On translating the hasty writing of encyclopedia articles

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Translating French and Spanish encyclopedia articles from the Enlightenment into English is not easy. There are, of course, the typical problems that one encounters when doing any translation, such as negotiating between surface meanings and deep meanings, dealing with false cognates, contending with idiomatic expressions, and deciding whether to go with a literal or an idiomatic translation. However, when dealing with encyclopedia articles that were written at a furious pace for the gargantuan compilations that were the Encyclopédie méthodique and its Spanish translation, the Encyclopedia metódica, there emerges the problem of translating hurried and at times careless writing that was possibly never proof-read, and certainly never corrected. Knowing that eighteenth-century encyclopedists worked under stringent publication deadlines, the vexed but somewhat amused translator could hardly blame them for suffering the all-too-common professional flaw of careless writing.

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) Artist: Rembrandt

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) (Rembrandt, ca. 1652; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This is what my co-translator, Clorinda Donato, and I encountered when preparing our volume, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, for which we translated and annotated the articles ‘Espagne’ (from the Méthodique) and ‘España’ (from the Metódica). Although the articles are generally well written, there are nevertheless moments when authors Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers and Julián de Velasco felt the urgency of their task and careened their way through long, convoluted sentences without ever looking back. That a pronoun lost track of its referent, or that a verb strayed so far from its subject that it forgot whether it should be singular or plural mattered little when the encyclopedia mill had to keep grinding. Reading these articles I also find passages where the zeal to badmouth Spain’s backwardness or defend its misunderstood Enlightenment overrode any respect for the conventions of grammar. The passions aroused by Enlightenment debate were just too strong to obey the strictures of the Académie Française and the Real Academia. Indeed, these are the moments when Masson and Velasco are most fun to read.

Annotating these translations also revealed an interesting consequence of such hasty writing. While citing, copying, and paraphrasing was a regular practice among eighteenth-century scholars, the verification of information was not. If a scholar cites a source that is based on a citation that is based on another citation that is based on another citation and so on, that scholar will likely have in his hands a cumulative error, a product of distortions and embellishments. This is what we find in Masson’s negative portrayal of Spain and the Inquisition. Where he cites sources that have been embellished, he enters the fray by adding yet another layer of gleeful embellishment. Indeed, it would not be entirely wrong to say that the polemic emerging out of Masson’s infamous question ‘What does Europe owe Spain?’ is in large measure the result of an Enlightenment version of the game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).

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A Scene in a Library (photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, ca.1844; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But if haphazard writing and cumulative error are endemic to encyclopedia culture, then how can Enlightenment discourse ever safeguard itself from the vagaries and flighty opinions of scholars such as Masson? This is precisely the question that our volume seeks to answer. By translating and juxtaposing Masson’s and Velasco’s articles on Spain, we see how the Spaniards object to being the butt of the joke running down the telephone chain of French philosophie, and how they insist that the discourse of Enlightenment return to its more noble purpose of advancing civility and rational exchange.

– Ricardo López

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills

 

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