Clearing up loose translations
July 1, 2011
Hell is full of good intentions and desires, were the thoughts written by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontes et desirs” in 11th century France, little realizing how often he would be quoted and in how many different contexts his thoughts would appear under the guise of opinion written by such luminaries through the centuries as Samuel Johnson in the 18th century quoted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson in an entry marked April 14, 1775 as saying: “Hell is Paved with Good Intentions.” It is interesting to note that there is no prefatory, “the road to…”, Boswell’s editor, Malone, added a footnote that this is a “proverbial sentence” quoting a 1651 source, probably meaning that this saying was still not in the common lexicon.
John Ray or Wray, the father of English naturalism, cited what he considered a proverb in 1651, “Hell is paved with good intentions” he wrote, which brings us to the British poet Coleridge, Danish philosopher Kirkegaard, another British writer and poet Sir Walter Scott to more modern quoted sources: Billy Joel in his song “All My Life,” and finally to The Aspen Times issue of Thursday, June 23, 2011 in the column of Melanie Sturm who quotes Karl Marx as saying in Das Kapital: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
It is interesting to note that there is no prefatory “road to…” until Marx, so maybe he added it, but the quote originated with Saint Bernard and should be so designated even if centuries have passed and the Chinese have not attributed the words to Confucious. The banner which introduces the column by Melanie Sturm reads, “Road to hell paved with irony and big government,” a rather loose translation of the Saint’s words but still allowable because it is opinion not necessarily fact; however, what is important and so easily available today is the research that gives anyone with a computer and the Internet the opportunity to get it right, i.e. to give the person or persons the right to have said or written something, an idea or a thought that will be forever a part of our lexicon and we may quote them till the cows come home but we must give them the credit they or he/she deserves.