The Independent
Thomas Watts
New York: S. W. Benedict, 13 January 1859


  THE following letter from Thomas Watts, Esq., of the British Museum, to Mr. Low, bookseller of London, will, I think, be interesting to many readers of The Independent and to literary men generally. It discovers a field of usefulness for "Uncle Tom" which was wholly unanticipated when the book was written, and adds another to the already numerous unprecedented circumstances connected with its history.

  Andover, Mass, Jan. 4th, 1850. C. E. S.


BRITISH MUSEUM, Dec 16th, 1858.

  DEAR SIR: It is certainly one of the most striking features in the unprecedented popularity of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," that it has been translated into so many languages, and among them into so many obscure ones, languages into which it has been found so hard on many occasions for popularity to penetrate. Even the master-pieces of Scott and Dickens have never been translated into Welsh, while the American novel has forced its way in various shapes into the language of the ancient Britons. There is a complete and excellent translation by Hugh Williams, there is an abridged one by W. Williams, and there is a strange incorporation of it almost entire, into the body of a tale by Rev. W. Rees, called "Aeluyd f'Ewythr Robert, or Uncle Robert's Hearth." Probably with the exception of the Scriptures and the Prayer-book, no other book had previously received the honor of a second translation into Welsh except the "Pilgrim's Progress."

  In the east of Europe it has found as much acceptance as in the west. The Edinburgh Review mentioned some time ago that there was a translation into Magyar. There are, in fact, three, one by Irinyi, one by Tatar, and one, probably an abridged one, for the use of children. There are two, one by "J. B.," one Malavasic, into the Wendish; and two, one by Popp, and one by ——, into the Wallachian. There is one adaptation of Miss Arabella Palmer into Russian. A full translation into Russian appears to have been forbidden till lately, lest it might get into circulation among the serfs, among whom it might be as hazardous to introduce it as the Portuguese version, published in Paris, among the slaves of Brazil. Of course, the book exists also in Danish, Swedish, and Dutch, and in the great literary languages of the Continent the circulation has been immense. In the Bibliographie de la France, at least four versions are mentioned, which have run through various editions, and in the Leipzie catalogues for Michaelmas, 1852, and Easter, 1853, the distinct German versions enumerated amount to no less than thirteen. In the Asiatic languages the only version I have yet seen is the Armenian.

  Copies of all these versions in all these languages have been procured or ordered for the British Museum. It is customary in all great libraries to make a collection of the versions of the Scriptures in various languages and dialects, to serve among other purposes for those of philological study. I suggested to Mr. Panizzi, then at the head of the printed book department, that in this point of view it would be of considerable interest to collect the versions of "Uncle Tom." The translation of precisely the same epoch of a language, is a circumstance perhaps altogether unprecedented, and it is also not likely to recur, as the tendency of modern alterations in the law of copyright is to place restrictions on the liberty of translation. The possession of such a book as "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is very different from that of such a book as "Thomas à Kempis," in the information it affords to the student of a language. There is every variety of style, from that of animated narration and passionate wailing to the most familiar dialogue, and dialogue not only in the language of the upper classes, but of the lowest. The student who has once mastered "Uncle Tom" in Welsh or Wallachian, is not likely to meet any further difficulties in his progress through Welsh or Wallachian prose. These considerations, united to those of an other character which had previously led to the collection by the Museum of translations of the plays of Shakespeare, the Antiquary, the Pickwick Club, etc. etc., as interesting evidence of the literary taste of ages and nations, led to the adoption of my views, and many of these versions have already found their way to the shelves of the Museum, while others are in the wake. When all are assembled, the notes and prefaces of the various translators would furnish ample materials for an instructive article in a review.

  I regret that my account of these versions should be so much less extended than I had hoped to make it, but especially at this period of the year the duties of an officer of the British Museum render it almost impossible for him to make any use whatever of the treasures committed to his keeping, which are, as a rule, as closed to him as they are open to the public. You must excuse, on this account, all my shortcomings, and believe me, dear sir,

Yours very truly,


Mr. Low.