This month, the Society of G.K. Chesterton announced the publication of a new book titled Orthodoxy: An American Translation, which should immediately provoke confusion among Chesterton fans. Didn’t Chesterton write in English? Why do we need a translation? What does it even mean to translate English into English? And why is this book, with its plain and dry title, so enduring and impactful? Why has it influenced so many Catholic converts, and why should it still be read today?
Word on Fire’s Brandon Vogt sits down with Dale Ahlquist, President of the Society of G.K. Chesterton and one of the three translators involved with the project, to discuss these questions and more.
BRANDON: Although I’m guessing most of our audience knows G.K. Chesterton, can you succinctly tell us who this man was and why he still matters?
DALE: Chesterton was a giant of English literature in the early twentieth century who went into a strange eclipse after his death, but now is experiencing a deserved revival. Most importantly, he was in every way a bulwark against what we call modernism, which includes relativism, materialism, progressivism, and deconstruction.
You have claimed that Orthodoxy, perhaps his most famous book, “is one of the greatest works of nonfiction prose ever written in the English language.” Why so?
It is a masterpiece of sustained argument. He offers a completely fresh and unprecedented defense of Christianity using philosophy, literature, art, politics, science, and theology. He does it with lively metaphors and good humor. We are drawn to his warmth and joy and confidence because he appears to be as unthreatened as he is unthreatening.
Orthodoxy is often cited by converts as a major influence. In fact, you edited a whole collection of Chesterton-inspired conversion stories and Orthodoxy made several appearances. Why do you think this book is so evangelically powerful?
Chesterton was technically not a Catholic when he wrote the book, but he was already thinking like a Catholic. In fact, it is almost impossible to detect from the text that he is not Catholic, especially when he writes about how the Church has had to fight heresy throughout history without wavering too far in one direction or the other. It could be argued that since Chesterton was on his way to becoming Catholic, he simply swept the reader along with him. Non-Catholics read the book and find themselves agreeing with Chesterton on everything. Thus they take their first unwitting steps toward Rome!
You just announced the release of Orthodoxy: An American Translation, which is generating lots of buzz and intrigue. How did this book come about? And given that Chesterton wrote in English, why was a new translation needed?
I want to start by saying this project was originally Peter Northcutt’s idea. He came to me with the proposal. He laid out the case very well before I could dismiss him out of hand. The fact is, he loved the book, but every time he’d try to get his friends to read it, they would quickly lose interest. He knew that the language was part of the problem. English from early twentieth-century England is different from the English of twenty-first-century America.
I must admit, when I first heard about this book, my first reaction was horror. How could someone mess with Chesterton’s sparkling prose? You seem to agree, saying in the introduction (“In Defense of a New Edition”) that “the idea of editing Orthodoxy, changing it, abridging it, or otherwise messing with it is unconscionable. It would be considered a sin comparable to shooting an elephant.” What eventually changed your mind? And did it feel weird tinkering with the text?
What helped convince us was that we’ve been teaching Orthodoxy to our freshmen and sophomores at Chesterton Academy, a classical high school in Minnesota, and I had to admit, they were having real problems reading the text. But I realized that part of the problem was not just the language, but Chesterton’s many references to places, people, and events that are utterly meaningless to today’s American readers, especially younger readers. We could have loaded the text with footnotes and explanations, which are distractions and interruptions to the flow of Chesterton’s argument, or we could perform a little surgery: sacrifice those references without diminishing the message. Once we knew what we had to do and why, we were able to proceed with confidence—but it still required courage! The goal was to preserve the beauty of Chesterton’s writing, especially the immortal quips and quotes from the book, while making the whole of the book more accessible.
Give us a taste of some of the passages you’ve shifted from English English to American English. Maybe a few examples?
Okay, here’s a passage from the original:
Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity.
Now, here’s the American translation:
Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Giving birth to a work of art is as wholesome as giving birth to a baby.
You see, we left most of the original intact, but we re-wrote one confusing sentence. Now, here’s what comes next. First the original:
Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram. Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets.
You can get lost reading that. Here’s how we translated it:
When a poet really was morbid it was not because of his creativity but because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poets who went mad were driven mad by logic, such as the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept them in health. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets.
Half the length, twice the clarity. And no need to get waylaid by Cowper and John Gilpin.
Three people worked on this—you, Peter Northcutt, and Kevin O’Brien. How did you three collaborate on the translation?
Peter took the first crack at it, and it was then that I realized the change in strategy regarding the obscure references. It was taking too much time and space to explain everything, and we were not accomplishing our goal. I brought Kevin on board because I knew he knew his Chesterton, and he has a gift for communicating. Kevin and I divided up the main work, chapter-by-chapter, and Peter became essential as the representative audience, with an amazing set of eyes for mistakes and ears for the sound of each passage. Each chapter was refined by a back-and-forth between the three of us.
How would you respond to critics who say “I just prefer the authentic Orthodoxy” or “I don’t want anyone replacing or dumbing-down the original text”?
I think it was Raymond Chandler who was asked when one of his detective novels had been made into a movie: “Don’t you hate what they’ve done with your book?” His response: “They haven’t done anything with my book. It’s right there on the shelf.” Those who prefer the original and authentic Orthodoxy still have it. It’s never going away. The Bible has gone through multiple translations, abridgments, and paraphrases, and yet it survives.
Who do you hope will read this new translation? Who is it for?
This version of Chesterton’s classic will work well for today’s reader, who has a short attention span. Our goal is to introduce a new generation to Chesterton’s words and ideas and get them to want to be friends with him.
Pick up your copy of Orthodoxy: An American Translation exclusively through the Society of G.K. Chesterton.