Helen Maria Williams or the hazards of radical translation
Helen Maria Williams thought she struck gold when she came across a collection of previously unknown letters by Louis XVI in 1803. She immediately set out to publish an English translation, but events took an unexpected turn...
'Whatever disposition we may have to strew flowers over the tomb of the unfortunate, we may be allowed to doubt whether any generation, even the remotest, will raise Lewis the Sixteenth to the honors of an apotheosis' (H.M. Williams, The political and confidential correspondence of Lewis the Sixteenth. With observations on each letter, 1803).
When Helen Maria Williams (1759/62-1827) published her translation and edition of the letters of Louis XVI (1754-1793) in 1803, she did so with a clear goal in mind. Like many translators working in the revolutionary era, her motives were political as much as literary. In the preface she explained to her readers that she considered the French Revolution the most important event in modern history, and that a correct understanding of it was of the utmost importance. Louis’ letters obviously were documents of historical significance, especially since they had been unknown previously to being brought to Williams' attention.
The discovery of the letters came at a moment when contemporary opponents of the Revolution sought to discredit the event by glorifying the memory of its royal victim, Louis XVI. Williams hardly hid her delight at being able to check such unwelcome nostalgia by bringing the letters to light. Not that the royal correspondence in itself contained any shocking revelations. The editors of the French manuscript original actually claimed to have exactly the opposite goal in mind: to raise sympathy for the tragic king. But to Williams the letters provided ample opportunity for pointing out Louis’ weakness of character and the many bad choices which had turned his reign into a mess:
‘If I have not concealed my admiration of the great and exalted principles in favor of the human race which the revolution was destined to establish, I hope also, that, in commenting on the character and conduct of Lewis the Sixteenth, I shall not be accused of insensibility or injustice, while I have sought nothing but the truth'.
Williams hammered the point home in long comments she attached to each letter, invariably judging Louis’ words and behaviour from the perspective of her own understanding of the historical truth. Adding such paratextual material (including prefaces, footnotes and comments) was a common practice among radical translators at the time. It was a way for them to frame texts in the light of their own convictions, altering their political significance and intent as they moved from one linguistic context to another.
Williams, a British subject, had engaged in transnational exchanges since over ten years. Thrilled by the French Revolution, she settled in Paris in 1790 and became well acquainted with many leading revolutionaries. In a series of famous letters aimed at the British public she positively advertised the revolutionary events. Even after being imprisoned during the Terror, she continued to voice her support for the revolutionary principles and ideals. Translating French texts to English (see her popular translation of Bernardin St. Pierre’s famous novel Paul et Virginie) was an important part of her political and literary commitment.
Given her attachment to the revolutionary cause, especially at a moment when Napoleon subverted the revolutionary principles by turning France into a monarchy again, it is easy to imagine how excited Williams must have been to work on her edition of Louis XVI’s letters. Unfortunately for her, the project backfired in an unexpected way. Her book received a negative reception in France, where it was banned by Napoleon’s censor, and its claims were extensively repudiated in other publications. Worse, doubts soon arose as to the authenticity of the correspondence. It was finally revealed that the letters were a hoax and that Williams had been deceived. In the end, Williams’ book contributed to strengthening the cause of Louis XVI’s defenders, who liked to depict him as a victim of injustice even after his death. This was the exact opposite effect of what Williams had intended to achieve. Her literary reputation never quite recovered from the blow dealt to it by the ensuing scandal.
Paul Hague, Helen Maria Williams: the purpose and practice of translation, 1789-1827 (University of Wolverhampton: unpublished doctoral thesis, 2015).
Deborah Kennedy, Helen Maria Williams and the Age of Revolution (London: Associated University Presses, 2002).