I once typed the original essay word for word and printed it out as a booklet for myself because I couldn't find a version of the book that stood alone — it was always in a collection of essays. I wanted only the Self-Reliance.
While I was at it, I looked up all the words I didn't know, and made footnotes of definitions for each word on each page (and there were a lot of them). Then I recorded the essay for myself and listened to it over and over while driving. And I tried to apply it to my life.
Then, to understand it even better, I went over it line by line, trying to write what Emerson wrote in my own words. That rewrite project is what I just published as a (very small) book. I don't think I'm a better writer than Emerson. I love his writing. Some of his sentences were so well-said, I included them in my translation just because I couldn't bear to leave them out. My motivation for translating it came from an experience I had with Cliff Notes.
I had always considered Cliff Notes as a kind of cheating. If you didn't want to read the real book, you could read a condensed version that tells you everything you need to know to pass a test. Then one day I saw the movie Henry V (the one with Kenneth Branagh). I really liked the movie but I only understood about half of what they were saying. They were speaking English, but three things were hindering my understanding:
1. English was spoken differently back then. They commonly used words we are now unfamiliar with.
2. Shakespeare was a poet, so he often inverted sentences and used unusual phrases in order to make things sound poetic.
3. They were speaking with an English accent.
Emerson's essay is difficult for a modern English speaker today for the first two reasons. Emerson used words that, although I could find them in a dictionary, I had never heard anyone say. And he was a poet, so some of his phrases were meant to be savored rather than read only for their direct meaning.
Just by chance, I was browsing in a used bookstore one day, and I came across a Cliff Notes on Henry V. I was curious what it might say, so I read it and found it a revelation. It explained terms and phrases I didn't know. I remember, for example, the phrase, "throwing down a gage." The Cliff Notes explained this. It is an archaic term that means throwing gloves at the feet of someone, which in those days meant you were challenging the person to a duel. I could have watched Henry V fifty times and never figured that out. But after I learned it, I understood better what was going on when I watched the movie again.
That's what I hope happens after people read my translation. I hope they go back and enjoy Emerson's original and eloquent essay, and understand it better, and really appreciate his creative, powerful prose.
Last year, the Domino Project came out with a beautiful hardcover edition of Self-Reliance. You can find it on Amazon here. Amazon's description of their book gives you a sense of why Emerson's essay is so important to read. It says:
With quotes from the likes of Henry Ford and Helen Keller to modern-day thought leaders like Jesse Dylan, Steve Pressfield, and Milton Glaser, we're reminded of the relevance of Emerson’s powerful words today. Emerson’s words are timeless. Persuasive and convincing, he challenges readers to define their own sense of accomplishment and asks them to measure themselves against their own standards, not those of society.
This famous orator has utter faith in individualism and doesn’t invoke beyond what is humanly possible; he just believes deeply that each of us is capable of greatness. He asks us to define that greatness for ourselves and to be true to ourselves.
At times harsh, at times comforting, Emerson’s words guide the reader to challenge their own beliefs and sense of self.
On the back cover of the Domino version, it says, "Every page of this manifesto will cut you to the bone, inspire you and expose the seduction of blind obedience for what it is: a trap." If you don't own a copy of Self-Reliance already, I recommend the Domino version (and my translation as well to help you understand this important essay).
Get the Domino version here: Self-Reliance.
Get my translation here: Self-Reliance, Translated.
I'll leave you with a quote from Jesse Dylan:
I reread Self-Reliance a few times a year. It's always on my bedside table and I've done it for many years. Emerson's clear and true words ring like a bell. It keeps me on track. It's hard to follow your path or even to know what it is. There are constant distractions. This essay is a guide for how to realize your vision for your life.