The problems with translating Voltaire two hundred and fifty years on

Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif in its German translation by Angelika Oppenheimer.

My translation of Voltaire’s first (1764) version of Dictionnaire philosophique portatif appeared in 2020 under the imprint of Reclam. Mine is the first complete translation of this version, previous translators having made their own selections from a text that had been expanded by Voltaire himself on several occasions. The chapters are not written in a severe academic style, but directly address the reader or take the form of dialogues. The book is designed to entertain the reader at the same time as informing him or her, and therein lies one reason for the problems it presents to a translator.

Although we still laugh for nearly the same reasons as people did 250 years ago, the objects of our mirth may have changed, and we have to understand that. If we do not understand the text we cannot be amused. Today we know a lot about science, but Voltaire himself was quite well informed. Despite the differences, in most cases we can understand what he means, and we can smile at the way he explains things. History is another matter. We know more than he did. There have been many archaeological excavations and new finds since he wrote his book, especially in Israel and the so-called Holy Land. Some of his explanations are therefore not clear to us unless we do some research.

Voltaire quotes people and theories from antiquity until his century on the basis of authorities that are largely unknown to us, but which were well known and often quoted in his own time. The most recent edition by the Voltaire Foundation thus contains many footnotes to enable us to understand Voltaire’s meanings. He very often quotes authors ironically in order to amuse his readers with their wrong explanations. But we often do not know these sources today. It is especially difficult when it comes to authors who had written for the Roman Catholic Church, because then he is not allowed to speak bluntly, to mention their real names or functions. His contemporaries knew who was meant by his description but we do not. Even historical events could be quoted and criticized only so long as the historical narrative accepted by the church authorities was not challenged. In general, Voltaire had to be very cautious with his criticism in matters concerning the Pope and the Vatican.

I might quote as an example the article ‘Chinese catechism’, where Voltaire says that the obsession with castrating young boys to serve kings as eunuchs seems to him a major affront to human nature (p.128). He has his king say that he accepts that cockerels are castrated to make them taste better, but that he has not yet known eunuchs to be put on the spit. Then the king continues: ‘The Dalai Lama has fifty of them to sing in his pagoda. I would like very much to know if the Chang-ti (their god) enjoys hearing the clear voices of these fifty geldings?’ When Voltaire wrote these words, his readers knew who was meant and what was really the subject of the conversation. Now, though, when I gave my translation to a really well-informed friend, she asked me what was meant.

Ludovico Magnasco receiving the new constitution for the choir from Pope Paul III in 1545 (Wikimedia).

French intellectuals in Voltaire’s time knew something about China and circumstances in Tibet, and about the Dalai Lama, and so they knew who was meant by Voltaire’s setting. It was of course the Pope, whose choir of 60 eunuchs existed until the end of the 19th century. Voltaire would have had reason to fear that the Pope would act against him. The book was banned by the French parliament on 9 March 1765, and copies of it were burned in Geneva and Bern. When, in a previous sentence, Voltaire speaks of kings who had seven hundred concubines and thousands of eunuchs to serve them, it is an ironic exaggeration and an allusion to Solomon, which might not be understood without a footnote. But this was what he was allowed to write. The reference to Solomon can be found in the footnotes of the French edition. Probably readers in Voltaire’s time had no problem. They had to know their Bible, and so could smile at Voltaire’s account.

Robert Estienne, Dictionarium latinogallicum (Paris, 1538) (Universidad Complutense de Madrid).

Another problem is that words have sometimes changed their meaning during the centuries since Voltaire, and without the Dictionnaires historiques et critiques, whose history begins with the Dictionarium latinogallicum of Robert Estienne (1538), I would have been lost. They enabled me to know what had been the real sense of the words as used by Voltaire. Words in the German language have also sometimes changed their sense. We can find the history in the dictionaries of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the Duden, although what I needed was not knowledge about the development of the German language. The first Dictionnaire l’Académie française was published in 1694, the year of Voltaire’s birth. Its fourth edition was published in 1762, two years before the publication of the Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, and may have confirmed Voltaire in his own project: Enlightenment.

Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (Paris, 1694) (BnF).

Some of the expressions used by Voltaire cannot be found before the edition of 1762. One of these is the plural of hell, ‘les enfers’, as the term for the ancient underworld. There was only one Jewish-Christian Hell, but several pagan kingdoms of the dead. These differed depending on where they had existed, whether in Egypt, in Babylon, or in Greece and Rome. The Europeans even had some knowledge of Chinese ideas about life after death. Some monks had been in China in the 17th century and had written about their experiences. The expression mostly used in German for the kingdom of the dead in antiquity was ‘Hades’, which in France was understood as the name of the god. It is the same with some other words with which we are not very familiar, and sometimes cannot find in our normal dictionary.

The Dictionnaires d’autrefois are highly informative about usage in former times. The many examples quoted from different writers in Voltaire’s time help us to strike the right note in translating him. I myself had sometimes failed to see where the irony of a comment lay because I knew the critical word only from another context. Perspectives may change with the passing of time, so that at first sight we do not see what is meant. Which brings me to one of Voltaire’s own themes. Some people and institutions have an interest in changes in the social perspective, and, in some ways, not so much has changed since Voltaire’s time. However, speech patterns were developed that drew people’s thoughts in particular directions. This was already beginning in Voltaire’s time, and Voltaire noticed and criticized it. His Pocket Philosophical Dictionary is designed to be thought-provoking, to bring us to a proper understanding as to who is attempting to exert influence and the ways such attempts may be made, so that we may become able to resist them. The book has occasionally borne the alternative title: Reason in alphabetical form (La Raison par alphabet, 2 vols, [Genève], 1769).

The Enlightenment philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac thought that it is only by knowing what we have been seeing wrongly that we can learn to do things better. The Pocket Philosophical Dictionary contains so much that we do not know any more: a look inside and we will become ‘enlightened’. It is for this very reason that I want Reason in alphabetical form to be read by as many people as possible.

– Angelika Oppenheimer

Making sense of and with the past: catastrophe, narrative, historicity and the early pandemic

Right at the start of the UK lockdown, illustrator Cat O’Neil produced an image to accompany a Financial Times piece on pandemic-themed reading. In this image, itself an homage to a depiction of an eleventh-century St. Vitus Dance by seventeenth-century engraver Matthäus Merian, medieval peasants are dancing hand-in-hand with people in modern dress and face masks, the scenery blending from church and barn to a row of London terraced housing. What I love about this piece is how well it captures our response to catastrophe as a disruption of the order of things; in particular, how we look to the past for images and stories to get a handle on a present in flux. To use the terminology of memory studies, past epidemics were ‘premediating’ narratives for the progress of Covid-19; O’Neil’s image remediates such events, and transmits other resonances accreted along the way. When I saw it, I immediately thought of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, the game we imagine children playing in the time of plagues in what is mostly likely a fictional provenance.

© Cat O’Neil. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Around that same time a fair number of people turned, perhaps surprisingly, to eighteenth-century texts to make sense of what they were experiencing. Between organising in our local area and adapting to new ways of teaching, my partner and I were, like many others, reading Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year – one of the books discussed in the FT piece. We were amazed by how strongly it resonated with our experience of the pandemic-present in London, recognising the narrator’s relation of the consumption and circulation of statistics, and even his assessment of differential vulnerability within the population of the city. We were able to read about others doing the same thing; Catherine Malabou, for instance, turned to Rousseau’s isolation in Messina (which he himself coded as a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ experience) to try to find ‘solitude within isolation’. Finding imperfect resonances in these texts helped us to appreciate and deal with new experiences. At that time, I found reflections on this process more meaningful than the coincident rush to claim the pandemic for particular theories/theorists.

Eighteenth-century French writers themselves used stories of catastrophes past to address uncertainties about the identity of their present, the role of the past, and the trajectory of the future. In the process, they created what François Hartog calls ‘regimes of historicity’, that is to say, principles by which the relationships between past, present and future are governed. In Narrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature, I focalise catastrophe through four modes: bringing, suffering, prophesying/predicting, and witnessing. These modes are explored through four corresponding figures, some familiar to any literary scholar working on time, others specific to the eighteenth century: the barbarian as the bringer of catastrophe to civilisation (in histories and philosophe works), chivalrous victims of usurpation (in historical fiction), ghosts and time-travellers (in Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s visions of present and future Paris), and Bastille martyrs (placing Henri Masers de Latude’s prison memoirs alongside the work of Sade). An expansive understanding of what counts as a catastrophe narrative – for eighteenth-century writers, catastrophe could still bring to mind the turning point of a drama and could even name an unexpected happy outcome – draws out catastrophe’s role as a meaning-maker expressing hopes as well as fears.

I was especially interested in how the kind of figure we see in O’Neil’s image – coded as ‘medieval’ – was the object of greater focus, part of an increasing interest in the mediating period, often coded as a catastrophic interlude, between ancient and modern. Feelings of closeness to and distance from that middle period were fraught, and were used to fix who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ of a present community oriented towards the future. Frequently cast as barbarian to the ancient/modern civilisé, the medieval was made by a writer like Voltaire to accept the qualities that he saw as having no role in the present. This move was played with by Mercier, who casts eighteenth-century Paris as Gothic to the twenty-fifth century’s Enlightened; a way to warn his own present to shape up if it wants to avoid the return of a Dark Age. A medievalist writer like Baculard d’Arnaud turned to medieval France to recover a lost sensibility, casting the crusades as a foundational catastrophe that also provides an essentially gallant and chivalrous French nation with an origin story. In a telling echo of my reading of O’Neil’s illustration, he even claims this closeness on the basis of a fake medieval text. We do not find, in the eighteenth century, the self-conscious medievalist catastrophilia of Chateaubriand, who lamented an ‘administrative’ present which trivialises the cholera epidemic, and who dreamed of the sublimity of epidemics attended by monks and religious terror (Mémoires d’outre-tombe, ed. Levaillant and Moulinier, 2 vols (Paris, 1951), vol.2, p.534-45). However, the challenge and fascination of a period characterised as catastrophe, but also rejuvenation, as other and ancestor, was growing.

There is something a bit uncomfortable or embarrassing about returning to the early moments of the pandemic – to the theoretical claims, but also to the reflections, the reading and the experiences from a time when the usual order was disrupted but the violence, in the form of lives lost and economic deprivation, was mostly still to come. We now see not only how selective all those feelings of connectedness with the past were, but also how premature were some of the hopes connected with the pandemic. Hopes for lasting change for the better; hopes that the inequalities and self-destructive tendencies revealed in our societies could no longer be ignored. Hopes, in essence, for hope itself – rather than a future which, Hartog has argued, our ‘presentist’ regime of historicity renders as either the more-of-the-same, or menacing. Although only the final chapter deals directly with the French Revolution, it provides a vantage point on the different historicities uncovered throughout the book. This is not the ‘real’ historical Revolution, but rather revolutionary events as they were emplotted by their contemporaries, claimed as catastrophic or revelatory depending on their position, and accordingly freighted with fear or hope. For authors writing before, whether they were explicitly projecting into the future like Mercier, or reaching back to the medieval past like Baculard d’Arnaud, they were crafting a vision of the French nation within history which was disrupted in 1789. Embarrassment can be very revealing: Mercier and Latude engaged in continuous rewriting in order to better claim the role of revolutionary prophet or martyr. Baculard – once so popular – finds himself dismissed as a relic of the ancien régime.

We, too, have seen our connections and analogies come loose; a sense of the pandemic as a repetition of something from the past has ceded as the many threads of distinct future problems become clearer, just as the early ‘we’re all in this together’ narratives have unravelled. The book is a work of critique, seeking in part to expose embarrassments, narratives that go nowhere, attempts to recast contemporaries as anachronisms. But it also aims to understand how reactivating and repurposing stories allows an author to claim points of similarity as anchors, fixing a perspective from which to appreciate some differences between past and present, or imagine some futures – while obscuring others. Our premediating narratives necessarily obscure aspects of our experience, but we cannot even begin to make sense without them.

Jessica Stacey (Queen’s College, Oxford)

A version of this text appeared in the Liverpool University Press Blog.

Narrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Voltaire à Sherbrooke: l’histoire de la collection Lambert-David

En mai 2021, on m’a approchée pour procéder à la numérisation d’une collection d’archives pour le ‘projet Voltaire’. Malgré le nom très révélateur, j’étais loin de me douter qu’il s’agissait d’un ensemble de manuscrits voltairiens comprenant quelques documents ‘inédits’. C’est lorsque j’ai consulté la première série de correspondance et aperçu le sceau de Voltaire que j’ai réalisé la valeur archivistique exceptionnelle de cette collection ainsi que la chance incroyable que j’avais d’y avoir accès. Le fait est que j’habite dans la ville de Sherbrooke au Québec, très loin du lieu où a résidé Voltaire. La première question me venant à l’esprit est: comment ces documents sont-ils arrivés jusqu’ici? Je me suis entretenue avec le propriétaire de la collection, le professeur Peter Southam de l’Université de Sherbrooke, pour en apprendre davantage sur l’histoire de la collection.

Sonia Blouin: Bonjour Pr. Southam, j’aimerais bien comprendre comment des manuscrits voltairiens sont-ils arrivés au Québec. Autrement dit, qui a assemblé la collection et comment est-elle parvenue jusqu’à vous?

P.S.: La collection a été assemblée par quatre générations de la famille de ma mère, Jacqueline Lambert-David, propriétaire du château de Ferney de 1848 à 1999. Mais pour comprendre l’origine de la collection, il faut remonter un peu plus loin…

Voltaire est décédé à Paris dans l’hôtel particulier de son proche ami, le marquis de Villette. Ce dernier a subséquemment acquis de Madame Denis la propriété de Ferney, château de Voltaire. Il avait conservé le cœur de Voltaire et le déposa dans un sanctuaire faisant partie d’une sorte de petit musée à la mémoire du philosophe qu’il avait aménagé dans le ‘Grand Salon’ et dans la chambre de Voltaire, au rez-de-chaussée du château. Depuis ce temps, le château est demeuré un lieu de mémoire visité par le public de façon régulière. Le marquis de Villette ne reste pas propriétaire du domaine très longtemps, mais ceux qui lui ont succédé à ce titre ont tenu à maintenir la tradition commémorative qu’il avait inaugurée. Le comte Jacques-Louis de Budé, qui acquit les lieux en 1785 et qui demeura propriétaire jusqu’à sa mort en 1844, a continué cette tradition en laissant le public visiter l’endroit pendant 60 ans. Durant les premières années de sa résidence à Ferney, ce dernier était en contact permanent avec l’ancien secrétaire de Voltaire, Jean-Louis Wagnière, qui fut élu à la mairie de Ferney en 1792 et qui résida au village jusqu’à sa mort en 1802. Wagnière avait gardé un grand nombre de manuscrits de son ancien maître. Comme plusieurs de ces manuscrits étaient clairement d’intérêt local, mettant en scène des personnages du pays de Gex encore vivants à cette époque, il n’est pas étonnant que Budé s’y soit intéressé. Un exemple serait la correspondance entre Voltaire et Louis Gaspard Fabry, subdélégué de l’intendant de Bourgogne et maire de Gex, concernant la terre de Ferney et plus généralement les affaires du pays de Gex. Par la suite, comme il était coutume quand un domaine changeait de mains que des papiers ayant trait à la propriété soient transférés en même temps, c’est probablement ainsi que mon ancêtre Claude-Marie David est entré en possession de certains manuscrits voltairiens lorsqu’il acheta le château de la succession de Jacques-Louis de Budé en 1848.

Lettre de Voltaire à Louis Gaspard Fabry, f.2v (D8607).

La collection d’archives voltairiennes fut par la suite développée par la fille et le gendre de Claude-Marie David, soit Hortense David et son mari le sculpteur Emile Lambert. En 1884, par l’entremise du libraire et archiviste-paléographe Etienne Charavay, ils ont acquis une quantité de correspondances de Voltaire appartenant à la collection du chimiste, industriel et grand collectionneur d’autographes, Augustin-Pierre Dubrunfaut (1797-1881). Il n’est pas sans rapport, qu’Emile Lambert travaillait à cette époque sur la statue ‘Voltaire à vingt-cinq ans’, une statue qui sera inaugurée en 1887 dans la cour d’honneur de la mairie du 9e arrondissement, à Paris. Le couple fit également l’acquisition de plusieurs autres manuscrits voltairiens datant d’avant et d’après l’établissement de Voltaire à Ferney.

De ma connaissance, mes grands-parents Pierre et Suzanne Lambert-David, qui se sont occupés de la collection après le décès d’Hortense en 1916, n’y ont pas ajouté de façon significative. La collection est demeurée non inventoriée, et dans un état plutôt désordonné jusqu’à ce que ma mère, Jacqueline Lambert-David, la prenne en charge à son tour au moment du décès de ma grand-mère en 1968. Jacqueline était passionnée de Voltaire et de l’histoire de Ferney. Elle était aussi une proche amie de certaines descendantes de Jacques-Louis de Budé. C’est par cette connexion qu’elle a acquis, dans les années 1950, un intéressant ensemble de manuscrits concernant un différend entre l’horloger Ambroise Decroze et le curé de Moëns, Phillip Ancien, auquel Voltaire s’était mêlé. Jacqueline avait épousé un Canadien pendant la Guerre et Ottawa est demeuré son principal lieu de résidence par la suite. Puisqu’elle ne passait pas plus qu’un mois ou deux par année à Ferney, la collection a petit à petit pris le chemin du Canada à mesure qu’elle entreprit de l’organiser, de l’étudier et de l’inventorier. Quelques années avant son décès en 1998, elle m’avait demandé de l’aider à assurer la conservation de la collection. C’est donc au cours des années 1990 que j’ai pris le relais et apporté la collection chez moi près de la ville de Sherbrooke au Québec.

S.B.: Ce récit démontre bien que votre famille avait un intérêt pour l’histoire de Voltaire et de Ferney…

P.S.: A part le fait d’habiter sa maison, une autre condition explique le vif intérêt de ma famille pour Voltaire. Pour comprendre, il faut se rappeler que le dernier combat de la vie du philosophe, mené à partir de 1770 jusqu’à sa mort en 1778, fut sa lutte pour l’émancipation des serfs du Jura. Le servage avait disparu partout ailleurs en France sauf dans le Jura, où les ‘hommes plantes’, comme Voltaire les appelait, sont demeurés sujets au droit de mainmorte jusqu’à la Révolution. Or Claude-Marie David ainsi que sa femme Hélène Bavoux sont nés de familles de paysans mainmortables du Haut-Jura et leur révérence pour la mémoire de Voltaire est en grande mesure attribuable à cet héritage.

Claude-Marie David, fils d’un paysan horloger réputé illettré, est né en 1799 dans le village de Lajoux, situé en haute montagne à seulement 35 km de Ferney. Dès l’âge de seize ans, il rejoint ses frères ainés travaillant à Genève dans l’horlogerie. Installé à Paris comme marchand lapidaire à partir de 1828, il pressent le grand essor de la production de montres qui nécessite la production de millions de contre-pivots en rubis. En prévision de cette nouvelle demande, il entreprit, en 1840, dans son village natal de Lajoux, la construction de la première usine lapidaire du Jura, dédiée à la production de pierres horlogères. Huit ans plus tard, sa vénération pour Voltaire a certainement compté dans sa décision d’acheter le château de Ferney. En juin 1854, il acheta de la famille de Budé les meubles, tableaux et effets mobiliers qui, du temps de Voltaire, garnissaient sa chambre et son salon, et il ouvrit ces pièces à la visite. A l’occasion du centenaire de la mort du philosophe, il fit ériger à ses frais le buste de Voltaire, d’après Jean-Antoine Houdon, sur la fontaine de la place principale du village, suscitant une polémique entre milieux ecclésiastiques et anticléricaux. En 1890, la même polémique fit rage quand Emile Lambert a offert ‘Le Patriarche de Ferney’ à la commune de Ferney. Cette statue en bronze qui trône aujourd’hui devant la mairie, fait pendant à la statue ‘Voltaire à vingt-cinq ans’, inaugurée trois ans plus tôt dans le 9e arrondissement de Paris. Au fond, il allait de soi qu’une famille aussi attachée à Voltaire s’intéresse à collectionner ses manuscrits.

S.B.: Depuis quand vous êtes-vous plus particulièrement penché sur les documents?

P.S.: Les documents sont en ma possession depuis les années 1990, mais à l’époque j’étais trop occupé pour y prêter attention. Je ne m’y suis penché que relativement récemment, car j’avais l’impression que tout ce que cette collection contenait d’intéressant avait déjà été publié. En effet, dans les années 1950, mes grands-parents avaient ouvert leur collection de manuscrits voltairiens à Theodore Besterman, le principal spécialiste de Voltaire de l’époque, qui dirigeait l’Institut et Musée Voltaire à Genève. Quand je me suis mis à examiner la collection plus attentivement, je me suis rendu compte que Besterman n’avait certainement pas tout vu. Par exemple, à la page 171 du volume XCIX de la première édition de son Voltaire’s Correspondance (Institut et Musée Voltaire, Les Délices, 1964),Besterman identifie 65 manuscrits appartenant au ‘défunt’ Pierre Lambert (mon grand-père est mort en 1961 à l’âge de 98 ans) alors que j’ai moi-même inventorié 119 lettres de Voltaire ou adressées à lui. Comment expliquer cette disparité?

Avant de répondre à cette question, il est important de souligner qu’une importante partie de ce que nous connaissons de la correspondance de Voltaire est fondée, non pas sur des originaux, mais sur des copies d’originaux. Je ne suis pas suffisamment spécialiste pour distinguer avec certitude les uns des autres, mais je sais que les copies sont particulièrement importantes quand les originaux ont disparu. Il me semble donc que Besterman aurait dû noter l’existence de lettres de la correspondance de Voltaire même s’il s’agissait de copies. Mon hypothèse concernant la disparité entre l’inventaire de Besterman et le mien est que mes grands-parents ne lui auraient tout simplement pas tout montré.

S.B.: Pouvez-vous nous parler de vos découvertes? Que retrouve-t-on dans la collection?

P.S.: La collection comprend d’abord de la correspondance (119 lettres) et 48 poèmes: certains de Voltaire et certains sur Voltaire ou satirisantce dernier. La collection comprend aussi deux ensembles de manuscrits voltairiens particulièrement intéressants. Premièrement, des manuscrits de divers passages de son Histoire de la guerre de 1741, totalisant 169 pages. Pour des raisons d’Etat, à l’exception de quelques extraits dans son Précis du siècle de Louis XV, ce livre ne fut pas publié de son vivant.

Le Temple de l’amitié, f.1.

Un deuxième ensemble particulièrement intéressant est le dossier que ma mère avait acquis de la famille de Budé, dans les années 1950, concernant la campagne menée par Voltaire en 1761 réclamant justice pour l’horloger Ambroise Decroze dont le fils avait été sauvagement battu par les hommes de main de Philippe Ancien, curé de Moëns (un village avoisinant Ferney). Cette ‘affaire’, en dépit de son rayonnement purement local, est particulièrement intéressante, car elle annonce le Voltaire de l’affaire Calas, précurseur de l’intellectuel moderne. Enfin, la collection regroupe une diversité d’autres manuscrits. On y trouve, entre autres, un manuscrit de 243 pages, Extrait des œuvres de Voltaire, de Jean-Pierre Lebreton.

Les quatre générations qui ont contribué au développement de cette collection cherchaient en priorité à rassembler des documents concernant Ferney et le pays de Gex. Par exemple, la correspondance suivie avec le subdélégué de l’intendant de Bourgogne, Louis Caspar Fabry – le représentant du pouvoir royal dans le Pays de Gex – traitant de projets d’assèchement des marais et de modernisation des pratiques agricoles. C’est le cas aussi des lettres aux marquis d’Ossun et autres représentants de la France à l’étranger qui avaient pour objet de mousser la vente des montres fabriquées à Ferney, dans la nouvelle manufacture ouverte par l’initiative de Voltaire.

Bon nombre de manuscrits traitent, par ailleurs, des années précédant l’installation de Voltaire à Ferney: les années passées à Cirey chez la marquise Du Châtelet et les relations entre Voltaire et Frédéric II de Prusse, y compris sa querelle avec le joaillier Abraham Hersch qui avait tant agacé Frédéric, et le fameux épisode de Francfort.

Quand je me suis rendu compte de l’intérêt de cette collection, j’ai compris qu’il fallait qu’elle soit mise à la disposition de la communauté scientifique et du public en général. Pour savoir comment procéder, j’ai contacté la personne que je voyais comme la plus apte à me conseiller, soit le directeur de la Voltaire Foundation d’Oxford, Nicholas Cronk. C’est comme cela que notre projet a vu le jour.

S.B.: Maintenant que les documents sont numérisés, quelles sont les prochaines étapes?
Extrait des œuvres de Voltaire par Lebreton.

P.S.: Grâce à votre travail de numérisation à haut niveau de résolution, la Voltaire Foundation (VF) détient maintenant ce qu’il lui faut pour éventuellement mettre la collection en ligne. D’après ce que je comprends, la VF est sur le point de compléter la publication de l’édition critique de l’ensemble de l’œuvre de Voltaire. Elle envisageait déjà, comme prochaine étape, la mise en ligne de manuscrits. La collection Lambert-David arrive donc, de façon providentielle, comme une sorte de projet-pilote. Il restera maintenant à Gillian Pink et à l’équipe de la VF d’entreprendre la lourde tâche de classification et de corrélation entre le contenu de cette collection et le corpus voltairien déjà connu. Finiront-ils par mettre l’ensemble de la collection en ligne ou seulement certaines parties? Il faudra que j’attende l’aboutissement du projet avant de décider définitivement de la suite.

Entre-temps, je travaille avec des collègues de l’Université de Sherbrooke à monter une exposition, prévue pour les premiers mois de 2022 au Centre d’Archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine à Sherbrooke, mettant en lumière cette collection et explorant l’influence de Voltaire au Québec et au Canada français. Ce dernier thème m’intéresse tout particulièrement et j’envisage en conséquence de laisser la collection à un centre d’archives du Québec. Je suis sûr que ma mère, qui a organisé les conférences ‘Demi-heure française’ à Ottawa dans les années 1960, serait en accord.

 – Sonia Blouin

Candide revealed – a Voltairean oddity

Candide was published in 1759; 232 years later…

Perhaps no other work of literature from the eighteenth century has entered popular culture to the extent achieved by Voltaire’s Candide. After a shaky start in 1956 Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, swept the world. Numerous other derivative works have appeared, but none quite so odd as Candide revealed, an erotic fantasy comic version which started publication in 1991 by Eros Comix, an imprint of Fantagraphics, Seattle, the publisher of an enormous range of comic strips and graphic novels, some highly sexual. Candide revealed, ‘The Candide they were embarrassed to show you’ (‘They’ is undefined) is perhaps the most literary of their productions but by no means the most raunchy. There have been other fully illustrated ‘graphic novel’ versions of Candide, but this one is different, in that the text is completely rewritten in an American rough demotic. In traditional comic style, the ‘goodies’ are blond and beautiful in the WASP way, and the ‘baddies’ are ugly and dark. The work nevertheless follows Voltaire’s story very closely, though in a much condensed form and emphasising the erotic and violent episodes, compressing most of the events of the first nine chapters into 89 images, but with frequent allusion to the key phrase of ‘all for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ and other Panglossian sentiments.

The opening spread of Candide revealed.

The authors of the work are not easy to identify with any certainty. The script is attributed to Link Yaco, who may be Lincoln Yaco whose name appears on some other publications from the same source, but about whom little else is known. The drawings are attributed to a certain ‘Simon DeBeaver’, whose echo of a famous French feminist cannot be accidental. The cover colour is attributed to ‘Freesia Bunzoff’, perhaps an elegant reference to the illustration of Candide attempting to sleep in a ploughed field under falling snow. Three volumes of Candide revealed were advertised, but only number one can be found, on the last page of which readers are encouraged to save up to buy the continuation.

The final spread of volume 1 of Candide revealed.

I am grateful to an anonymous member of the staff of Fantagraphics for informing me that no evidence exists that the other two numbers were ever published. Perhaps the work fell between two stools, being too erudite but not sufficiently erotic for their core readership. A sole image from the intended next number confirms the planned publication.

A taster for the unpublished continuation.

Parodies of Candide started early. A. Owen Aldridge, in ‘The vindication of philosophical optimism in a pseudo-Confucian imitation of Voltaire’s Candide’, Asian and African Studies 6 (1997), p.117-25, describes L’Aventurier chinois, ostensibly published in Peking in 1773 (and sold by Mérigot le jeune of Paris). A complete account of pastiches, parodies, operettas and other derivatives is probably impossible to achieve, but some starts have been made. Works related to Candide are treated by Christopher Thacker in ‘Sons of Candide’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 58 (1967), p.1515-31, by J. Rustin in ‘Les “Suites” de Candide au XVIIIe siècle’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 90 (1972), p.1395-1416, and by J. Vercruysse in ‘Les enfants de Candide’ in Jean Macary (ed.), Essays on the Age of Enlightenment in Honor of Ira O. Wade (Geneva, 1977), p.369-76.

There are important studies of illustrated editions of Candide. See Peter Tucker, The Illustrated editions of Candide: the interpretation of a classic: an examination and checklist, with an introduction by Giles Barber ([Church Hanborough], The Previous Parrot Press, 1993). A copy may be seen, in part, here. (It is a limited edition of 185 numbered copies.) The University of Trier has a bibliography (though the illustrations are only accessible on campus). A more specialised investigation is Robert Vilain’s ‘Images of optimism? German illustrated editions of Voltaire’s Candide in the context of the First World War’, Oxford German Studies 37 (2008), p.223-52, which has striking illustrations, including those by Paul Klee. (Available online through academic institutions.)

Illustrated editions of Candide appeared very early. Voltaire disliked illustrations in his works, comparing himself modestly to Cicero, Virgil and Horace in a letter to his publisher Panckoucke concerning an edition (not of Candide) where he says: ‘Je crois que des estampes seraient fort inutiles. Ces colifichets n’ont jamais été admis dans les éditions de Cicéron, de Virgile et d’Horace. Il faut imiter ces grands hommes dans cette simplicité si on ne peut pas imiter leurs perfections’ (12 January 1778, D20980).

These illustrations often concentrated on the erotic, though more subtly than Simon DeBeaver. Two early versions of the monkey episode, by Charles Monnet (1732-1808) in the Bouillon, 1778, edition, and by Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) for a Renouard edition of the works in 1803, differ quite markedly in the nature of the suggested relationship between the women and the monkeys.

Left: Charles Monnet (1778). Right: Jean-Michel Moreau (1803).

This change in approach has been attributed to a hardening of attitudes to black men after the Haiti slave revolt by Mary L. Bellhouse in ‘Candide shoots the Monkey Lovers: representing black men in eighteenth-century French visual culture’, Political Theory 34 (2006), p.741-84 (available online through academic institutions). It is a pity we cannot know how Candide revealed would have treated this episode, and how it would now be viewed through the prism of critical race theory.

A not dissimilar contrast appears in two more modern illustrations of Cunégonde. In Norman Tealby’s account of the rape of Cunégonde by a Bulgarian soldier for an edition of Candide published in 1928 by John Lane The Bodley Head (London) and Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York), the soldier, though fearsome, looks like a Gilbert and Sullivan character, and the fair victim seems almost placid. Cunégonde’s plight is very differently represented by Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949) in a Candide published in 1952 by Gibert Jeune, where the blackness of her assailant is emphasised. It is tempting to wonder if Mussolini’s domestically popular African adventures influenced the artist.

Left: Cunégonde by Norman Tealby (1928). Right: Cunégonde by Umberto Brunelleschi (1952).

Images of literary figures and their adventures are constantly changeable and remade for the times and tastes they serve.

– Martin Smith

The quotable Voltaire

The Quotable Voltaire: a compilation of wit, wisdom, quips and quotations by and about Voltaire, edited and presented by Garry Apgar and Edward Langille (Bucknell University Press, 2021).

The popularity of quotations, especially of famous people, reflects the human thirst for wisdom and for the pithy encapsulation of a clever thought. Insightful observations economically expressed – proverbs, maxims, adages, truisms, quips, etc. – have been around forever. Whether they be anonymous or credited to eminent statesmen, poets or pop stars, quotes help us cope with the mysteries and challenges of life. They supply food for thought at dinner parties and epigrams for books.

Few have served up as many bons mots as Voltaire. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ is a current favourite with the governing class in Washington. ‘All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, ‘We must cultivate our garden’, and ‘Pour encourager les autres’ are all familiar expressions in English as well as in French. And how can we forget ‘If God did not exist, He would have to be invented’? Or again the oft-quoted cynical line that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’. The list of Voltaire’s aperçus is a long one. For Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire was ‘a master of the one-liner’. His witty aphorisms, – shrewd, cynical, or spiteful – surpass in sheer quantity the sayings of any other writer we can think of.

David Levine, pen-and-ink caricature of Voltaire. Illustration for John Weightman’s review of two works about Voltaire in the New York Review of Books, 18 June 1970. © Matthew and Eve Levine.

But Voltaire is famous not just for his witticisms. He may in fact be even more famous for things he never wrote or said, the most notorious and long-lived being: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This sentence, while faithful to Voltaire’s liberal principles, sprang from the pen of an English woman of letters around the turn of the last century. Writing under the alias ‘S. G. Tallentyre’, Evelyn Beatrice Hall offered a summary of Voltaire’s reaction to news that an atheistic tract by Helvétius had been condemned by the Church: ‘“What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed … How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was his attitude now.’

Hall’s qualifying phrase, ‘his attitude now’, was overlooked by almost all who read her book, and her stirring paraphrase, immediately ascribed to Voltaire, was later carved in stone inside the lobby of the Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune, when it was inaugurated in 1925. In June 1934 Reader’s Digest passed the bogus quote on to its vast national readership. In 1938 it was further fixed in the public mind by the Hollywood film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis, in which a dinner guest declared, ‘I think it was Voltaire who said, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.’ Writers, journalists, and politicians have since sown the misquotation further afield.

Voltaire had opinions on virtually everything, from Aristotle, friendship, and luxury to testes and Zoroaster, though, it must be added that they were not always polite or what we would now regard as politically correct. He was, at times, malicious, and often obscene.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Voltaire’s romances and tales (1929), with an introduction by US labour lawyer Clarence Darrow. Dust jacket designed by Art Young, showing Voltaire dropping a splash of light on a benighted world. Private collection.

The 1300 or so quotations that appear in this book show both the positive and negative facets of Voltaire’s character. The Quotable Voltaire is unique in terms of its bilingual format, substance, and the trouble that has been taken to ensure accuracy. We offer parallel versions in French and English for each quotation (except those originally written in English) so that the translation may be compared with the original French. This extends to the inclusion of a handful of quotations commonly misattributed to Voltaire. In compiling The Quotable Voltaire we have relied chiefly on the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first critical edition of the whole of Voltaire’s works, newly completed, in 200 volumes. All entries are fully documented, with dates of publication and page numbers for every source we cite.

The second half of the dictionary presents a three-part section of comments on Voltaire, his life and accomplishments, by Voltaire himself, by his contemporaries, and by personalities as diverse as Goethe, Charles de Gaulle, Ray Bradbury, Mae West, and even the heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Underscored is Voltaire’s pre-eminent position in Anglo-American culture, especially from the 1930s onward, when, progressively, he became the poster-boy of the American Left, or Right, depending on one’s point of view!

Finally, and interestingly, the book is richly illustrated, some images (including the book’s cover) having never been previously published.

Garry Apgar and Edward Langille

Voltaire on Capitol Hill: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Houdon’s bust of Voltaire still dominates the entrance hall of Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello, and last week Voltaire was being quoted on Capitol Hill. In the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of President Trump, Democrat Congressman Jamie Raskin, the House impeachment manager, quoted Thomas Paine on tyranny, and then Voltaire on why people commit atrocities: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’

His speech was widely praised, and the quotation of Voltaire evidently struck a chord, being quickly picked up on social media – here is an extract from his speech.

The French ‘original’ of this quotation is easy enough to find on the web: ‘Ceux qui peuvent vous faire croire à des absurdités peuvent vous faire commettre des atrocités.’

The quotation has been much tweeted in France, including by the actor Fabrice Luchini in 2017, and a quick search of the web reveals that the quotation can be purchased, in English at least, and with varying wording, on tote bags and bumper stickers, a sure sign that it enjoys popular approval and recognition.

Congressman Jamie Raskin

Congressman Jamie Raskin.

However a Voltaire specialist writing in the Genevan newpaper Le Temps in 2015 pours cold water on this merchandise, describing the quotation in question as nothing more than a ‘hoax’.

It is perfectly true that the sentence as it stands cannot be found in Voltaire. Tout Voltaire is helpful here. In the whole of Voltaire’s writings we find 117 occurrences of ‘atrocité(s)’ and 311 instances of ‘absurdité(s)’ – these are clearly favoured Voltairean terms – but there is no instance of the two terms appearing in the plural in the same sentence. So where does this quotation come from?

A clue lies in the fact that the quotation is more often found on the web in English than in French, and is most frequently cited in the USA. As Walter Olson has previously suggested, in a blog from the Cato Institute in Washington DC, this quotation seems to derive from Norman Torrey (1894-1980), a distinguished American Voltaire scholar who did pioneering work investigating Voltaire’s library in what was then Leningrad. In his book Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and modern democracy (New York, 1960), he produces an anthology of eighteenth-century extracts, all chosen to resonate with our modern notions of liberal democracy, including this passage from Voltaire (p.277-78, the emphasis in bold is mine):

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag.

‘Once your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life.

‘In days gone by, there were people who said to us: “You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.” Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.’

This passage comes from Questions on miracles, an important and intricate polemical work that has only been fully revealed recently, in the remarkable critical edition by Olivier Ferret and the late José-Michel Moureaux that appeared in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire in 2018.

Collection des lettres sur les miracles

Collection des lettres sur les miracles, title page (Neufchâtel [Genève], 1765).


The passage quoted above is from the eleventh letter – published as a separate pamphlet in 1765 – in what we now properly call Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles. Here is the French original (OCV, volume 60D, p.290-91; again, the emphasis in bold is mine):

‘Mais, Monsieur, en étant persuades par la foi, des choses qui paraissent absurdes à notre intelligence, c’est-à-dire, en croyant ce que nous ne croyons pas, gardons-nous de faire ce sacrifice de notre raison dans la conduite de la vie.

‘Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois, vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que ‘nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible, l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de mal faire, la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre cœur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.’

So the quotation that is now received usage seems to have been adapted from an English translation of Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles – and then promptly translated back into French. The position is summed up concisely but accurately in Oxford essential quotations, edited by Susan Ratcliffe (5th edition, OUP, 2017), which includes under ‘Voltaire’ this entry:

‘“Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust”, commonly quoted as “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (Questions sur les miracles, 1765).’

Don the Con

Voltaire, like all the philosophes, is preoccupied with prejudice, and fundamentally concerned with clarity of thinking and with the damage done when we think lazily. If we want to reduce injustice in the world, he tells us, then it is important not to give credit to things that are patently absurd. Voltaire had a genius for coining one-liners that sum up exactly an idea that needs to find expression at a particular moment.

So if the idea that ‘anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’ has suddenly caught our attention, it must seem necessary to our present moment. And Voltaire understood better than anyone that well-turned phrases catch on and are repeated. A poster designed by Rick Frausto, currently advertised online, and entitled ‘Don the Con’, gives new life to the Voltaire quotation employed in Jamie Raskin’s speech.

Nicholas Cronk

Voltaire, quid de la mémoire contemporaine ?

S’il était encore parmi nous, il aurait 325 ans. Toutefois, si François-Marie Arouet dit Voltaire a marqué son temps, il continue de diviser longtemps après sa mort. La constitution du mythe Voltaire, commencée du vivant de l’écrivain, coïncida dès l’origine avec le mythe des Lumières, et se développa parallèlement à celui-ci. Les notions et valeurs qui lui furent associées devinrent au fil du temps des composantes à part entière de la pensée constitutionnelle française, du discours politique, et plus largement de l’idée de nation. Cette assimilation, qui ne se produisit pas sans déformation, correction ni critique, s’est effectuée par le détour de la littérature, au gré de différentes modalités de réemploi. Janvier 2015, date de l’attentat commis au siège de la rédaction du journal satirique Charlie-Hebdo, qui, dans ses combats, s’était revendiqué de la pensée de Voltaire, notamment sur le point, hautement sensible, de la liberté d’expression, marque le point de départ du retour à la lumière de Voltaire. Voltaire revient, plus contestataire, plus polémiste que jamais, et redevient le symbole de la défense de cette liberté d’expression, lui l’ami des souverains.

Discours social, journalistique et politique, la façon dont est convoquée la référence à la figure de Voltaire, à ses idées, à son œuvre, est plurielle. On l’aime ou au contraire, on le déteste, certains écrits faisant encore débat. A droite comme à gauche, chacun y va de sa formule « voltairienne », se l’appropriant au détour de contre-vérités et autres fantasmes, tout le monde ou presque aujourd’hui se revendique consciemment et bien souvent inconsciemment héritier de Voltaire. Une formule célèbre qu’on lui attribue à tort (aujourd’hui encore), est symptomatique selon moi du manque de lucidité et de connaissance à l’égard du patriarche de Ferney : « Je ne suis pas d’accord avec vous mais je me battrai jusqu’au bout pour que vous puissiez le dire ».

Cette assertion provient en réalité de la plume de la biographe anglaise Evelyn Beatrice Hall dans The Friends of Voltaire, ouvrage publié en 1906 sous un pseudonyme. Et à bien y réfléchir, quiconque connaît un peu Voltaire, s’interrogerait sur la plausibilité qu’il ait un jour prononcé cette phrase. Voltaire en effet tenait beaucoup trop à sa condition pour risquer de la mettre véritablement en péril pour quiconque.

Comment alors comprendre qu’après les attentats parisiens des 7, 8 et 9 janvier 2015, commis contre le journal satirique Charlie Hebdo, on a vu fleurir dans les « marches républicaines » du 11 janvier, à l’instar du slogan « Je suis Charlie » affiché en signe de solidarité et de protestation par les manifestants, les panneaux « Voltaire est Charlie ». D’autant que j’avais eu le sentiment que ses textes n’attiraient plus grand monde, tout comme le périodique Charlie-Hebdo ne trouvait plus grâce aux yeux des lecteurs. Mais, paradoxe de notre époque, les ventes du Traité sur la tolérance se sont brusquement envolées à la suite des attentats, l’ouvrage paraissant de nouveau faire écho auprès du public. Dans le même temps, de nombreux articles de presse présentaient Voltaire comme ayant toujours été en première ligne du combat multiséculaire pour la tolérance et la liberté.

Connaissons-nous vraiment qui était Voltaire ? Connaissons-nous ses textes, le lisons-nous ?

Pour la conscience collective, surtout pour une certaine classe élitiste, Voltaire est l’avocat des libertés publiques, fervent défenseur de la laïcité, il est une figure de l’intellectuel libre et impertinent, digne représentant d’une époque – les Lumières – qui absorbe et articule des opinions qui, dans le passé, étaient en conflit. Cette époque portée par de nombreux individus, des philosophes, des écrivains, des mathématiciens, loin d’être d’accord entre eux mais engagés en de pénibles discussions, est une période de débat et de profonde remise en question de la société française mais également de l’Europe entière. Il serait la figure tutélaire de tous ceux qui refusent l’idée que des croyances deviennent meurtrières, que l’on proclame sa foi en Dieu une arme à la main, que la religion soit utilisée comme alibi pour légitimer des massacres et autres attentats, que le fanatisme menace et mine les valeurs de l’appartenance à l’Humanité.

Alors, je m’interroge: à quoi tient la force de cette figure aujourd’hui encore, surtout auprès des non-initiés. S’il est indéniable qu’il existe bel et bien une doctrine de tolérance chez Voltaire, il n’en demeure pas moins que nombre de ses écrits divisaient et continuent de diviser, ou encore ils sont tout simplement méconnus de la « populace », terme qu’il aimait employer comme l’atteste cette lettre à son ami Damilaville (1er avril 1766): « Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu ».

Alors qu’il s’agisse de partis ou de courants politiques, ou de sensibilités diverses, qui aujourd’hui se retrouve autour de cette figure des Lumières. Qui connaît Voltaire ?

La tolérance voltairienne, il faut l’avouer, était limitée à ses amis, ses relations opportunes et tous ceux dont il arrivait à s’accommoder. Pour les autres, et en particulier pour ceux qui ne pensaient pas comme lui, le traitement était tout autre: désinformation, calomnie, invective et manipulation. La fin justifiait les moyens, serais-je tenté de dire à propos de Voltaire. Serait-il vraiment ce héros de la tolérance, ce chantre de la liberté d’expression que l’imaginaire collectif français convoquerait aujourd’hui ? Si le recours aux auteurs des Lumières ne saurait résoudre la crise multisectorielle (religieuse et politique entre autres) que traverse la société française et bien d’autres en Europe depuis plusieurs années déjà, je m’autorise à penser que l’analyse de cette évolution à travers le prisme des Lumières et Voltaire, pourrait servir à apaiser un climat devenu délétère.

Alors Voltaire, homme de son temps ou du nôtre ? A vous de voir.

– Willy Soumaho Igoumou

Willy est doctorant à l’Université de Lorraine; l’intitulé de son sujet de thèse est De la promotion Voltaire (1980) à Charlie-Hebdo (2015) : présence de Voltaire dans la société et dans les textes (aire française et francophone).

Ceci n’est pas Candide

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.

Candide as pulp fiction

Candide as pulp fiction: front cover of the translation by Walter J. Fultz (New York, Lion Books, 1952).

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.[1] 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.[2]

Does that matter?

French classics marketed as Gallic smut for wider appeal

French classics marketed as Gallic smut for wider appeal: Mademoiselle de Maupin and Candide (New York, Royal Books, 1953).

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

[1] See Venuti, L. (ed.), Teaching Translation: Programs, Courses, Pedagogies (Abingdon & New York, 2017), p.4-7.

[2] 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).

An American Voltaire: the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection at McGill

Reblogged from McGill University Library News ‘Library Matters’, 9 May 2018.

An American Voltaire

Published by Cambridge Scholars in 2009, with contributions by Nicholas Cronk and other Voltaire scholars.

Pat Lee, who died in 2006, was a life-enhancing friend as well as a Voltaire enthusiast and an avid collector of books. The J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection was acquired by McGill in 2013, and contains some 2000 books and 42 manuscripts, relative to Voltaire and his contemporaries. I recently had the huge pleasure of helping Ann Marie Holland organise in the Rare Books Library a small exhibit containing just a few of the highlights of this collection.

Like any great collection, this one has its share of precious printed books, as well as some remarkable manuscripts, not least a manuscript compilation of verse that belonged to Voltaire’s companion, Emilie Du Châtelet – this last item has been exhibited in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The compilation also has its unique personality: Pat Lee, as an American – who loved Voltaire, was born in Kentucky, and wrote his doctorate on Voltaire at Fordham University in New York – clearly had a particular predilection for books by and about Voltaire that were in some way connected with America.

Americans were keen readers of Voltaire from the early years of the Republic, and the provenance of some of the items is startling: a volume of Voltaire that belonged to Theodore Roosevelt, and a manuscript collection of French poetry with the bookplate of… George Washington. But it’s not just the famous names that are interesting. A book called Fame and Fancy, or Voltaire Improved, published in Boston in 1826, provides an American take on Voltaire: but Pat Lee’s copy is also interesting because the bookplate records its American owner: ‘Daniel Green, Jr., Portland, Maine’.

Abner Kneeland’s translation of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique

Another remarkable production from the same decade is Abner Kneeland’s translation of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, also published in Boston in 1836. Kneeland (1774-1844) was an evangelist minister of radical views, remembered as the last man jailed in the United States for blasphemy – among his publications are The Deist (1822) and A Review of the Evidences of Christianity (1829). His edition of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary was clearly a polemical gesture therefore, and one of the copies in Pat Lee’s collection is exceptional. The anonymous American owner has inserted two blank sheets in the middle of the volume, with pages headed ‘Births’, ‘Marriages’ and ‘Deaths’. It was common of course for families to own a ‘family Bible’ with such blank pages serving to record key events in a family’s history, a volume that would be handed down from generation to generation. In this (unique?) example, a nineteenth-century American has radically subverted the genre of the ‘family Bible’ by creating a ‘family Voltaire’. Only in America…

A tipped in censored illustration of Rockwell Kent’s Candide intended for the 1928 edition.

A tipped in censored illustration of Rockwell Kent’s Candide intended for the 1928 edition.

In the twentieth century, New York publishers were active in producing illustrated editions, and there are some remarkable illustrated editions of Candide in this collection. The Rockwell Kent illustrations for Random House (1928) are justly famous – not least because the picture of Voltaire’s house in the colophon went on to become widely familiar as the Random House logo. Rockwell Kent’s first depiction of Pangloss conducting an experiment in natural philosophy in the shrubbery was deemed too shocking, and he had to replace it with a more anodine image – the first edition in this collection is very special because it includes a real rarity – the ‘censored’ image has been tipped in to cover up its timid replacement. (See also the NYPL Candide website for more on Rockwell Kent.)

The Rockwell Kent Candide is a celebrated publication, but also remarkable is the fact that the year before, 1927, there had appeared an edition of Candide illustrated by Clara Tice, a bohemian figure known as the Queen of Greenwich Village (below left); and two years later, in 1930, there was an illustrated edition by Mahlon Blane (below right).

This is real testimony to the vibrancy of the American market for illustrated books: three major illustrated editions of Candide all published in New York within the space of four years – and all three in completely contrasting artistic styles.

Clara Tice Candide Part 2 in the 1927 edition.

Clara Tice Candide Part 2 in the 1927 edition.

Following the hugely successful publication of Candide in early 1759, there appeared in 1760 a sequel, Candide, seconde partie – an amusing work that we now attribute to the abbé Dulaurens, but that at the time was widely attributed to Voltaire himself, so much so that it was not uncommon for the two parts of Candide to appear together as ‘one’ work by Voltaire. Gradually it became accepted that Voltaire was not the author of the second part, so this practice declined – except in the United States, where the two parts of Candide continued to be published together well into the twentieth century. This is another peculiarity of the American Voltaire, and this fidelity to the apocryphal Second Part of Candide gives illustrators like Clara Tice a wider range of scenes to depict – for example, Candide’s seduction by a lascivious Persian at the start of the Second Part.

Pat Lee’s Voltaire collection contains many of these beautiful objects – another is the illustrated edition by Jylbert, published by the aptly named Editions du charme. The date here gives us pause for thought, though: the edition appeared in 1941, in occupied Paris. Does the scene with the monkeys in any way reflect what was happening on the streets of the capital?

Alongside this precious work, Pat Lee’s collection also includes a humble and modestly printed translation of Candide which appeared in the Armed Services Edition in 1943 – part of a series of books made available to American servicemen and women. In Chapter Three of Candide we remember how both sides in the war have a Te Deum sung, in the certain knowledge that God is on their side… And among the troops who liberated Paris, was there perhaps a serviceman who had Candide in his backpack? The Pat Lee collection gives us a specifically American take on Voltaire and his impact in North America, and as such, it is unique.

– Nicholas Cronk

Voltaire, the most alive of dead white males

Voltaire’s afterlife is complex, his reputation changing with successive regimes. The French Revolution looked back to him as a heroic precursor of its struggle, and in 1791 his remains were brought back to Paris and with great ceremony placed in the Panthéon. For much of the nineteenth century the name of Voltaire was synonymous with anticlericalism, and the philosophe was widely, if implausibly, seen as an Antichrist. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair Voltaire’s reputation as a crusader for tolerance was re-emphasised, and in the latter years of the Third Republic, under the influence of the Sorbonne literary historian Gustave Lanson, Voltaire became a fixture of the republican school and university curriculum. The latter half of the twentieth century has taken a more nuanced approach to Voltaire’s religious views, especially in the wake of René Pomeau’s La Religion de Voltaire (first published in 1954), which stresses the depth of Voltaire’s deist convictions.

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). Image: BnF.

Voltaire’s legacy in the wider world is ubiquitous. His name has become a byword for tolerance, justice and the power of reason whenever fanaticism, tyranny and superstition rear their ugly heads. Famously, portraits of him spontaneously appeared on the walls of the French capital in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in 2015. Several years before the attack, in 2008, then editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine, Philippe Val, had published a book entitled Reviens, Voltaire, ils sont devenus fous!, and philosopher André Glucksmann’s last book, published in 2014 (one year before he died), is called Voltaire contre-attaque.

Voltaire is undoubtedly the most widely quoted of all French writers past and present. Everyone is familiar with his ‘il faut cultiver son jardin’, ‘le meilleur des mondes possibles’, and ‘si Dieu [which can be replaced with anything deemed to be of value, no matter how trivial] n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer’. These three quotations happen to be genuine and traceable; interestingly, however, we at the Voltaire Foundation often receive queries from scholars and members of the public alike asking about the provenance of various Voltaire quotes which, after diligent research, turn out to be apocryphal. It is as if witty and wise pronouncements in search of an author were routinely attributed to him by default.

Paris, January 2015.

Ironically, what must be the most famous and oft-repeated quotation by Voltaire does not appear anywhere in his writings or his correspondence. Elizabeth Knowles picks up the story:

“A column in the Daily Telegraph of February 2006 on freedom of speech referred to ‘Voltaire’s famous maxim – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ’

“In De l’esprit (‘On the Mind’), published in 1758, the French philosopher Helvétius put forward the view that human motivation derives from sensation: a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result. The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was condemned by the French parliament to be publicly burned. Voltaire is supposed to have supported Helvétius with these words. In fact, they are a later summary of Voltaire’s attitude to the affair, as given in S. G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of Voltaire (1907). What Tallentyre wrote was:

“‘What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for them both. “On the Mind” became not the success of a season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. “What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’

“(The comment ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ had been recorded earlier, in James Parton’s 1881 Life of Voltaire.)” [1]

We will end this short blog article on this culinary note. Readers who are curious about the origin of this particular quote are invited to consult Lettres à Son Altesse Monseigneur le prince de *** (letter 7) or the article ‘Athéisme’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.

– Nicholas Cronk and Georges Pilard

[1] Excerpt reprinted from What they Didn’t Say – A Book of Misquotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, 2006), p.55. By permission of Oxford University Press.