owes. It surpasses the simple service of replication that the physical world asks it to perform, shedding its riches and yet surviving, as things that exist outside language (people, for example) have a hard time doing. Such writing sets a difficult problem for the translator, whose version must both stay within the text that he’s translating and reproduce that version’s fundamental refusal to stay within anything. But how to translate faithfully while conveying the original’s freedom?

Urquhart’s solution is simple: spend. Like an internet mogul lavishing millions on a stone-by-stone recreation of the Parthenon, he deploys the resources of the English language with an expansiveness that beats the original at its own game. Here is his version of the above passage:

And indeed that is the fittest and most proper hour wherein to write these high matters and deep sciences: as Homer knew very well, the paragon of all philologues, and Ennius, the father of the Latin poets, as Horace calls him, although a certain sneaking jobernol alleged that his verses smelled more of the wine than oil. So saith a turlupin or a new start-up grub of my books, but a turd for him The fragrant odor of the wine, O how much more dainty, pleasant, laughing (Riant, priant, friant), celestial and delivious it is, than that smell of oil!

The most obvious difference between the two passages is length. Urquhart expands on Rabelais’s text, elaborating clauses, doubling adjectives—frequently even adding entire phrases of his own. The simple “malautru” (fool), becomes a “sneaking jobernol,” while “Tielupin” forks into the synonymical “turlupin” and (as if Urquhart were afraid that English readers would miss the joke) a “new start up grub of my books.” Rabelais’s “friant/riant/priant” appears both verbatim and translated—as if the English version were seeking to not just communicate but, somehow, contain its original.

Such elaboration breaks the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” cliché of modern translation; but in doing so, I would argue, it fulfills the impulse of its model much better than a more “faithful” version would have done. Its unkempt sprawl amplifies Rabelais’s original effect, suffusing the English Pantagruel with a prodigality that is its own reward. In this way, it is different from Urquhart’s other books, in which the joy the author clearly takes (or wants to take) in using big words is blighted by an underlying sense of futility—as if, despite all his boasts and endorsements, he sensed that his vocabulary was actually impeding his ability to communicate.

The paradox is cruel, but familiar in literature. In laboring to pay reality back, Urquhart’s language in his own works creates a world as sealed-on-itself as the one his father created; meanwhile Rabelais’s language uses every word in the dictionary to create a parody so exaggerated and grotesque that it ends up feeling true.

But maybe Urquhart recognized himself in this parody. For if there’s one group that comes under fire more than any other in Pantagruel, it is pedants, meaning men who want to speak as if the question of language was settled, instead of gloriously, frustratingly open. Or, again: as if speakers were not perpetually dependent on their audience, even in debt to them—that glorious state which Panurge praises in a famous passage:

Be still indebted to somebody or other, that there may be somebody always to pray for you; [to pray] that the giver of all good things may grant unto you a blessed, long, and prosperous life… You can hardly imagine how glad I am, when every morning I perceive myself environed and surrounded with brigades of creditors—humble, fawning, and full of their reverences… I have all my life-time held debt to be as an union or conjunction of the heavens with the earth, and the whole cement whereby the race of mankind is kept together, yea, of such vertue and efficacy, that, I say, the whole progeny of Adam would very suddenly perish without it.

Reading this, one can imagine Urquhart’s eyes starting to water. To be told, after a lifetime of payback, that debt was not just an allowable state, but a necessary one! It must have felt like a benediction: Spend ye, and be merry! That Urquhart followed the riotous Frenchman’s command both in letter and in spirit is obvious from his Pantagruel, which simultaneously exhausts the English language and recuperates it, like a maniacal perpetual motion machine. It survives its translator, who died before he could finish it, some say in a fit of laughter.


Josh Billings is a writer and translator who was born in Vermont, grew up in Papua New Guinea and Zambia, and currently lives in Rockland, Maine. He has worked as an English teacher and nurse. His translations of Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel are available from Melville House Books.