Marketing Voltaire: Tobias Smollett and the first edition of Voltaire’s works in English translation

Authors – or rather authorial brand names – sell books. They also sell translations. From the 1730s onwards, the name ‘Voltaire’ was well enough known in England to ensure that translations of his work were many and various, even if their reception was mixed. By the 1760s, as the prefatory Advertisement in The Works of Mr de Voltaire suggests, Voltaire’s reputation across Europe and the sheer quantity and complexity of his writings made a ‘complete and regular translation’ of his works an attractive prospect for booksellers. It was also an ambitious and risky one.

Tobias Smollett (unknown artist, c.1770, National Portrait Gallery).

The circumstances of Smollett’s involvement in the project are unclear. Unlike Voltaire, he did not oblige posterity by leaving a voluminous correspondence. However, the ‘learned Doctor Smollett’, as he was wryly dubbed, was an obvious choice as editor. He was a successful novelist and historian, as well as the translator of Gil Blas and Don Quixote. Crucially, as founding editor of the Critical Review, he was also an influential literary ‘gate-keeper’ in the London book business. The lustre of the Smollett name on the title page beneath that of Voltaire would maximise the prestige and credibility of the initiative and reduce the risks. It seems probable that Smollett was approached by the conger of seven booksellers whose names appear in all the volumes of the first edition. If that was indeed the case, their gamble paid off handsomely. A second edition of volume 1 followed hard on the heels of the first, of which few copies survive, suggesting that demand quickly outstripped the booksellers’ expectations. Some volumes appeared in as many as 6 editions by 1781, while further translations claiming to extend the edition were published well after Smollett’s death in 1771. To this day, however, the 36 volumes of The Works of Mr. de Voltaire published between 1761 and 1769 are commonly called the ‘Smollett edition’.

Title page of volume 1 of the second edition, which appears as vol.1 in most sets of the 1st edition.

As anyone familiar with the Voltaire Foundation will know, the production of Voltaire’s collected works, translated or otherwise, is a vast collaborative enterprise. And Smollett was no Besterman. He was neither the prime mover, nor the sole editor of the edition. Nor did he claim to be. In a letter to an American admirer in 1763 he admitted only to ‘a small part of the translation’, while his editorial notes in the 19 volumes of prose works that he oversaw suggest that his enthusiasm for ‘our author’, as he called Voltaire, was (at best) qualified. Although the title page in volume 1 of the 1761 edition attributes it solely to ‘Dr. Smollet [sic], and others’, by volume 2, the name T. Smollet, M.D. is joined by that of T. Francklin, M.A., one of the four ‘gentlemen of approved abilities’ who had worked with Smollett to launch the Critical Review. According to Eugène Joliat, the editors worked independently, and The Works of Mr de Voltaire were divided into two sets of volumes: Smollett took on the prose works, Francklin, a minor dramatist and successful translator, oversaw the set devoted to plays and poetry. But the active involvement of both men ceased in 1763, long before the first edition was completed.

The ‘Smollett edition’, therefore, is something of a misnomer. But that is not to belittle Smollett’s active editorial contribution. In a letter to Richard Smith, a month before he left for France in June 1763, Smollett indignantly declares himself ‘mortified’ by the rumour that he had merely lent his name to booksellers: ‘a species of Prostitution of which I am altogether incapable’. The charge was repeated, however, in the Monthly Review the following October in a bilious critique of the enterprise by William Kenrick, who had a score to settle with ‘the forehorse in the team of dulness’. ‘Poor’ Voltaire, lamented Kenrick, was the ‘mangled and expiring victim’ of ‘unknown and desperate bravoes’ whose intertextual butchery was endorsed by ‘men of character’ ready to make ‘a strange, and most illiberal sacrifice to Mammon’.

Monthly Review, October 1763.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle ground. Despite his success, Smollett was perennially short of money and doubtless exacted a substantial reward for his services from the booksellers. Moreover, he took care to distance himself from the translations themselves. But, as Chau Le-Thanh has shown, the copious ‘notes historical and critical’ in 19 volumes of the prose works are certainly his, and his role as editor (perhaps Francklin’s too) probably extended beyond that. Alexander Carlyle, describing a meeting with Smollett in 1758, hints at a possible scenario. He found Smollett in a coffee house among ‘minions to whom he prescribed tasks of translation, compilation, or abridgement, which, after he had seen, he recommended to the booksellers’.  It seems likely that Smollett turned to this atelier of ‘understrappers [and] journeymen’, as he describes them in Humphry Clinker, and set them to work on the laborious ‘business of book-making’ involved in this complex translation project.

Pages 5-6 of the Advertisement to the ‘Smollett’ edition (2nd edition).

Booksellers are not alone in being attracted by the aura of an author’s name. Scholars are similarly beguiled. Interest in the so-called ‘Smollett’ edition has come almost entirely from the field of English Studies and focuses primarily on Smollett’s part in it. Voltaireans have largely echoed Kenrick’s undifferentiated disdain for texts not penned by ‘their’ author. This is a missed opportunity. The edition is a remarkable example of ‘multiple translatorship’, and it was very successful throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. Its aim, as the Advertisement tell us, was not simply to assemble translations, but to ‘correct’, ‘elucidate’ and ‘explain’. The texts, peritexts and long afterlife of The Works of Mr de Voltaire have much to tell us about how Voltaire’s œuvre was represented, re-presented, and received by generations of English readers who wanted and needed to discover ‘Voltaire’ in their own tongue.

Adrienne Mason

2 thoughts on “Marketing Voltaire: Tobias Smollett and the first edition of Voltaire’s works in English translation

  1. Many thanks for this background on the “Smollett” edition ! Will the Voltaire Foundation be taking on a Complete Translated Works of Voltaire any time soon ? 🙂

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