BMCR 2009.08.63

Translation, Subjectivity, and Culture in France and England, 1600-1800

, Translation, Subjectivity, and Culture in France and England, 1600-1800. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. x, 321. ISBN 9780804759441. $60.00.

Table of Contents

It is almost as if they expected foreigners to conform their dress and behavior to the local customs; as a result they never really get to know a foreigner. (p. 251)

Such was the verdict on the translation practices recommended and implemented by neoclassical translators voiced by August Wilhelm von Schlegel and agreed upon by the Romantics and many later critics. Though the texts produced by the translators were readable — the practice was to produce literary and adaptive translations with the aim of making the author speak French or English (or any other language into which a text was being translated) according to the taste of the day — and though les belles fidèles, as they were called, were highly popular at the time, but not uncontroversial and accepted without debate, it is questionable whether everyone did then and would now agree to call all of them translations . The censure of the Romantics against such adaptive translation practice has been elaborated upon by translation historians and theorists, such as Berman and Venuti, who term the English and French translation of the period “ethnocentric” and “hegemonizing”,1 and translation historians who see the span from antiquity to the advent of Romanticism as uniform and uneventful as far as translation discourse is concerned.2

In Translation, Subjectivity, and Culture in France and England, 1600-1800, Hayes studies translators’ work in France and England throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a period when, generally speaking, each country had shifting cultural, social, and political interests in the other and when translators, in particular, in the two countries were very much aware of each other’s translation practice. Neoclassical translation was not as uniform as it may appear at a glance or as it has been described by later critics who sought to distinguish their own approach to translation from that of the previous generation as much as possible. Practitioners and critics had differing opinions on, for example, freedom versus fidelity in translation, the relation of the past to the present, and the power of language to represent the foreign. Hayes’ main aim is to “sort out the multiple agendas and projects that compose the ‘neoclassical school'” (p. 7). This she does by carefully reading the translator’s own words, that is, literally, their prefaces, and by examining what they have to say about how the translators pictured their projects and how they presented them to readers. Hayes’ method counteracts the tendency to present long-term developments over decades and centuries as a still life, and clearly brings out the many controversial issues debated, inter alia, in prefaces to translations, despite agreements in other matters.

To do full justice to the succinct, though not hard to follow, argument, the detailed analyses and close readings of the often highly interesting and charming source texts, this review would have to swell beyond all proportion. In the following some of the topics discussed are merely touched upon. The seven chapters emphasise different themes and trends in the history of translation in England and France. But they are arranged in a roughly chronological order from d’Ablancourt and other seventeenth-century French translators of classics to eighteenth-century translators from modern languages. The chapters are framed by an introduction and a conclusion. After a bibliography, an index brings this carefully produced volume to an end.3

The first chapter, “From the Academy to Port-Royal” is an exploration of the two important centres for translation in seventeenth century France, which both left their mark on French language and culture: d’Ablancourt, Vaugelas and others among the urban academicians, and the austere Jansenist at Port-Royal with d’Andilly and Sacy among others. Aside from differences in other matters, members of these two groups show a similar concern for attaining, maintaining and enhancing the beauty, purity and clarity of the French language. In their prefatory texts they show an awareness of the difficulty, not to say impossibility, of reproducing all aspects of the timeless eloquence of the original; the dedicatory and prefatory texts often apologize for this. Sometimes, however, a translator becomes paralysed in the search for the proper style and wording, as happened to Vaugelas when translating Quintus Curtius. Working more than thirty years on his translation of the history of Alexander the great, Vaugelas did not manage to produce even a finished manuscript version. Obsessed with hitting the perfect expression, conforming with l’usage, i. e. with current idiom. Vaugelas left “a manuscript that had become a garden of forking paths, filled with marginal annotations, variants, queries” (p. 33); in the words of Pierre Du Ryer, who finished Vaugelas’ translation and wrote a preface describing the process leading to the publication of the translation (p. 33-4):

There was not a single page in all his books where there were not two or three glosses on each phrase, such scruples and doubts he had as to the expressions; he sought always the clearest, the simplest, and altogether the most concise and French.

Vaugelas’ inability to decide between the many alternative formulations open to a translator working with any text from any language to any other language, physically manifest in the variants written into his manuscript, is an extreme instance of the many choices faced by every translator. Moreover, it bespeaks an awareness of the transience of language not only over decades and centuries but also from one year to the next or from one week to the next, shared by Vaugelas with his contemporaries. Hayes’ analysis of Du Ryer’s preface, and prefaces to other contemporary translations, brings out how central questions about language development, meaning and usage were at the time and how they were foregrounded in translators’ reflections on their work. Indeed, translation in itself could reinforce the awareness of language development and flexibility, as previously well-received translations had to be replaced, as it was realized that two contemporary translations of one text would not be the same, and as translation was used as one of the means of enriching the French language. Making the classical author, be he Greek or Roman, speak French, is a recurring image translators used to describe what they were doing. The liberties taken by most translators is defended by that envisaged metempsychosis, as in d’Ablancourt’s dedication to his translation of Thucydides (p. 58):

For this is less the portrait of Thucydides than it is Thucydides himself, who has passed into another body through a sort of metempsychosis, and thus from Greek has become French, without being able to complain of a lack of resemblance when he appears less defective, any more than a patient would complain of a doctor who by the strength of his remedies had given him health and vigour.

Even though — or is it perhaps because? — translators discipline their language and make their authors speak in conformity with le goût classique by, for example, accommodating metaphors and eliminating repetitions, their discourse remain self-aware and self-reflexive. Their paratexts, moreover, require readers to become aware of the gap between authors and translators, between then and now, and of the translators’ efforts to integrate the past into the ongoing construction of modernity.

In the next chapter, “Transmigration, Transmutation, and Exile”, Hayes turns from France to England, to a group of English translators who declared that their approach to the task of translation was something new and different from their predecessors’ practice. Their deprecation of their predecessors is similar to how the French translators of the previous chapter dissociated themselves from earlier translators; the English were inspired by the French. John Denham, Thomas Stanley, Edmund Waller, Abraham Cowley and Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon, belong to this clique of translators. They were all royalist supporters, they had all spent some time in exile on the Continent, and they made significant verse translations, often accompanied by important pieces of criticism on translation. Bonds of friendship and common political interests unite many of the members of the group of translators discussed in the chapter. These bonds are often written into the paratexts in intricate citation networks. Moreover, the friendships among poets, critics and translators parallel the relation envisioned between author and translator, as for example in Roscommon’s advice to the translator (p. 87):

Then, seek a Poet who your way do’s bend,
And chuse an Author as you chuse a Friend.
United by this Sympathetick Bond,
You grow Familiar, Intimate and Fond;
Your thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls agree,
No Longer his Interpreter, but He.

The influence of the French on the English translators is obvious, but despite a sometimes keen awareness of French literary criticism and use of French translations, they take care to suppress overt signs of French influence and to maintain the Englishness of their translation projects. The similar views on, approaches to and methods of translation obscure the very different contexts in which the French and the English translators operated. Hayes’ analysis puts the translations and paratexts into their political, military and literary contexts, bringing out not only their place within a network of contemporary literature and translation but also the often highly political subtexts of the English translations.

The broad survey of seventeenth-century translators’ reflections on their practice in the opening chapters is followed by individual studies of two central figures whose influence was felt throughout the eighteenth century: John Dryden in England and Anne Dacier in France. In the chapter on Dryden, the focus is on the Dedication of the Aeneis, Dryden’s preface to one of his latest translations of the Roman classics, the Aeneid from 1697. Hayes’ reading teases out intertwined strands of time, memory and otherness in this exceptionally rich paratext in which Dryden works through his own role as translator, placing himself in relation not only to Virgil but also to previous translators, both English and French (in particular there is a substantial amount of Segrais’ preface in Dryden’s dedication, despite protestations to the contrary). In Hayes’ analysis Dryden establishes “the possibility for ongoing speech and dialogue based on the recognition and integration of the past (Virgil) or the other (Segrais)” (p. 118) by drawing extended implicit parallels between his own life and career and Virgil’s, and through the dialogue between his and Segrais’ paratexts. She argues, not implausibly, that the dedication provides Dryden’s solution to the questions of identity — authorial, translatorial and personal —, a constantly recurring issue in translations of the period, and the desire to “recreate past writers, to make them speak again in one’s own voice, and also to recuperate one’s own language, one’s own voice” (p. 117), a desire that is recurring in contemporary translation, both English and French.

Chapter 4, “Meaning and Modernity. Anne Dacier and the Homer Debate”, turns to Madame Dacier who earned a great scholarly reputation as both an editor and a translator of the Classics, both Greek and Latin, and whose work enjoyed immense authority throughout the eighteenth century. The focus of the chapter is on the Querelle d’Homère, the final phase or rekindling of the better known Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns. Dacier’s translations of the Iliad (1711) and the Odyssey (1716), with her customary copious notes and extended preface, and her Des Causes de la corruption du goust (1714), are her prime contributions to the debate on the side of the Ancients. Antoine Houdar de la Motte’s verse translation (?) of the Iliad (1714) and Dacier’s prompt critical rebuttal of la Motte’s venture with the Iliad in Des Causes were the kindling that caused the debate to flare up anew. La Motte’s Iliad shows clearly that there are very different sorts of belles infidèles. At any rate, there is a wide gulf between the translations of d’Ablancourt (of whose translations the term was first used in France) and his followers and la Motte’s Iliad. The former are highly appropriative and localising but nevertheless meticulous and made with knowledge of the source language. The latter’s verse version was based on Latin versions and Dacier’s French prose translation, and it was, moreover, made without any knowledge of Greek. La Motte reduced the twenty-four books to twelve by improving on such points as he found unsatisfactory, for example the portrayal of gods and heroes, too long episodes, speeches, combat scenes, the description of Achilles’ shield. In short, he rewrote Homer to suit contemporary taste. No wonder that Dacier, who had been working with Homer, reacted to the extremes to which he went! Though Dacier herself does not break completely with contemporary translation practice, at least her theoretical views on how translation should be done have moved beyond classicism. In her reading of Dacier’s, la Motte’s and other participants’ polemics in the debate, Hayes focuses on the relationship of language to thought, of meaning to linguistic expression, of the accessibility of the past and of the forms of knowledge and aesthetic appreciation that are available through translation, through one’s own language and through foreign languages.

For women, translation was a way into the world of literary culture and textual production, a world that by tradition was nearly completely the domain of men. By the eighteenth century literary women had become a fairly well tolerated phenomenon, though traditional constraints were kept up in some respects. Women hoping to step outside the boundaries set by custom and norms were aware of the constraints, of course. For example, Émilie du Châtelet, one of the women translators studied in chapter five, “Gender, Signature, Authority”, notes that women translators are better tolerated by men than women authors — translation is traditionally viewed as a passive, subservient occupation. Within the field of translation there is a gendered divide between modern and classical languages, “The dead languages are ingrossed by men; these are their peculiar privileges, and they are up in arms when we invade their provinces”, in the words of Elizabeth Griffith, quoted on p. 141. Women classicists like Anne Dacier were rare, and they attracted misogynic comments from their opponents when they were engaged in polemics. Translation of contemporary literature from modern languages was less prestigious, as evidenced in the actual publications by the often, but not always, short or non-existent translatorial paratexts. In this chapter Hayes studies prefaces and dedications to the translations of a group of approximately twenty women translators, evenly divided between English and French. These texts are often overtly gendered and stamped as feminine though the translator’s name may be suppressed.

The classical world is permanently gone for d’Ablancourt, Dryden, Dacier and other translators studied in previous chapters. For them translation offers a means of managing the loss and incorporating traces of it in their present. Chapter six, “From ‘A Light in Antiquity’ to Enlightened Antiquity. Modern Classicists”, examines how translators of Greek, Latin and Hebrew (or rather biblical texts, since the emphasis is on NT translation) texts reflect the shift in the conception of the pastness of antiquity to a cultural rather than a temporal distance, that is, how ancient Greece and Rome began to be viewed as foreign, rather than ancient, worlds, worlds one could get to know. The view that the classics continue to represent the foundation for culture and that they have something to teach has not changed, but as classical texts began to be conceived of as foreign rather than indescribably ancient, other foreign texts, mainly modern European literature, gradually gained in importance and respect. The most notable translations discussed in this chapter are Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey and other English translations of classical texts, George Campbell’s translation of the Gospels (confusingly discussed in the “The World of Hebrew” section), Jacques de Tourreil’s translations of Demosthenes and Jacques Delille’s verse (a rare phenomenon in French translation) rendering of the Georgics among other French translations. Hayes’s readings of paratexts to those and other translations focus on how they echo contemporary eighteenth-century speculations on linguistics and epistemology and reflect the growing sense of the foreignness of manners, customs, habits of thought as manifested in a foreign language. The materials provide ample foundation for the conclusion (p. 206):

Thus classical translation, while continuing to offer models for literary emulation and access to the treasure troves of the past, is influenced by and participates in Enlightenment critical consciousness.

The seventh and last chapter, “‘Adventures in Print’. Modern Classics”, turns to translations from modern languages. In line with the rest of the volume, the focus is on the critical prefaces and notes to translations, this time of contemporary texts. The appearance of paratextual apparatuses surrounding translations of modern texts is a sign of the rise in their status to the same level as classical texts (and eventually higher), and of their growing significance for learning. Hayes uses the 150 first years of English translations of the first international bestseller, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, to illustrate changing views on translation and authorship (already studied in previous chapters) and to demonstrate the consolidation of the notion of a modern classic. Moving on to French translations of modern literature, Hayes focuses on translations of English authors, Pope, Swift, Shakespeare, Richardson and Young. Translation of English literature played a large role in the fashionable anglomanie; translators would occasionally claim that the impetus for translating is a wish to learn or improve their English, as, for example, Desfontaines did in his translation of Gulliver’s Travels. Nevertheless, anglomanie notwithstanding, the English texts were often reshaped to better suit French goût. In his preface, Desfontaines admits frankly that he has made cuts, softened the language, and changed the ending, but nevertheless claims that Swift has retained some of his English accent and manners. Desfontaines is not alone, though all translators are not equally frank about the operations they perform on the texts.

Concluding with an examination of three eighteenth-century histories of translation — those in abbé Goujet’s Bibliothèque françoise, Samuel Johnson’s Idler essays, and Alexander Tytler’s Essay on the Principles of Translation — Hayes gives added perspective to her study.

Throughout her well-researched, well-argued and well-written study of neoclassical translation practice and theory, Hayes successfully shows the complexities, idiosyncrasies and finer shades lurking beneath an apparently homogenous surface of shared commonalities. Such differences in the details are easily lost behind their agreement on broader issues such as the merits of adaptive translation and their view of the evolution in translating styles as progress. This book has something to offer to anyone interested in translation practice and theory in the age of les belles infidèles. As the study is by an expert on the period, the various issues concerning past and present, authorship, women translators and writers, language and identity that surface in the translators’ paratexts are considered in their contemporary linguistic, literary, political and philosophical contexts. To classicists interested in the reception and translation of classical literature during the centuries under study, this study offers new readings of the paratexts to some of the most important translations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


1. A. Berman, L’Epreuve de l’étranger, Paris 1984 ( The Experience of the Foreign, Albany 1992, trans. S. Heyvaert); L. Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility. A History of Translation, 2nd ed., London & New York 2008.

2. G. Steiner, After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation, 2nd ed., Oxford 1992.

3. The typographical errors this reviewer noticed are so few that they are hardly worth mentioning; one slip is that “inversion” appears after “Jansenism” in the index p. 319. In the footnotes there are unfortunately some references that do not appear in the bibliography (pp. 258 n. 29 and 262 n. 95); one reference is hard to find as it is not immediately evident that “Battestin, introduction” (p. 272 n. 33) appears under “Smollett, Tobias, trans. The Life and Adventures…” in the bibliography.