The Challenges of translating Télémaque (1699)

A. J. B. Cremer read French and German at University College Oxford, completed a PGCE at King’s College London, and subsequently taught French and German. He has recently translated Fénelon’s ‘Adventures of Telemachus’, the first complete attempt in English prose for more than two hundred years. The book may be purchased from Amazon or ordered from Waterstones.

The challenge of any big translation project is to ensure that you have enough time available, the right books, and enough expertise, to complete the task of translating your chosen work to the highest possible standard.Time is essential because there can be no falling off in standard. There is no room for running out of time and then botching the bits you haven’t done yet. Private publishers like me may have an advantage here over translators working to a set deadline. A City accountant once told me that a lengthy accountant’s report might start well, but get ragged towards the end when the reader’s concentration had begun to fail. The implication was that the reader might, thankfully, not notice the falling off. But I regard 350 pages of English prose as akin to 350 separate unseens, each to be ‘handed in’ to the reader, the ultimate consumer, at the same professional standard, so far as humanly possible without any errors (though there is always plenty of room for debate on a multitude of borderline issues, and these should not be confused with errors: the most obvious example is perhaps how to translate tenses, which have so often been employed elastically in French). So that is the challenge of the task! A practical measure, therefore, was that I deliberately spent a good deal of time on later chapters to compensate for a natural tendency to lavish more attention on the earlier ones. Whether I succeeded is another matter.

What are the right books to have to hand when translating Fénelon? A first-class literary dictionary was needed, since Fénelon writes in an elevated style; and the translation of Télémaque would have been impossible without recourse to Littré. Happily, I possess a copy, carried home many years ago, when I was slightly fitter, in two trips from Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road. I consulted four other literary but non-technical dictionaries; each was helpful, but none came near to replacing Littré. After that, I used two dictionaries of classical French – two, only because the second confirmed or commented on the first, and occasionally added a further detail. On the English side, my comments about Littré apply just as much to the OED. But which edition? Whilst the latest edition would obviously have been desirable if accessible to me, the question ultimately boiled down to being a practical one. The print of the single-volume Compact OED, which is based on the second edition and which I have, was too microscopic to read. So I used an easy-to-read two-volume Compact OED instead which covers largely the same ground. In addition, I consulted two other high-quality literary dictionaries; older, more literary editions of the Concise Oxford Dictionary and the Pocket Oxford Dictionary; five volumes on English usage; three English grammars; three volumes on English idiom; and two volumes of synonyms. None of these resources was dispensable.

The third challenge is expertise. This may sound pretentious, but the fact remains that we should be well advised not to rush in where angels fear to tread. One highly regarded academic publisher, a household name, once put out a translation from seventeenth-century French which made no allowance at all for classical French usage, so that much of the translation was wrong. The problem always is, of course, that you don’t know what you don’t know, and this applies in the nature of the case more or less to everybody: it certainly does to me. So we need to find a method of guaranteeing the quality of our work, typically achieved through the process of reviewing our own work assiduously, but also through some system of external reviewing. That may be easier said than done, and my own attempts at collaboration fell flat. Fortunately, however, I have a wealth of outstanding interlocutors, they just happen to be dead. These are previous editors of Télémaque, no fewer than nine of them, mostly agrégés, who felt in duty bound to explain the language to the reader because it had moved on since the classical period. So I had, in effect, nine reviewers.

Now for more particular observations. First, classical French presents its own difficulties (one scholar said it ‘bristles with difficulties’). For example, does fier in a given sentence mean ‘fierce’ or ‘proud’? Both meanings were current, and the context may not settle the point. One can feel oneself turning into an Oscar Wilde, spending the morning putting a comma in, and the afternoon taking it out again. Perhaps the solution is just to make a choice and not disturb the reader with the problem: it doesn’t matter so very much. The same difficulty applies to admirer: does it mean ‘wonder at’ or simply ‘admire’, as today? This is easier to determine from the context, but still not obvious. Again, the word exagérer must surely mean ‘exaggerate’, no? But here we should rather put ‘emphasize’, which feels quite different. And so it goes on.

Secondly, I entered on the translation with Betty Radice’s injunction ringing in my ears: ‘Don’t improve on the original.’ Again, I do not mean to be pretentious. But Fénelon employed a restricted vocabulary and often chose the same word, as for example doux. At this point I must plead guilty of a refusal to follow the French slavishly and keep to the same translation as if it were a technical term that you needed to render consistently and without deviation all through, as you might do with Pascal. The same word (‘soft’, or ‘sweet’) might well not fit in best with the surrounding words. Perhaps here I am standing on my right to artistic licence!

So much for the mechanics of this translation. But why do it anyway, and why encourage readers to read it? That is not a difficult question. In the blurb for the back cover, I wrote in late November 2021: ‘Fénelon… here raises matters that still concern us more than three hundred years on, including the need to speak and listen to the truth’; and the very issue of truth-telling has dominated the news agenda in the UK ever since early December. I continued with ‘the folly of unjust wars’; and within three months Russia had invaded Ukraine. Another theme I picked out was ‘the conception of ruling as serving’; and discussion about whether our leaders serve us or themselves shows no sign whatever of abating. Because Télémaque was written for the eldest grandson of Louis XIV as a mirror for princes, and so makes observations on good government – as powerfully put as any writer has ever put them – it will always be highly relevant to questions of how we are governed and by what kind of persons. It will simply never go out of date.You might ask why, in that case, when it took Europe by storm probably as no other book has ever done, Die Leiden des jungen Werther included, it has stayed under the radar for so long. I have no evidence to support the theory, but I wonder whether Maggie Tulliver’s opinion of Télémaque as ‘mere bran’ (meaning ‘without flavour, without strength’) dealt the book’s reputation in Britain a blow from which it has not yet recovered. If so, that is a pity, especially as there is no adjective that applies less to Télémaque than ‘mere’: it is not ‘mere’ anything. It is an epic, written on grand and noble themes in a grand and noble manner for a grand and noble purpose. Indeed, I have characterised it in my Introduction, on the contrary, as ‘strong meat’. But why should it be mistaken for what it is not? One reason, as Fénelon himself observed, is that noble qualities can seem ‘dry and austere’ – less glamorous than self-serving and flashy ones. Another has to do with appeal. Like many others, I read Candide for A Level and loved it so much that I went on to read Theodore Besterman’s biography of the author. Télémaque may have been written to ‘amuse’ the Duke of Burgundy, but not by making him laugh; there are comic touches in Télémaque but not many; we read it for its beauty, profundity, and scintillating intelligence, not for its wit. Yet wit appeals strongly to us all, which is one reason why Candide continues to flourish – as does Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps Télémaque is just different from what we are used to. So give it a try! It’s not perfect; just eat it all, and spit out the bones!

Andrew Cremer

Death of the author? Translation and the potential loss of authorship in Voltaire’s Commentaire historique

Voltaire’s autobiographical work, Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. Avec les pièces originales et les preuves (1776), is a text that challenges our understanding of the nascent autobiographical form at the end of Ancien Régime France. The text itself is divided into three sections: a prose part recounting Voltaire’s life; a collection of letters that cover an array of topics; and a poem, Sésostris. Unlike the intimate je in Rousseau’s Confessions, Voltaire’s piece is written in the third person: the narrative je and Voltaire are distinct. This stylistic peculiarity problematizes the question of whether or not Voltaire truly is the author; scholars such as I. O. Wade and Raymonde Morizot have, in fact, suggested that Jean-Louis Wagnière, Voltaire’s secretary, was the author of this work, whereas Nicholas Cronk, in his critical introduction to the Commentaire, proves that Voltaire was in fact the author. While these debates are understandably centered on the French edition of the text, I believe that a consideration of translations of this work may help us to understand the fact that there was not a fixed contemporary understanding of Voltaire’s work. The 1777 London translation, published a year before Voltaire’s death in 1778, may do just that. Despite the fact that eighteenth-century translators regularly took creative liberties in their work (for example, the English translator indicates that the poetry in the prose part is translated such that the reader will be entertained, and thus is not translated literally), I believe that the translation in the London edition highlights a degree of uncertainty around the nature of the original Commentaire historique.

Title page of the 1777 English translation.

The translation of the title is radical: Historical Memoirs of the Author of the Henriade. With some Original Pieces. To which are added Genuine Letters of Mr. de Voltaire. Taken from his Minutes. Translated from the French. The text itself undergoes a slight generic change, from the historical commentary to the memoir. The notion of ‘proof’, present in the original title, is implied here in the idea of ‘genuine’ letters, taken from Voltaire’s own minutes, which are the principal type of proof given, clarifying the ambiguous pièces originales et les preuves of the French title. It is through this substitution that we better understand what ‘proof’ means. The inclusion of the term ‘minutes’ may also be used to underscore a degree of authenticity, perhaps referencing the fact that the letters were transcribed in a way that was common near the end of Voltaire’s life: Voltaire dictated the letters, and Wagnière transcribed them. From his hand or from his mouth, the words are originally Voltaire’s. Conversely, the distance between the author and the subject of the memoirs is accentuated through the double reference to Voltaire, once implicitly, once explicitly. Lastly, the English title is perhaps inspired by the final sentence of the prose section of the Commentaire historique, translated directly as: ‘We shall now give some genuine letters of Mr. de Voltaire, from his own minutes, which are at present in our hands, and shall only publish such as we imagine may be of general utility.’ This distance, present in the text, is moved to the forefront through its inclusion in the title.

These paratextual oddities are further highlighted by the inclusion of an Advertisement that is not present in the French edition. The translator writes: ‘No character in the literary world is so universally known, nor has [sic] the works of any writer of any age been sought after with such avidity as the writing of him who is the subject of the following Memoirs.’ This introductory sentence raises a question about the perceived vagueness of the authorship. Why include this advertisement if the work is understood to be autobiographical? Perhaps the London editors are making the claim that Voltaire is in fact not the author, but rather simply the subject; perhaps they still consider that Voltaire is the author but are striving to enhance radically the distance between the author and the autobiographical subject.

Beginning of the ‘Advertisement’ in the English translation.

The beginning of the French edition of the Commentaire begins thus:

‘Je tâcherai, dans ces Commentaires sur un homme de lettres, de ne rien dire que d’un peu utile aux lettres; et surtout de ne rien avancer que sur des papiers originaux. Nous ne ferons aucun usage ni des satires, ni des panégyriques presque innombrables, qui ne seront pas appuyés sur des faits authentiques.’

The French, here, sees a movement from the je to the nous. The English, however, begins:

‘In these Memoirs, the subject of which is a literary man, we shall endeavour to avoid every thing which may not in some degree tend to the advantage of letters, and particularly make it our care to advance nothing, except on the authority of original papers. No use shall be made of the almost innumerable satires and panegyrics which have been published, unless they are found to be supported by facts properly authenticated.’

While the first-person plural ‘we’ is present in both the French and English editions, the English translator relies on it almost exclusively, removing the author – the first person singular, the je, ‘I’ – almost entirely from the text. In fact, apart from instances where the first person pronoun ‘I’ appears within a letter, the English translator seems to use it only a handful of times, sometimes directly, such as in the case, ‘Although I think nothing is more insipid than the details of infancy…’ (p. 2), and sometimes simply to turn a phrase, ‘The fanaticism of Nonotte was so great, that in I don’t know what, philosophical, anti-philosophical, religious Dictionary…’ (p. 147). Largely, however, the French je becomes the English we: ‘J’ai entendu dire’ becomes ‘But we have heard’; while ‘J’étais en 1732 à la première représentation de Zaïre…’, ‘We were present at the first representation of Zara…’ (p.13). While the je of the French allows for the insertion of a narratorial intimacy, where the je is both a witness to the events of Voltaire’s life and functions as the closest thing there is to autobiographical intimacy provided in this work, the we in the English removes any presence of a singular, autobiographical intimacy.

I would like to posit that the London translation of Voltaire’s Commentaire historique embodies contemporaneous uncertainty around the authorship of Voltaire’s autobiography. When the English edition was published in 1777, Voltaire was still alive. Are the changes thus simply superficial, ludic gestures on the part of a translator who was seeking to carry on Voltaire’s autobiographical game? Or do they lend themselves to a new understanding about how the English translators understood the authorship of the Commentaire? Regardless, the London edition complicates our understanding about the perceived authorship of the Commentaire historique following its publication near the end of Voltaire’s life.

– Ryan Brown, PhD student, University of Chicago

The race competition

An old photograph of the former home of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Belles Lettres, and Arts at Bordeaux. It was located on the fashionable Avenue du Tourny.

On January 15, 2019, I received an unexpected phone call from Henry Louis Gates Jr. I had never met the famous Harvard professor, but he asked me if I’d be interested in doing a book with him on a curious essay competition organized by Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739. The winning of these ‘prize puzzles’, as they were called in eighteenth-century English, had often transformed people’s careers. The most famous example of this is, of course, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who submitted his famous essays on ‘the sciences and the arts’ and the ‘origins of inequality’ to two such contests.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours qui a remporté le prix à l’Académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette question proposée par la même académie: si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs. Par un citoyen de Genève (Genève, 1750/1751).

Bordeaux’s 1741 competition was quite pointed: it focused on the source or causes of black skin and hair. This was actually one of the biggest ‘anthropological’ questions of the day, linked as it was to the larger question of how all of humankind’s varieties – they were not yet called races – came into being, and how they related to each other, or not.

Explanations related to Black skin had been circulating for twenty-five centuries before the Bordeaux contest. But the 1741 competition was the first time that a scientific institution invited Europe’s best thinkers to envision an entire sub-species of humans in terms of separate genealogies and separate categories. It is hard, now, not to marvel at the audacity of this French provincial Academy.

The first page of essay number 2, as submitted by its author.

Long story short, Skip Gates (as he is known in more informal settings) and I spent months figuring out just how to contextualize the contest. In addition to a substantial introduction, we decided that we would add a history of race timeline. He came up with a great title for the book: Who’s Black and Why? A hidden chapter from the eighteenth-century invention of race (Belknap/Harvard, 2022).

The resulting book dives deeply into this strange contest: its strange result (which I will not reveal here), the academy members themselves, as well as the history of the Port city of Bordeaux, whose slave-trading vessels ultimately carried 150,000 enslaved Africans to the New World. Slavery is, of course, the unstated link between the contest and the fascination with African skin.

To a certain extent one might say this book is slice of history, a microhistory of how race came about. Yet Who’s Black and Why? is also a macrohistory because the essays from the contest – they came from as far as Germany, Sweden, and Ireland – might also be seen as a European focus group, or a core sample of what Europeans thought about what was considered humankind’s most ‘extreme variety’, dark-skinned Africans.

Regarding the contest itself, the Academy of Sciences was primarily interested in naturalistic (not religious) explanations for blackness. And they received many ‘physical’ explanations, most of them pseudoscientific absurdities. One contestant maintained that blackness came from the vapours that emanated from the skin; another that the power of a pregnant mother’s imagination had imprinted a dark colour on her child and its descendants; a third claimed that blackness was passed on from person to person through darkened sperm; a fourth that the stifling heat and humidity of the Torrid Zone stained the skin and clouded the humours. Present in these essays, however, were also the three major tendencies that became the foundation for the new idea of race that was taking shape during the Enlightenment.

Herman Moll, geographer; Thomas and John Bowles, publishers: Negroland and Guinea with the European Settlements …  Atlas minor (London, 1729). The French slave port of Gorée appears in the upper left section of the map. By the time the Bordeaux slave trade had begun to rise, the entire west coast of Africa had been colonized by European powers.

The first was that of genealogy. Nearly a decade before Buffon published his own theory of degeneration in the third volume of his Histoire naturelle (1749), one of the thinkers posited that an original prototype human race moved around the globe and morphed into humankind’s many varieties as a result of climate and different types of food.

The second tendency is the rise of anatomical theories related to the source of blackness. This was best exemplified by the only contestant who ultimately published his essay after the contest: a surgeon named Pierre Barrère, who had been a surgeon on a plantation in Guiana. Barrère’s so-called findings – he maintained that his studies demonstrated that Africans had black blood and bile – were republished throughout Europe, in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and even cited by Thomas Jefferson.

Title page of Pierre Barrère, Dissertation sur la cause physique de la couleur des nègres, de la qualité de leurs cheveux, et de la dégénération de l’un et de l’autre, par M.*** docteur en médecine de l’université de Perpignan (Paris, P.-G. Simon, 1741) (public domain, digitised by Google).

And there was a third tendency in the essays as well. In addition to the aforementioned genealogical and anatomical theories, some essays revealed a classificatory impulse, a desire to break humankind down into discrete sub-species or races. Twenty-five years later, thinkers including Blumenbach and Kant would bring human taxonomies to a new level, providing the essential infrastructure for organizing centuries of xenophobia into trenchant categories.

Who’s Black and Why? is designed to be helpful for both researchers and students. To that end we have also created an extensive timeline of the history of race We hope that this, and the book itself, will be a gateway into a curious moment in Enlightenment-era history, one where science was actively claiming jurisdiction over the human species.

Andrew S. Curran, William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities, Wesleyan University