Lives in translation: Nicolas de Bonneville
Nicolas de Bonneville (Évreux, 1760 – Paris, 1828) was a journalist, writer, editor, printer, translator and opinion maker. His translation and publishing activities made him into an important cultural broker between the French, English and German language works in the revolutionary era.
Bonneville became influential in the French Revolution due to his political journalism and his activism in political clubs. On 13 October 1790 he and the abbé Fauchet founded the Cercle Social (also called Société des Amis de la Vérité), a society devoted to the happiness of humankind. Initially a closed circle of like-minded spirits, the Cercle quickly grew into a one of Paris’ largest and most influential political clubs. It was a stronghold of Girondin thought and propaganda. Between 1791-1794 the Cercle mainly operated as a printing and publishing venture. The reports of the club were published in the newspaper Bouche de Fer (mouth of iron).
Bonneville furthermore edited the newspapers La Chronique du mois, Le Bien informé, La Sentinelle, La Feuille villageoise and Bulletin des Amis de la Vérité. The Cercle Social also published a little less than two hundred books, brochures and pamphlets concerned with revolutionary and Enlightenment ideas, many of them translations. Among the society’s collaborators were Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Etienne Clavière, Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, John Oswald, Nicolas de Condorcet, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Nicolas-Edme Restif de le Bretonne and Thomas Paine.
Bonneville himself mainly translated from the German, especially novels and plays. These translations, and his own poetic exploits, made him into a forerunner of romanticism in France. His translations from the English were more political. Between 1789 and 1792 he published the three volumes of Histoire de l'Europe moderne, his adaptation of William Russell’s The History of Modern Europe. In the preface, Bonneville wrote that the original had many flaws, being a compilation rather than a history, and containing many bad translations from secondary sources. Bonneville set out to transform his translation of Russell into a more ‘useful’ text. He was compelled to do so by the revolutionary circumstances, which demanded a modern and truthful history of Europe.
Bonneville is best remembered today for his translations of two works by his close friend and collaborator Thomas Paine: Pacte maritime adressé aux nations neutres (1800) and De l’origine de la Franc-Maçonnerie (1812). The first one was translated in collaboration with Paine, while he lived at Bonneville’s house (1797-1800). Bonneville’s French translation was anonymously translated into Italian in 1801 as Patto marittimo: indirizzato alle nazioni neutrali, da un neutrale. The second translation was posthumous.
Read Nicolas de Bonneville's more extensive biography here.