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Radical Translations

This project looks to the French Revolution to recover the vitality of Europe’s shared radical past. In the convulsive political climate of revolution, translation was not simply a new container for an esteemed original. It was also a type of direct action, as revolutionaries and their sympathizers turned to translation to express a commitment to radical ideas that they were not always able to do in practice. This project repositions translators not as passive recipients of foreign propaganda but as key cultural mediators seeking to ‘spread democracy’ into new cultures and different language communities – a contested practice then as now. We define as ‘radical’ any translation that aims to extend democratic and egalitarian ideas into new contexts. This includes both inter-cultural exchange between languages and intra-cultural translation adapted to domestic ends, as the revolutionaries sought to cross all sorts of linguistic, geographic, social and cultural boundaries.

This investigation focuses on two axes: one connecting Britain and France; the other crossing the Alps to Italy and back, with Anglophone texts often reaching Italian readers via French translation. Italy was the society most changed by the Revolution and Britain, or so it is assumed, the least. Yet far from being passive collaborators of the French, the Italian radicals translated the political egalitarianism of the French Jacobins into new contexts and became a key influence on nineteenth-century international socialism. Britain meanwhile served as a vital model for the French revolutionaries and many prominent British radicals spent time in France

The project will identify c. 400 translations with a radicalising purpose that have never been systematically studied. This includes: published translations, self-translations, texts imagined as translations, as well as unpublished or projected translations, recoverable from newspapers, publisher’s prospectuses, and personal correspondence. We pay special attention to how paratexts (prefaces, addenda, titles, dedications) function as compact forms of communication, expressing political and social aims. In literary criticism, paratext is defined as material that surrounds the text. It is here that the translator's voice can be heard and evidence gleaned as it why and how a particular text was translated at a particular time. Our bibliography of translations includes separate records for paratexts, which are extensively annotated.

The project also seeks to illuminate the lives of some 200 translators. These range from revolutionaries who were well-known translators to lesser known radicals to anonymous to pseudonymous translators whose lives are barely known at all. Some are professional translators; others translated only on occasion. What unites them all is the way they use translation to extend radical ideas of liberty and equality into new contexts. In putting translation at the centre of revolutionary lives, we also seek to recover translation as a political and social event. How did these translators use translation to respond to a changing political landscape, marked by new opportunities and new modes of repression? A key element of our project, therefore, is the construct of chronologies in three linguistic contexts that foreground events at the intersection of translation activity, political radicalism and publishing history.

By introducing an all-important time factor in the analysis of radical texts, this project aims to:

  • Map the impact of translation on revolutionary thought and politics in the revolutionary period
  • Reconstruct a still obscure network of radical translators, their networks and identities using prosopographical methods
  • Extend our knowledge of the linguistic and cultural strategies of mediation used by radical translators
  • Show how the extension, adaptation, re-appropriation and even partial rejection of radical ideas through translation can be used to reveal cultural fault lines as well as demonstrate how cultural influence works in practice