Translating Voltaire: past and present
In his study of Voltaire and England (1976), André-Michel Rousseau gives Voltaire’s contemporary translators short shrift. He dismisses most English translations of the contes out of hand. They are ‘platement littérales, lourdes et fades’ (flat, literal, heavy and colourless). Translations of the plays fare better, but only because they aren’t translations at all. They are rewritings. Only historical and philosophical works escape unscathed. They are hardly altered by translation. Mercifully, translators couldn’t do them much damage.
Such withering – and blinkered – judgements reflect a persistent trope in Western thinking. Common metaphors of translation (an unfaithful mistress, a mirror, the distorted image on the back of a tapestry…) always emphasise negation – what translation is not, rather than what it is. Measured on a notional scale of sameness to the ‘original’, any translation, however brilliantly executed, will always fall short, a dull satellite orbiting the dazzling planet of the source text. A ‘translator’, by the same token, can never equal an ‘author’. Alexander Pope, for example, describes Homer’s hapless translators struggling to keep up the pace: ‘sweating and straining after [the author] by violent leaps and bounds, [or] slowly and servilely creeping in his train’ (preface to The Iliad of Homer, p.20). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Rousseau warned fellow scholars not to waste time on translations. An endless catalogue of egregious errors would add nothing to our knowledge of Voltaire. In any case, no translator could argue the toss with Voltaire.
It is now over fifty years since Barthes (1967) and Foucault (1969) challenged conventional concepts of authorship and declared ‘the author’ dead. One might, therefore, reasonably assume that ‘the translator’ perished in the same theoretical tsunami. Up to a point that is true. As objects of academic study, translated texts and those who produce them have come into their own. Translation Studies are now established across the globe as a distinctive interdisciplinary field, and funding bodies look favourably on research projects with a focus on translation. Theorists agree that translations are produced not by solo translators but by multiple agents; they are autonomous texts functioning independently within the literary system in which they are received. Translators need many of the same skills as authors, but they deploy them differently. They work bilingually to construct hybrid texts comparable with, but not the same as, the ‘source’ texts to which they are intertextually linked. Translated texts and those who create them are, thus, agents in the afterlife of the source text. As such, they merit scholarly examination in their own right. These theoretical and institutional advances are opening the way for exciting – and long overdue – projects on translations of Voltaire and the context of their reception.
But that is only part of the story.
Practice has not kept pace with theory. Academics can now research translation, they can teach courses on it, but they are not paid to do it. In other words, the distinctive contribution to knowledge made by translators as translators is still unacknowledged at an institutional level. This disjunct between theory and practice is not a trivial anomaly. It is a primary factor in a worrying drop in translation commissions among Anglophone academic publishers.
Does that matter?
As Voltaire points out: ‘il en coûte toujours quelques fatigues à lire des choses abstraites dans une langue étrangère’ (reading about abstract matters in a foreign language always entails a certain amount of effort). Translations exist, in other words, because readers need them. The prevalence of English as the lingua franca of academic exchange should not blind us to the fact that a great deal of leading-edge research is published in other languages. Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes are proof of that. But there is a clear resistance to scholarship produced in languages other than English (Sapiro, p.3-4), a monolingual bias compounded in the US and UK by the steady erosion of modern language learning. Fewer and fewer researchers beyond the confines of French Studies are able (or willing) to access texts published in French. Without translations, therefore, the impact of the groundbreaking scholarship in the Œuvres complètes will be significantly reduced. But without a funding model that recognises translation as a valid scholarly output, translation commissions within the academic publishing sector will dwindle still further.
In recent decades, the landscape of academic publishing has changed almost beyond recognition. Academic texts, translated or not, can be funded, produced and disseminated differently. It is a kairos, a moment of opportunity to mainstream translators and translation networks within research communities. Knowledge production is dynamic, and the increased synchronicity afforded by new technologies allows more proactive collaboration between different participants (editors, translators, authors, copyright holders, designers, technicians) and expands conventional limits of ‘translatorship’. As a recent pilot partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and the University of Bristol has shown, the virtual space of the Voltaire Lab is an ideal environment in which to create a global translation network, producing new texts which contribute to the transdisciplinary afterlife of the Œuvres complètes. The long-term aim of the project, which is part of Voltaire Foundation’s Digital Enlightenment project funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, is to put in place a translation ‘laboratory’, making key textual and peritextual scholarship in the Œuvres complètes available (initially in English) to researchers across the disciplinary spectrum.
Today’s general reader is spoilt for choice as regards translations of Voltaire’s best-known works, but scholars are less well served. Funding is a primary obstacle. Quality another. While volunteer networks can be a partial solution, competent academic translators are thin on the ground (Sapiro, p.185). Postgraduate programmes in translation, however, are flourishing and the opportunity to translate complex texts for which there is a genuine market is valuable training for today’s students, especially if they can work in a supportive environment. The Voltaire Foundation, therefore, formed a partnership with the University of Bristol and trialled the translation of the article Goût from Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as the basis for a Master’s dissertation. The relationship between the student and the Foundation broadly paralleled that between translator and client, but the task brief and records of student / ‘client’ exchanges were shared with the dissertation supervisor, who worked with the student in the normal way. Full responsibility for assessment remains with the University, while the Foundation will liaise independently with the student about publication in the Voltaire Lab, a prestigious showcase for her practical skills.
The success of the pilot project is encouraging, and in the first instance the collaborative model will be expanded to include other partner institutions with the aim of producing a series of themed translations from the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Once translation guidelines are fully developed, the network can be extended to include undergraduate (and other) volunteers. In due course, larger collaborative translation projects could be initiated, potentially exploring the power of translation tools to accelerate the rate of production. Practice-based doctorates are increasingly common in post-graduate programmes, and joint funding bids could include the production of new translations as one of their research objectives.
In practical terms, a global translation network within the Voltaire Lab integrates translation production within a wider research agenda, combats the decline in conventional translation commissions, and raises the institutional status of academic translators. From a theoretical perspective, however, it does much more than that. It reconfigures the relationship between translatorship and authorship within the cycle of knowledge production. Translators do not straggle and struggle after authors as Pope implies. They pick up the baton from them, taking their texts forward into the future. They work collaboratively to craft new – quite different – texts: ‘translations’, intertextually linked to an anterior ‘source’ text, but destined and designed for new markets and new readers.
– Adrienne Mason
 See Venuti, L. (ed.), Teaching Translation: Programs, Courses, Pedagogies (Abingdon & New York, 2017), p.4-7.
 Frisani, M., McCoy, J. A. and Sapiro, G. (2014), ‘Les traducteurs de sciences humaines et sociales aux États-Unis et au Royaume-Uni’, in Sciences humaines en traduction. Les livres français aux États-Unis, au Royaume-Uni et en Argentine, ed. G. Sapiro (Paris, 2014), p.158–74 (166-68).