It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original — Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations
One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates and all patchwork — Primo Levi, “Potassium,” The Periodic Table
Eugene Atget (1857-1927), The Petit Trianon
Dear friends and readers,
My theme: I’ve returned to an old love to do a new project: French-to-English and back again translations in the 18th century. I begin with Walter Benjamin and my own experiences, then cover Beebee’s book, Clary on the continent, Prevost’s different Clevelands, and various different telling individual cases (different Tom Joneses, Radcliffe’s translators); I end on Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” which deserves to be much better known.
I have a hard time remembering when I was not fascinated by translations. I think it began back in high school when at age 16 I read a probably poor translation into English of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I loved the book and wanted to know more about it, and especially I wanted to read it in French. Later on somehow reading a book in one language and then reading the same book in another gave me an experience of two weirdly interdependent books and thus worlds. When I was in college, I took French for all the years I could, extending my non-major following of it with one-credit courses: such courses met twice a week, but for one and one-half hours of sheer talk in French allowed using our books. We’d take turns using its conversations. Then in graduate school, I took a course in Italian over one summer to fulfill the language requirement (one had to pass two tests in two languages), and just loved the language, again enjoyed so much lining up a text in Italian aligned with its source or target text in English.
During the 1980s I re-taught myself to read French and read French novels, and then for over 20 years starting the middle 1980s I taught myself to read and to translate Italian and translated Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara’s poetry and then wrote an essay on Anne Finch’s translations out of the Italian though the French. Just what I had done at first for Colonna (and what I’ve done since for a poem by Elsa Morante I found in the original Italian with French text facing it).
So when over the past week I dropped one of my projects for this fall term, the paper on Paranoia and Infamy, I naturally turned to the proposal I wanted to send to Chawton, and was happy, even eager to reread some of my books on translation (Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, The Scandals of Translation, Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation). Did you know that over 90% of translations into the world are transations into English? how little translators are paid? How women’s writing begins in translation, how they express themselves through its covering medium?
I discovered my old folders filled with essays on translation, some read, some not read, and books and essays just on translation in the 18th century, the 19th and more recently.
My idea was Charlotte Smith’s translation of Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, or some study of intermediary texts between her later novels and Prevost and Rousseau, but to tell the truth I was not sure I could find something to extrapolate out of a tight narrow comparison. I do have Isabelle de Montolieu’s translation of one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer’s Tale (Corisande de Beauvilliers, and all of M. Montagne’s (whoever he is) French translation of Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake, which I also own in English. And of course Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility (with her preface) and soon will have her translation of Persuasion.
So I went about to look for previous work on individual books I’d done. I’ve now remembered my careful comparative reading of the opening of Radcliffe’s Udolpho with Victorine de Chastenay’s translation of the same text into French, something of Chastenay’s life (she was imprisoned during the terror and lost family members and emerged somewhat shattered and depressed, and various essays on 18th century translations of classics (Riccoboni and Davaux’s Tom Jones, a French and a Dutch translation of Prevost’s Cleveland contrasted to the French texts) and of course Prevost’s Clarisse.
And I’ve read away and reminded myself of what I once knew. So, I spent Tuesday I spent yesterday reading translation studies and then how women in particular use translation: how the earliest women writers began (felt they had license) by translating, how it works to free, a way to express what is otherwise forbidden (that’s how I see Smith’s translation of Manon Lescaut), a way of declaring love and wanting to share (Chastenay’s Udolpho).
I read Mirella Agorni’s poignant, The Voice of the ‘Translatress’: From Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Carter Author, The Yearbook of English Studies, 28 (1998 Eighteenth-Century Lexis and Lexicography): 181-95, and I compared a literal translation of Ovid’s Oenone to Paris with Aphra Behn’s translation/adaptation. In her case (as is not uncommon among men as well as women) she did not have any Latin, so someone gave her an intermediary crib. Behn turned the poem into erotica — on behalf of Oenone, a nobody. Since reading Germaine Greer’s persuasive debunking of all the myths growing up around Aphra Behn, including that she was an aristocrat (born on wrong side of blanket), supported herself sheerly by her playwriting (when it seems rather she combined being men’s mistresses with playwriting and verse, including translations, and pop novellas), I can see why she’d identify with Oenone.
Behn is worth remembering and this unashamed revelling in idyllic
pastoral too. Some of her most moving verses defend her as a translatress:
I by a double right thy Bounties claim,
Both from my Sex, and in Apollo’Ns ame:
Let me with Sappha and Orinda
Oh ever sacred Nymph, adorn’d by thee;
And give my Verses Immortality.
Jane Austen died declaring her immortality in defiance against everyone spending their afternoon so trivially.
‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!
The Abbe Prevost (1697-1763) translated all Richardson and Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph
Speaking very generally, as the century progressed and the novel achieved more respect, translations became more ostensibly faithful. Paradoxically at the same time (especially if you are working on the literal old model that a good translation is a sort of excellent crib — rather like those who go to movies and critique a film adaptation by how “literally” like it seemed to them to the book), translations became more creative. You can see how the author expressed her or himself through the medium.
Some of the best general essays written thus far on translation are general philosophical ones. A particularly rich one is by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”. He opens with what may seem a strange idea: “It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original.” The analysis in defense of this is brilliant and rich with ideas. One train of argument suggests that any translation is about the encounter of the two languages and two cultures. I find this to be so in my experience of translation. I don’t own the words I use and must use the words of my time and culture and watch them interact with the words and cultural assumptions and whole world view of the other language — French or Italian. He says the desire to translate comes partly from a love of a certain language. Again I know this is so.
I reread some of Beebee’s Clarissa on the Continent, about 18th century to modern translations of Clarissa — and abridgements. I know now the Broadveiw edition provides a new edition of the 3rd edition of Clarissa, thus replacing the now out-of-print 4 volume Everyman.
Beebee’s book includes a close reading of two contemporary translations of Clarissa: Prevost and Michaelis’s. He compares these two texts to Richardson’s 1st and 3rd editions of Clarissa (which are themselves different, though both think they must Frenchify the text from the point of view of French taste and ethics). Beebee teaches us how to read translations. He has a chapter where he surveys later translations and abridgements. Particularly of interest to me was Dallas’s abridgement as Trollope wrote a critique of that; it was the book 19th century readers knew Clarissa. After Dallas when some 19th century person says she’s read Clary it’s probably Dallas’s Clary.
In last chapter of Beebee’s book he compares Sherburn’s 1970s and Burrell’s 1950s abridgements. Most of the time today Clarissa is read in an abridgement in the US. In France they read Prevost’s translation (quite different in a number of ways from Richardson); in the US when I was in college (1960s) we read Burrell’s abridgement for Modern Library; the last decade or so students read Sherburn’s abridgement for Rinehart. Margaret Doody has a long article lambasting Sherburn (by the way).
I had been really delighted to come across for the first time ever a close reading and discussion of Burrell. I was not sure of his full name. His edition had never been acknowledged or described in print as far as I knew. I had read Doody and Stuber’s exposure of Sherburn’s abridgement as a far too personal, rigid, a narrow take with interjections by Sherburn (!), but never came across any commentary on Burrell.
It was Burrell’s abridgement of Clarissa that I first read at age 18-19 and was riveted by. I had the not uncommon experience of not being able to put the book down, of being gripped to read on and on into the wee hours of the dawn. The most vivid memory I had though was of disappointment; somehow or other I had missed the rape. I still remember hunting around the text the following morning (after a little sleep) and not finding it. Later false memories began to tell me I had found it later, but now I realize that in fact I must’ve read the rape for the first time in the Everyman reprint of Richardson’s 3rd edition.
Well, guess what? Burrell omitted it! He censored out the scene. It was in the Everyman I realized that Lovelace raped Clarissa in front of the other women; there I first read the famous passage where Clary says she will be his, just give her a bit of time right here, right now.
Nonetheless, I believe that Burrell’s edition influenced me & strongly; Burrell produces a romantic (vexed word I know, but I’m trying to use it in the common sense way of overwrought individualistic emotionalism and rebellion) text. Burrell will omit much surrounding matter here and there which qualifies Clarissa’s subjective interpretations and outcries. I’ve never read Sherburn so didn’t realize he actually interjects his own interpretation and sometimes himself imitates Lovelace — falls into Lovelace’s vein. Beebee shows how both men cut the book in ways which erase some of the worst aspects of Lovelace’s character. Reading them, though, against Richardson’s books teaches us what was most deeply meant to be expressed in the original — especially after you have studied a variety of translation and adaptations.
I probably loved Clarissa, was more grabbed by it in Burrell’s edition than I would have been in Richardson’s whole text. Burrell omitted much of the long fourth volume, especially all the Job passages and the gruesome and to me egregiously spiteful nasty dramatizations of the deaths of wicked people. He kept Lovelace’s agon, time at the assembly ball, the lead-up to the duel. (See how vicious the Deity can get; watch out is my gut response to these Burrell thought them in bad taste.) Burrell also turned Clary into a pre-Byronic heroine and softened the presentation of Lovelace.
So I was at long last vindicated. 40 years later I learned I didn’t miss the rape after all. I had not fallen asleep over my book.
Samuel Palmer (1805-81), A Dream in the Appenines (1864)
Some of the best studies I read yesterday were about the clash between cultures, languages, created worlds through languages though having the same literal stories and denotative word content, and even syntax (at times). You do have to read more than one language to do translation studies and as the central hegemonic languages in the 18th century for new literary movements were French and English, these are the languages most studies are in. I went into Annie Cointre, Alain Lautel and Annie Rivera’s La Traduction
romanesque au XVIII siecle, especially a long essay on Prevost’s
Cleveland — in French and English and Dutch versions. It brings home so many issues, including the way history was more valued than fiction and historians paid more, how this book applied to a naive desire to read history made easy and salacious (as in our time). This was by Ellen Ruth Moerman.
To do a translation study you must do book history. Prevost had several translators; his book came out in more than one edition and it was censored differently in different countries. The Dutch translator was quite content to translate anti-Catholic church commentary, but the Catholic French one was not. All of them stigmatize the Quakers (everyone dislikes quakers because people resent general non-conformity with the larger group). Then Prevost wanted partly to delude his British audience into thinking his book was really a history, really written first in English and had the English copy published before the French. There are two different prefaces: one published in English opens with a solemn discourse on the uses of history; the other in French is more tongue-in-cheek and he defends himself for writing a preface (what is this hypocrisy that prefaces are to be apologized for; they are needed) and insinuates if you enjoyed the Man of Quality, you’ll find him in this book again.
The 1997 BBC Tom Jones understood how important Fielding’s presence can be in the novel for the reader who wants over self-conscious wit, self-reflexive mockery
Two essays on the translations of Tom Jones, one by Kristina Taivalkoski-Shilove and another by Annie Rivara (on Riccoboni’s Amelie)
very worth while. It was fascinating to discover that the freer early translation by La Place was the Tom Jones most French readers knew and preferred; that it was a labor of love Davaux did when he translated faithfully and carefully and included all the opening narrator chapters. In the 20th century Tom Jones is reprinted in popular editions without these opening chapters. For me the book is ruined; much of the deep pleasure comes from the presence of the narrator. But apparently not for a mass readership who are said to lose “interest.” Amelia was not popular, and Riccoboni’s choice to do it came out of her deep engagement with its story of unhappiness in years of marriage.
From Christopher Cave I was delighted to learn that Andre Morellet, humane philosophe who translated Beccario’s treatise demonstrating that torture turns up no valid information translated Radcliffe’s Italian. He found in her a congenial reformist spirit, but he continually rationalized her prose. She produces a super-abundance of description which cannot depict reality so many experiences are piled into one. He choses a line of description that’s clear and readily pictured. What makes for her original depth psychologically and pictorially vanishes. It’s true you can’t make fun of her text and it’s no longer what some find tedious. I just love myself getting lost in labyrinths with endless doors and locks.
And I spent time with my old love, Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” (in a marvelous anthology put together by Reuben Brower, On Translation). Like Venuti, he shows that a translation is another text, and one that is creative in a different way. The translator (like an illustrator) can transcend the first text by transposing another personality into the key of his or her own. You strive after self-expression by looking into a pool of art. Instead of a translation being pouring new wine into an old or previously extant bottle, the translator is taking older wine and making a new bottle with it. The translator is herself a living vessel saturated with a sparkling spirit and recreates the container someone with whom he or she has an affinity has given a previous embodiment to. A good translation may be read for itself, without comparing it to the original work.