A born-digital edition of Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite

Just as the print edition of the Œuvres Complètes de Voltaire is fast approaching its completion, we at the Voltaire Foundation are starting work on two new, highly ambitious digital projects thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: a digital edition of Voltaire’s works based on the Œuvres complètes (Digital Voltaire), and a born-digital edition of the works of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (Digital d’Holbach).

With a view to gaining the necessary skills required to begin my work on Digital d’Holbach, in autumn 2018 I attended an intensive course on digital editions run by the Taylorian Institution Library. Taught by Emma Huber in collaboration with Frank Egerton and Johanneke Sytsema, the course takes students through all the phases of the digital edition workflow, from transcription to publication and dissemination. It is a goal-focused, hands-on course during which students are warmly encouraged to create a born-digital edition of a short text from the Taylorian’s collections.

Although short and apparently light in tone, the piece that I chose to edit – Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite sur la nécessité et l’enchaînement des choses – is a key text in the evolution of Voltaire’s philosophical views. As the title suggests, the Dialogue hinges on the question of determinism (or fatalisme, in eighteenth-century French parlance) and touches on such crucial notions as moral freedom, causation, and the problem of evil. It was first published anonymously in the Abeille du Parnasse of 5 February 1752, and it then went through several reprints during Voltaire’s lifetime, with very few variants.

My edition of the Dialogue is of course not meant to replace the one already available in OCV. Rather, it was conceived to meet the needs of the broader public – and more specifically those of students. A very short introduction, displayed on the right-hand side, provides essential information on the philosophical issues at stake while situating the Dialogue in relation to other key texts by Voltaire. An original translation into English by Kelsey Rubin-Detlev makes the text more widely accessible, allowing students working in fields other than modern languages (e.g. philosophy) to engage with Voltaire’s ideas. High-quality pictures of the 1756 edition, which provides the base text, aim to give non-specialists a taste of what it feels like to leaf through a (dusty) eighteenth-century book. Finally, a modernised version of the text is available next to the facsimile, and a rich corpus of annotations – displaying in both the French transcription and the English translation and featuring links to several other digital resources (the ARTFL Encyclopédie and Tout Voltaire, but also Wikipedia and BibleGateway!) – aims to render the reading experience as informative and rewarding as possible.

But there is more to this edition than first meets the eye! For example, by clicking on ‘Downloads’ in the menu bar, a fifth column will appear from which the user is invited to download pictures as well as TEI/XML files, which can then be used as models to generate further digital editions. Also, a drop-down menu in the transcription column allows users to choose between two different versions of the text in addition to the modernised version displayed by default: a diplomatic transcription of the 1756 edition and a diplomatic transcription of a 1768 edition, which comes with its own set of images that are also available for download under a Creative Commons Licence. By looking at these texts, users will get a sense of how radically French spelling evolved in the mid-eighteenth century.

Readers of this blog are most cordially invited to browse my edition. Any feedback on content or presentation (e.g. the way footnotes or variants are displayed) would be greatly appreciated as I work towards an edition of a considerably longer text by d’Holbach. But more on that in the coming months!

Ruggero Sciuto






Claire Trévien discussed in an earlier post the Candide iPad app which the Voltaire Foundation has produced in association with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Orange. There have been over 7000 downloads since January, so if you haven’t seen it yet, take a look – it’s beautiful and free!

At the core of the app is René Pomeau’s critical edition of Candide published by the Voltaire Foundation (OCV, volume 48), but lots more has been added. A guiding idea behind the project was to make the text accessible to teenage readers (for example, by supplying a parallel set of annotations aimed specifically at that group), and to judge by the tweeted and blogged responses, it is succeeding. In what is certainly the best (and shortest) review ever given to a VF publication, one French fan has written that the app is “bien foutue”.

But the app is interesting to readers at all stages. You can listen to Candide as well as read it, and the actor Denis Podalydès gives a beautifully clear and cool reading. It’s great to discover the music of Voltaire’s prose: I find that hearing the text read aloud brings out nuances of humour and irony that I’ve missed in silent reading.

Another special feature of the app are the images of the La Vallière manuscript, which dates from 1758, the year before Candide was published. This manuscript has been well known since the 1950s, when it was discovered by Ira Wade, and for this app, the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal has made new high-resolution images. It is possible to study in a split screen images of the manuscript alongside the subsequent published version of the text, or to look at the manuscript on a full screen and even to enlarge any part of it.

The quality of the images is amazing: as you enlarge them, you can almost feel the secretary Wagnière writing as Voltaire dictated, and you can experience in close-up the moments when Voltaire in his own hand intervenes or corrects his secretary’s draft. In Chapter 1, we remember how Pangloss is introduced, as a teacher of “la métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie”. In the manuscript, we can see how Voltaire first tried “métaphisico-theolo-cosmolo-méologie”, then changed the last word to “mattologie” – here you can actually catch Voltaire in the process of inventing a new word. In Chapter 4, Candide recalls his love for Cunégonde: “il ne m’a jamais valu qu’un baiser et vingt coups de pied au cul”… When you look at the manuscript, you can see how the words “dans le cu” are added, in Voltaire’s own hand, as an afterthought, squeezed into the right-hand margin. Of course all this information is in the apparatus of the VF edition, but no description, however accurate, quite replaces the experience of looking at the original manuscript. Digital images of this quality give us a vivid sense of spying on Voltaire while he is writing.

Nicholas Cronk, Director