Reader,—I don't know what kind of a preface I must write to find thee courteous, an epithet too often bestowed without a cause. The author of this work has been as sparing of what we call good nature, as most readers are nowadays. So I am afraid his translator and commentator is not to expect much more than has been showed them. What's worse, there are but two sorts of taking prefaces, as there are but two kinds of prologues to plays; for Mr. Bays was doubtless in the right when he said that if thunder and lightning could not fright an audience into complaisance, the sight of the poet with a rope about his neck might work them into pity. Some, indeed, have bullied many of you into applause, and railed at your faults that you might think them without any; and others, more safely, have spoken kindly of you, that you might think, or at least speak, as favourably of them, and be flattered into patience. Now, I fancy, there's nothing less difficult to attempt than the first method; for, in this blessed age, 'tis as easy to find a bully without courage, as a whore without beauty, or a writer without wit; though those qualifications are so necessary in their respective professions. The mischief is, that you seldom allow any to rail besides yourselves, and cannot bear a pride which shocks your own. As for wheedling you into a liking of a work, I must confess it seems the safest way; but though flattery pleases you well when it is particular, you hate it, as little concerning you, when it is general. Then we knights of the quill are a stiff-necked generation, who as seldom care to seem to doubt the worth of our writings, and their being liked, as we love to flatter more than one at a time; and had rather draw our pens, and stand up for the beauty of our works (as some arrant fools use to do for that of their mistresses) to the last drop of our ink. And truly this submission, which sometimes wheedles you into pity, as seldom decoys you into love, as the awkward cringing of an antiquated fop, as moneyless as he is ugly, affects an experienced fair one. Now we as little value your pity as a lover his mistress's, well satisfied that it is only a less uncivil way of dismissing us. But what if neither of these two ways will work upon you, of which doleful truth some of our playwrights stand so many living monuments? Why, then, truly I think on no other way at present but blending the two into one; and, from this marriage of huffing and cringing, there will result a new kind of careless medley, which, perhaps, will work upon both sorts of readers, those who are to be hectored, and those whom we must creep to. At least, it is like to please by its novelty; and it will not be the first monster that has pleased you when regular nature could not do it.
If uncommon worth, lively wit, and deep learning, wove into wholesome satire, a bold, good, and vast design admirably pursued, truth set out in its true light, and a method how to arrive to its oracle, can recommend a work, I am sure this has enough to please any reasonable man. The three books published some time since, which are in a manner an entire work, were kindly received; yet, in the French, they come far short of these two, which are also entire pieces; for the satire is all general here, much more obvious, and consequently more entertaining. Even my long explanatory preface was not thought improper. Though I was so far from being allowed time to make it methodical, that at first only a few pages were intended; yet as fast as they were printed I wrote on, till it proved at last like one of those towns built little at first, then enlarged, where you see promiscuously an odd variety of all sorts of irregular buildings. I hope the remarks I give now will not please less; for, as I have translated the work which they explain, I had more time to make them, though as little to write them. It would be needless to give here a large account of my performance; for, after all, you readers care no more for this or that apology, or pretence of Mr. Translator, if the version does not please you, than we do for a blundering cook's excuse after he has spoiled a good dish in the dressing. Nor can the first pretend to much praise, besides that of giving his author's sense in its full extent, and copying his style, if it is to be copied; since he has no share in the invention or disposition of what he translates. Yet there was no small difficulty in doing Rabelais justice in that double respect; the obsolete words and turns of phrase, and dark subjects, often as darkly treated, make the sense hard to be understood even by a Frenchman, and it cannot be easy to give it the free easy air of an original; for even what seems most common talk in one language, is what is often the most difficult to be made so in another; and Horace's thoughts of comedy may be well applied to this:Creditur, ex medio quia res arcessit, habereSudoris minimum; sed habet commoedia tantumPlus oneris, quanto veniae minus.
Far be it from me, for all this, to value myself upon hitting the words of cant in which my drolling author is so luxuriant; for though such words have stood me in good stead, I scarce can forbear thinking myself unhappy in having insensibly hoarded up so much gibberish and Billingsgate trash in my memory; nor could I forbear asking of myself, as an Italian cardinal said on another account, D'onde hai tu pigliato tante coglionerie? Where the devil didst thou rake up all these fripperies?
It was not less difficult to come up to the author's sublime expressions. Nor would I have attempted such a task, but that I was ambitious of giving a view of the most valuable work of the greatest genius of his age, to the Mecaenas and best genius of this. For I am not overfond of so ungrateful a task as translating, and would rejoice to see less versions and more originals; so the latter were not as bad as many of the first are, through want of encouragement....