Selected letters of Catherine the Great translated into Korean

Selected letters of Catherine the Great to Voltaire and others have recently been translated into Korean by Minchul Kim and Seungeun Lee and published by Itta.

While browsing through Electronic Enlightenment one day, I stumbled upon letters to Voltaire written by my soon-to-be queen of letter-writers, Catherine the Great. Seated on a precarious throne, the Tsarina had dreams she wanted to see realised. These she explained and advertised to Voltaire, in the hope of enlisting him in mobilising Western European public opinion in Russia’s favour. She considered herself to be surrounded by enemies: Pugachev, the nobility, the clergy, the Ottoman Empire, and after Voltaire’s death, the French revolutionary republicans. To her delight, Voltaire was happy to be her ally in her war against the Turks as well as against what they both regarded as feudal backwardness and religious fanaticism in Russia.

To the Korean public I wanted to relay the desires and anxieties of an aspiring philosopher-empress, who believed herself to be carrying the torch of Peter the Great against all odds. On her shoulders pressed heavily the burden of ruling a gigantic empire between Europe, China, and the Ottomans. I enlisted a student of the Nakaz, Seungeun Lee, as co-translator and approached an outstanding mid-sized publisher in Seoul with experience in both academic and trade books, Itta, which was already producing a book series of correspondences. The Spinozist Hyunwoo Kim, head of Itta, sat down with us, and the three of us started to pick out letters for translation. The decision was made after a long discussion to leave out the Tsarina’s correspondence with Grigory Potemkin and other Russian politicians, for two reasons. On the one hand, we liked to believe that there might be a future occasion for publishing them in a separate volume. On the other hand, more significantly, we wanted to shed light on a variety of aspects of the relationship that Catherine was trying to establish between the republic of letters and her court. We ended up selecting 46 letters in French written by Catherine to Voltaire (38), D’Alembert (4), Mme Geoffrin (2), Falconet (1), and Frederick II (1), accompanied by one of Voltaire’s letters to D’Alembert.

The collaboration was exciting. All three of us read French and English, and even at a master’s student level Seungeun possessed expertise in Russian language and history that was essential to the task. We consulted several editions including Alexandre Stroev’s from Non Lieu and Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s from Oxford World’s Classics. I must add that Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, along with Antoine Lilti’s Le Monde des salons and biographies of Catherine and Voltaire, was key to drafting the lengthy introduction for Korean readers. But most of all we ceaselessly returned to Electronic Enlightenment, even after the stage of initial translation, for annotations and links to related letters and people. All the way, Hyunwoo provided timely advice and firm support for the project.

Philippe de Lasalle’s woven portrait of Catherine (c.1771) of which a version still hangs in Voltaire’s château at Ferney (CC0 The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

It was a truly collective enterprise, driven first by the Tsarina’s praise for the poet: ‘En bonne foi Monsieur je fais plus de cas de vos écrits, que de toutes les prouesses d’Alexandre, et vos lettres me font plus de plaisir que les courtoisies de ce prince ne m’en donneraient’ (22 August / 2 September 1765). With humility (and perhaps some hidden desire for compliment) she compared what she did to help Diderot and the deeds of the vengeur des Calas: ‘Ce n’est rien que de donner un peu à son prochain, de ce dont on a un grand superflu, mais c’est s’immortaliser que d’être l’avocat du genre humain, le défenseur de l’innocence opprimée. Ces deux causes vous attirent la vénération due à de tels miracles. Vous avez combattu les ennemis réunis des hommes, la superstition, le fanatisme, l’ignorance, la chicane, les mauvais juges, et la partie du pouvoir qui repose entre les mains des uns et des autres’ (9 July / 20 July 1766). But the three of us were also aware of Voltaire’s panegyric of his admirer, for whom he wrote seventeen days before his death: ‘Que votre majesté impériale pardonne au bavardage de votre ancien serviteur de Ferney qui pourtant ne radote pas quand il parle de son héroïne’ (13 May 1778). Behind the edition, from inception to publication, was this mutual admiration between Catherine and Voltaire, which will hopefully reach a wider public in Korea, showcasing what the republic of letters had to do with the reform politics of the Enlightenment.

– Minchul Kim (Research Fellow at Voltaire Foundation / Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Global Intellectual History Unit at Sungkyunkwan)

Public happiness: when Italy joined the European Enlightenment

Title page of Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità, printed in Livorno by Giuseppe Aubert in 1763. Aubert went on to publish three anonymous editions of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and to republish Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie in French.

Robert Mauzi, who dedicated a landmark study to the idea of happiness in French literature and philosophy in the 18th century, did not hold back when he talked about the essays and treatises on happiness that flourished at that time: ‘Rien de sincère, rien de neuf, rien de chaleureux, rien où l’on sente l’âme. Toujours la même prédication prudente’ (Nothing sincere, nothing new, nothing heartfelt, nothing soulful. Always the same cautious preaching).[1] Fortunately, there is nothing of the sort in Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità (Meditations on happiness) a short text – no more than 29 pages – inaugurating a season of exceptional vitality in the history of Illuminismo when it was published towards the end of 1763.

Alongside the journal Il Caffè (1764–1766) and above all Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764), these meditations constitute one of the manifestoes of what Voltaire termed the ‘École de Milan’.[2] The value of Verri’s work lies in its ability to combine a range of theories and motifs drawn from contemporary debates (Hutcheson, Locke, Helvétius, Maupertuis, La Mettrie, Rousseau, the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ and the early volumes of the Encyclopédie) in an expressive Italian language free of rhetorical flourishes. Verri aimed to integrate the Italian intellectual elite into the European Enlightenment, to guide the action of the Habsburg monarchy and to usher in a new era of reform for the peninsula, or at least for Lombardy under Austrian tutelage.

Title page of Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità annotated by Ferdinando Facchinei, printed in Venice by Antonio Zatta in 1765.

Verri defined happiness – a concept which had so far been confined, especially in Italy, to the field of moral philosophy or religion – as a political objective, a concrete model of economic development and a regulating principle of social relations. Happiness depends on the capacity of individuals to assimilate the principles of civic virtue: a happy man is an honest man who understands the correlation between the search for individual happiness and the demand for collective felicity, and who tends to satisfy his desires only within the limits imposed by civil and moral laws. Happiness also depends on the capacity of the state to guarantee the rights and freedom of each individual through the establishment of just legislation, and to curb the desire of the strong to dominate the weak, in accordance with the principles of the social contract. In a society that abides by the values of the social contract, the supreme aim of the ‘art of governing’ is therefore to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number (‘la maggiore felicità possibile divisa colla maggiore uguaglianza possibile’).[3] Here Verri resorts to Hutcheson’s famous aphorism, which Beccaria in turn took up in On Crimes and Punishments[4] – and whose long European circulation was traced in an important article by Robert Shackleton in 1972.[5]

A strong intellectual kinship and several direct textual echoes united Verri’s Meditations and Beccaria’s treatise, the two writers being close friends and collaborators. It was soon rumoured that both texts were by the same author! One of Beccaria’s most virulent opponents, the Venetian monk Ferdinando Facchinei, was convinced that the Meditations were a new production by that ‘socialist’ (he was the first to use the word in Italian to denigrate a supporter of contractualist theories) and published an annotated reprint of the work to decry it. Facchinei, who also perceived the echoes of utilitarian and materialist thought in both On Crimes and Punishments and the Meditations on happiness, fulminated against ‘the author of these two monstrous twins’, in which he saw ‘the Rousseau of Italy’.[6]

Title page of Pensées sur le bonheur, translated by Gabriel Mingard and printed in Yverdon by Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice in 1766.

The reception of the Meditations in French-speaking European countries was more benign. In 1765, D’Alembert wrote that he had found the ‘morceau sur Le Bonheur […] plein de raison et de vues philosophiques’ (piece on Happiness […] full of reason and philosophical views).[7] The Vaudois pastor Gabriel Mingard, one of the main contributors of the Yverdon Encyclopédie, published a French translation, Pensées sur le bonheur, in 1766. Pietro Verri’s text, in an elegant edition divided into chapters, enjoyed a second life thanks to this fairly wordy rendition of his spare prose, reaching a wider audience than the one it was initially intended for. But its reception, briefly helped by Beccaria’s growing fame, was soon overshadowed by the triumph of On Crimes and Punishments. Unlike Beccaria’s treatise, which has been widely read and commented on since its publication, from Voltaire to Foucault,[8] Pietro Verri’s text remained little known outside of Italy, and had not been republished in French since Mingard’s original translation. Yet his Meditations on happiness is a valuable document to reconstruct the intellectual genesis of On Crimes and Punishments and to measure Verri’s sensitivity to the words and themes that nourished the intellectual debate of the second half of the century, until the Revolution: humanity, friendship, equality.

Pietro Verri, Méditations sur le bonheur, texte traduit, présenté et annoté par Pierre Musitelli (Paris, Éditions Rue d’Ulm / Presses de l’École normale supérieure, 2023).

To his last legal battles in the Milanese Council, Verri’s political and intellectual career was dedicated to public happiness, which he deemed inseparable from the defence of freedom, rights and the dignity of citizens. However, Verri’s ambition to extend the possibility of happiness to all individuals remained, as it was for many of his contemporaries, counterbalanced by a form of caution as to the possibility for each individual to reach it, in a world deeply marked by inequalities, by the memory or the experience of military devastations, persecutions, massacres, epidemics and natural disasters – let us bear in mind the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Bronisław Baczko invited us to ‘embrace both the imperative and impatient demand of the Enlightenment to reduce the number and the intensity of the misfortunes suffered by humankind, and its anguished indignation at the persistence of evil, despite the progress of the intellect and the advancement of science and the arts. The irreducible gap between the promises of happiness and the inevitability of evil was measured by the Enlightenment’s obstinate search for the means to reduce it’.[9]

We are the heirs of the Enlightenment’s restlessness. Since the 18th century, our societies have been driven by an ideal of progress based largely on economic growth, industrial development and scientific and technical innovation. That faith is now being shaken by a highly unequal distribution of wealth and access to resources, by the worsening of conflicts, including in Europe, and by the destructive effects of climate change. How can the notion of happiness be founded or rebuilt in this new context? Verri’s Meditations outlined a number of principles for thought and action for us to ponder in order to stem the ‘inevitability of evil’. First of all, if happiness is not to be an empty word but a living constitutional principle, the state must be its custodian for each individual, through its public action; secondly, there is no lasting happiness other than ‘the happiness of the greatest number’, and any unequal society bears the seeds of its own disintegration; finally, there is no other place where we can build happiness than the one that we inhabit, and each one of us is invested with the duty of nurturing it. ‘Le paradis terrestre est où je suis’, wrote Voltaire in Le Mondain (1738 version). This paradise already seemed fragile to Enlightenment thinkers. The challenges of the 21st century invite us to meditate on that lesson from the past: to protect steadfastly both the right to happiness and the place where it can be achieved. 

– Pierre Musitelli (École normale supérieure de Paris / ITEM)

[1] R. Mauzi, L’Idée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée françaises au XVIIIe siècle [1960] (Paris, 1965), p.9.

[2] According to Alessandro Verri writing to his brother Pietro from Paris on 13 March 1767, ‘Mons[ieur] Voltaire ha stampato o scritto o detto ad alcuno, non so poi come, che l’École de Milan fait des grands progrès. Così chiama la nostra compagnia’ (P. and A. Verri, Viaggio a Parigi e Londra, 1766-1767: carteggio di Pietro e Alessandro Verri, ed. Gianmarco Gaspari, Milan, 1980, p.361).

[3] P. Verri, Meditazioni sulla felicità (London [Livorno], 1763), p.750 and 751.

[4] ‘La massima felicità divisa nel maggior numero’ (Edizione nazionale delle opere di Cesare Beccaria, vol.I, ed. Gianni Francioni, Milan, 1984,p.23).

[5] R. Shackleton, ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number: the history of Bentham’s phrase’, SVEC, vol.90 (1972), p.1461–82.

[6] ‘Mi sembra che l’autore di cotesti due mostruosi gemelli, si sforzi di addivenire, e che sia realmente, il Rousseau dell’Italia’ ([F. Facchinei], Lettera di N. N. al riveritissimo signor A. Z. S. V., in Meditazioni sulla felicità. Con un avviso e con note critiche, [Venice], 1765, p.4).

[7] D’Alembert to Paolo Frisi, 9 July 1765, in C. Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene, ed. Franco Venturi (Turin, 1994), p.313.

[8] And has been the object of two recent important translations into French: C. Beccaria, Des délits et des peines, transl. Philippe Audegean (Lyon, 2009); Des délits et des peines, transl. Xavier Tabet and Alessandro Fontana (Paris, 2015).

[9] ‘Il nous faut, pour ce faire, embrasser conjointement, dans les Lumières, tant leur exigence, impérative et impatiente, de réduire dans leur nombre comme dans leur intensité les malheurs dont souffre le genre humain, que leur indignation angoissée devant la persistance du mal, malgré l’essor de l’esprit et les progrès des sciences et des arts. L’écart irréductible entre les promesses du bonheur et la fatalité du mal, les Lumières le mesurent à l’aune de leur quête obstinée des moyens censés le réduire’ (B. Baczko, Job, mon ami : promesses du bonheur et fatalité du mal, Paris, 1997, p.12–13).

The Challenges of translating Télémaque (1699)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Cremer

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

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

Title page of the 1777 English translation.

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

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

Beginning of the ‘Advertisement’ in the English translation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Ryan Brown, PhD student, University of Chicago

The 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monthly Review, October 1763.

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

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

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

Adrienne Mason

Exploring multilingual digital editions

The Taylor Institution Library recently launched a new course teaching digital editing, with students able to create digital editions in any language of their choice. I was delighted to be able to contribute by designing the accompanying website on which the texts are published:

I am the editor and developer of several academic resources, including the award-winning Eighteenth Century Poetry Archive (currently English-language poetry only) and the Thomas Gray Archive. My interest in working with multilingual materials was sparked by part of this resource: ‘Gray’s Elegy in Translation’. According to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country-Churchyard’ (1751) is the most anthologized poem of the eighteenth century, and it is one of the most widely and frequently translated, paraphrased, and imitated poems in the English language. With to date at least 266 translations into at least forty languages, the Elegy has inspired translators ever since the earliest translations into Latin appeared in the early 1760s. Since those early translations, the Elegy has been influential in the history of many national literatures, particularly in the context of the evolution of European Romanticism.

Drawing on the extensive collection of Elegy translations compiled by Tom Turk,(1) the purpose of the project is firstly to enable the study of the evolution of translations of the poem in a single language and culture, and secondly to allow for a comparative study of the translations across languages and literatures, initially within, but ultimately beyond European boundaries. The first phase of the project covers the period up to 1805, comprising fifty-seven verse and prose translations of the Elegy in eleven languages (Danish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Welsh). The translations variably highlight changes in the understanding and interpretation of Gray’s poem, reflect cultural borrowings and transfers, betray changes in literary taste, and may even allow us to uncover the circumstances, agency, and purpose of their production in the first place. Thanks to James D. Garrison’s outstanding work,(2) we have a sense of the national context of Gray’s significance in both France and Italy, but for many other European and particularly non-European languages, these histories remain to be written.

The two main objectives for the project website were to provide an intuitive interface to the translations that allows for easy comparison of equivalent passages and to allow users to comment on any part of the original or any of the translations. In the full-text view up to three texts (in any combination of languages) can be explored side-by-side in their entirety, ‘equivalent’ passages are highlighted when hovering over any stanza or paragraph:

In the detailed view any one stanza from any text can be compared with its ‘equivalents’ (if available) in either all of the translations or the translations in a particular language:

Users can add a translation or comment on a translation of any section of any of the texts using a simple click and drag action to mark the section to be annotated:

I would love to gain a better understanding from practitioners on which avenues to pursue (linguistic, stylistic, semantic etc.) for both the enhanced mark-up of the translations and the development of tools (and/or integration of external services, such as dictionaries/thesauri) to provide via the interface. Having caught the multilingual bug, I am also very keen to expand another resource of which I am editor, the Eighteenth Century Poetry Archive (already mentioned above), to include poems in other languages, along with tools for their analysis. Anyone reading this who might be interested in contributing to this endeavour, please get in touch!

I hope you will have a chance to explore the translations, and would love to hear about your experience with the current interface and any changes, improvements, or additions you would like to see in the future. If you can see the potential for any of the techniques mentioned to be applied in the Taylor Editions website, then I would be very happy to explore this further. Please do not hesitate to contact me with your feedback.

Alexander Huber (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)
Editor, Thomas Gray Archive

(1) Thomas N. Turk, ‘Search and Rescue: An Annotated Checklist of Translations of Gray’s Elegy’, Translation and Literature 22(1) (Spring 2013): 45-73.

(2) James D. Garrison, A Dangerous Liberty (Newark, University of Delaware, 2009). Garrison covers a wide range of languages, with particular emphasis on French and Italian, and to a lesser extent German, Russian and Spanish.

On translating the hasty writing of encyclopedia articles


Translating French and Spanish encyclopedia articles from the Enlightenment into English is not easy. There are, of course, the typical problems that one encounters when doing any translation, such as negotiating between surface meanings and deep meanings, dealing with false cognates, contending with idiomatic expressions, and deciding whether to go with a literal or an idiomatic translation. However, when dealing with encyclopedia articles that were written at a furious pace for the gargantuan compilations that were the Encyclopédie méthodique and its Spanish translation, the Encyclopedia metódica, there emerges the problem of translating hurried and at times careless writing that was possibly never proof-read, and certainly never corrected. Knowing that eighteenth-century encyclopedists worked under stringent publication deadlines, the vexed but somewhat amused translator could hardly blame them for suffering the all-too-common professional flaw of careless writing.

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) Artist: Rembrandt

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) (Rembrandt, ca. 1652; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This is what my co-translator, Clorinda Donato, and I encountered when preparing our volume, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, for which we translated and annotated the articles ‘Espagne’ (from the Méthodique) and ‘España’ (from the Metódica). Although the articles are generally well written, there are nevertheless moments when authors Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers and Julián de Velasco felt the urgency of their task and careened their way through long, convoluted sentences without ever looking back. That a pronoun lost track of its referent, or that a verb strayed so far from its subject that it forgot whether it should be singular or plural mattered little when the encyclopedia mill had to keep grinding. Reading these articles I also find passages where the zeal to badmouth Spain’s backwardness or defend its misunderstood Enlightenment overrode any respect for the conventions of grammar. The passions aroused by Enlightenment debate were just too strong to obey the strictures of the Académie Française and the Real Academia. Indeed, these are the moments when Masson and Velasco are most fun to read.

Annotating these translations also revealed an interesting consequence of such hasty writing. While citing, copying, and paraphrasing was a regular practice among eighteenth-century scholars, the verification of information was not. If a scholar cites a source that is based on a citation that is based on another citation that is based on another citation and so on, that scholar will likely have in his hands a cumulative error, a product of distortions and embellishments. This is what we find in Masson’s negative portrayal of Spain and the Inquisition. Where he cites sources that have been embellished, he enters the fray by adding yet another layer of gleeful embellishment. Indeed, it would not be entirely wrong to say that the polemic emerging out of Masson’s infamous question ‘What does Europe owe Spain?’ is in large measure the result of an Enlightenment version of the game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).


A Scene in a Library (photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, ca.1844; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But if haphazard writing and cumulative error are endemic to encyclopedia culture, then how can Enlightenment discourse ever safeguard itself from the vagaries and flighty opinions of scholars such as Masson? This is precisely the question that our volume seeks to answer. By translating and juxtaposing Masson’s and Velasco’s articles on Spain, we see how the Spaniards object to being the butt of the joke running down the telephone chain of French philosophie, and how they insist that the discourse of Enlightenment return to its more noble purpose of advancing civility and rational exchange.

– Ricardo López

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills