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

2 thoughts on “The Challenges of translating Télémaque (1699)

  1. What a great project! I ordered the book earlier today and look forward to reading it. Thank you in advance for what surely must have been a great deal of work.

  2. Hello, Calixtus, and thank you! I hope you enjoy reading Fénelon’s masterpiece in translation. It was indeed, with much requiring comment: the many echoes of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace; the mythological background; the biblical, geographical, and historical allusions too.

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