Jeremiah Curtin

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Curtin (left) with Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis

Jeremiah Curtin (6 September 1835 – 14 December 1906) was an American translator and folklorist.


Born in Detroit, Michigan,[1][2][3] to Irish parents, Curtin spent his early life in what is now Greendale, Wisconsin[4] and later graduated from Harvard College in 1863. In 1864 he went to Russia, where he worked for the U.S. legation and as a translator. He left Russia in 1877, stayed a year in London, and returned to the United States, where he worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology. His specialties were his work with American Indian languages and Slavic languages.

He visited Ireland on five occasions between 1871 and 1893, where he collected folkloric material in southwest Munster, the Aran Islands, and other Irish language regions with the help of interpreters. From this work he produced Myths and Folklore of Ireland (1890), an important source for folk material used by Yeats; Hero Tales of Ireland (1894); and Tales of the Fairies and Ghost World (1895). He also published a series of articles in The New York Sun, later edited and republished as Irish Folk Tales by Séamus Ó Duilearga in 1944.

In addition to publishing collections of fairy tales and folklore and writings about his travels, Curtin translated a number of volumes by Henryk Sienkiewicz, including his Trilogy set in the 17th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a couple of volumes on contemporary Poland, and, most famously and profitably, Quo Vadis (1897). He also published an English version of Bolesław Prus' only historical novel, Pharaoh, under the title The Pharaoh and the Priest (1902).

Translations from Polish

According to the epitaph placed over Curtin's grave in Bristol, Vermont, by his erstwhile employer, the Smithsonian Institution, and written by his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Polish was but one of seventy (sic!) languages that "Jeremiah Curtin [in his] travel[s] over the wide world... learn[ed] to speak." Curtin apparently knew little or no Polish before he began translating Henryk Sienkiewicz's historical novel With Fire and Sword in 1888 at age fifty. Subsequently he rendered the other two volumes of the author's Trilogy, other works by Sienkiewicz, and in 1897 his Quo Vadis, "[t]he handsome income [...] from [whose] sale... gave him [...] financial independence [...]"[5] and set the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, on its feet. Sienkiewicz himself appears to have been short-changed in his part of the profits from the translation of the best-selling Quo Vadis.

Later in 1897, Curtin's first meeting with Sienkiewicz, like his earlier first contact with the latter's writings, came about by sheer chance, in a hotel dining room at the Swiss resort of Ragatz. For the next nine years, until Curtin's death in 1906, the two men would be in continual contact through correspondence and personal meetings.

Also in 1897, during a Warsaw visit, Curtin learned from Wolff, of Gebethner and Wolff, Sienkiewicz's Polish publishers, that the Polish journalist and novelist Bolesław Prus, an acquaintance of Sienkiewicz, was as good a writer, and that none of Sienkiewicz's works excelled Prus' novel Pharaoh. Curtin read Pharaoh, enjoyed it and decided to translate it in the future.[6]

Having both Polish and Russian interests, Curtin scrupulously avoided publicly favoring either people in their historic neighbors' quarrels[7] (particularly since the Russian Empire had been in occupation of a third of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including Warsaw, since the latter part of the 18th century).

During an 1898 Warsaw visit, Curtin began translating Prus' Pharaoh. Polish friends had urged him to translate it, and he had himself found it "a powerful novel, well conceived and skillfully executed"; he declared its author a "deep and independent thinker." In September 1899, again in Warsaw—where, as often happened, Sienkiewicz was away—Curtin went ahead with his translation of Prus' historical novel. Wolff urged him to continue with Prus, calling him profounder than Sienkiewicz. During another Warsaw visit, in early 1900, while again waiting for Sienkiewicz to return from abroad, Curtin called on Prus.[8]

In 1900 Curtin translated The Teutonic Knights by Sienkiewicz, the author's major historic novel about the Battle of Grunwald and its background.


Harold B. Segel writes about Curtin's translations of works by Henryk Sienkiewicz:

[...] Curtin was an indefatigable, diligent, and reasonably accurate translator, but he lacked any real feeling for language. Despite occasional lapses, the translations are acceptably faithful to the original, yet much of the time they are stilted and pedestrian. This results, at times, as [the American translator Nathan Haskell Dole had remarked [in 1895], from the location of the adverb in final position (even when this is not the Polish word order).[...] The "inelasticity" [that the Briton, Sir Edmund William Gosse spoke of [in 1897] is perhaps nowhere so clearly evident in Curtin's translations as in his insistence on rendering koniecznie as "absolutely" in all circumstances.
The "odd foreign tone" mentioned by Dole can most often be attributed to Curtin's too literal translation and inept handling of idioms.[...]
The [London] Athenaeum review of [Sienkiewicz]'s Children of the Soil [i.e., Rodzina Połanieckich—The Połaniecki Family] in 1896 suggested, furthermore, that Curtin's use of "thou" and "thee" in the addresses of friends and relatives contributed to the stiffness of the translations. Second person singular verbal and pronominal forms are, with rare exceptions, handled by Curtin in the archaic English fashion. In Sienkiewicz's Trilogy, set in seventeenth-century Poland, or in Quo Vadis with its ancient Roman setting, this is less objectionable. The translator has, by this means, attempted to introduce an appropriate antique flavor. In Sienkiewicz's contemporary works, however, the results are less fortunate.[9]

Segel cites a series of mistranslations perpetrated by Curtin due to his carelessness, uncritical reliance on dictionaries, and ignorance of Polish idiom, culture, history and language. Among the more striking is the rendering, in The Deluge, of "Czołem" ("Greetings!"—a greeting still used by Poles) "literally" as "With the forehead!"[10]

Contemporary critics were dismayed at Curtin's gratuitous, outlandish modifications of the spellings of Polish proper names and other terms, and at his failure to provide adequate annotations.[11]

According to Segel, the greatest weakness of Curtin's translations is their literalness. "Despite the fact that the translator himself possessed no impressive literary talent, greater attention to matters of style would have eliminated many of the infelicities and made for less stilted translation. But Curtin worked hastily... [C]ritics... could only surmise that, in his fidelity to the letter of the original rather than to its spirit, Curtin presented a duller, less colorful Sienkiewicz."[12]

On the other hand, Sienkiewicz himself, who had spent time in America and knew the English language, had this to say, in the 1898 Little and Brown edition of Quo Vadis: "I have read with diligent attention all the volumes of my works sent me (American editions). I understand how great the difficulties were which you had to overcome, especially in translating the historical novels, the language of which is somewhat archaic in character. I admire not only the sincere conscientiousness and accuracy, but also the skill, with which you did the work. Your countrymen will establish your merit better than I; as to me, I can only desire that you and no one else should translate all that I write. With respect and friendship, HENRYK SIENKIEWICZ"

There follows, in the 1898 edition of Quo Vadis, high praise of Curtin’s translations by reviewers writing in the Chicago Mail, Portland Advertiser, Chicago Evening Post, Literary World, Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph, Providence Journal, Brooklyn Eagle, Detroit Tribune, Boston Times, Boston Saturday Evening Gazette, Boston Courier, Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Times, Boston Home Journal, Review of Reviews, Boston Herald, and several other newspapers.


Christopher Kasparek has demonstrated that, if anything, Curtin did still worse by Sienkiewicz's "profounder" compatriot, Bolesław Prus.[13]

Prus' historical novel Pharaoh appears, in Curtin's version, as The Pharaoh and the Priest by "Alexander Glovatski." Why the author's pen name was dropped in favor of a transliterated and distorted version of his private name, is not explained. Concerning the change of title, Curtin states laconically, at the end (p. viii) of his "Prefatory Remarks" (plagiarized from Prus' "Introduction", which also appears in the book), that "The title of this volume has been changed from 'The Pharaoh' to 'The Pharaoh and the Priest,' at the wish of the author." Curtin's English version of the novel is incomplete, lacking the striking Epilog that closes the novel's sixty-seven chapters.[14]

If in Sienkiewicz's Rodzina Połanieckich Curtin mindlessly rendered "Monachium" (Polish for "Munich") as "Monachium" (which is meaningless in English), in Prus' Pharaoh (chapter 1) he renders "Zatoka Sebenicka" ("Bay of Sebennytos") equally mindlessly as "Bay of Sebenico."[15]

The pattern of using "thee's" and "thou's" continues unabated, and in this context is not so much evocative of antiquity, as simply irritating.

Curtin's translation style may be gauged by comparing a 2001 rendering of a passage from chapter 49 with, secondly, Curtin's version published a century earlier (1902). In this passage the protagonist, Prince Ramses, reproves the priest Pentuer, a scion of peasants:

"The fellahin! always the fellahin! To you, priest, only the lice-ridden of this world are deserving of pity. A whole series of pharaohs have gone to their graves, some of whom died in agonies, others of whom were murdered. But you do not remember them, only the fellahin whose merit was that they bore other fellahin, drew the Nile mud, or stuffed barley pellets down their cows' throats."[16]

In Curtin's version:

"Laborers, always laborers! For thee, O priest, only he deserves compassion who bites lice. [Emphasis added.] A whole series of pharaohs have gone into their graves; some died in torments, some were killed. But thou thinkest not of them; thou thinkest only of those whose service is that they begot other toilers who dipped up muddy water from the Nile, or thrust barley balls into the mouths of their milch cows."[17]

The Curtin version certainly illustrates the gratuitous "thee"–"thou" archaisms discussed earlier. It also shows pure mistranslations: "peasants" ("fellahin") as "laborers" or "toilers"; "murdered" as "killed"; "drew the Nile mud" as "dipped up muddy water from the Nile"; "cows" as "milch cows"; and most strikingly, "the lice-ridden of this world" (literally, in the original, "those whom lice bite") as "he... who bites lice."[18]

Moreover, in the liberties that Curtin takes with the original Polish sentence structure (which is preserved in the first, 2001 version), he is actually paraphrasing rather than metaphrasing (translating literally).


As a translator of Polish literature into English, Jeremiah Curtin shows serious deficits in all the attributes of a competent translator,[19] which should include:

  • familiarity with the subject matter;
  • a very good knowledge of the language, written and spoken, from which he is translating (the source language);
  • an excellent command of the language into which he is translating (the target language);
  • a profound understanding of the etymological and idiomatic correlates between the two languages; and
  • a finely tuned sense of when to metaphrase ("translate literally") and when to paraphrase, so as to assure true rather than spurious equivalents between the source- and target-language texts.[19]


  • Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland, 1890.
  • Myths and Folk-tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars, 1890.
  • Hero-Tales of Ireland, 1894.
  • Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World, 1895.
  • Creation Myths of Primitive America, 1898.
  • The Mongols A History, 1907. Jeremiah Curtin (1908). The Mongols: a history. Little, Brown, ad company. 
  • A Journey in Southern Siberia, 1909.
  • Seneca Indian Myths, 1922.

See also


  1. ^ Cheryl L. Collins. "Behind the Curtin". Milwaukee Magazine, April 1, 2008.
  2. ^ "The Place and Date of Jeremiah Curtin's Birth". Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 22, no. 3 (March 1939): 344-359.
  3. ^ Historical Essay. Wisconsin Historical Society.
  4. ^ Jeremiah Curtin House. Milwaukee County Historical Society.
  5. ^ Segel, pp. 205, 192–96.
  6. ^ Segel, p. 197.
  7. ^ Segel, pp. 197-98.
  8. ^ Segel, pp. 199–200.
  9. ^ Segel, pp. 209–10.
  10. ^ Segel, p. 212.
  11. ^ Segel, pp. 208–9.
  12. ^ Segel, p. 214.
  13. ^ Kasparek, pp. 127–35.
  14. ^ Kasparek, pp. 132–33.
  15. ^ Kasparek, p. 133.
  16. ^ Kasparek,p. 425.
  17. ^ The Pharaoh and the Priest, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, 1902, p. 473. Quoted in Kasparek, p. 133.
  18. ^ Kasparek, pp. 133-34.
  19. ^ a b Kasparek, p. 135.


External links

  • Works by Jeremiah Curtin at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Jeremiah Curtin at Internet Archive
  • Works by Jeremiah Curtin at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Analysis of Curtin's translation of "With Fire and Sword" by Henryk Sienkiewicz (in Polish)
  • Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland
  • Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World
  • Creation Myths of Primitive America
  • A Journey in Southern Siberia
  • Seneca Indian Myths
  • His memoirs
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