Q&A with Translation Professor John Patrick Leech
The second interlocutor of our series of Q&A with scholars is Associate Professor John Patrick Leech. He has always been interested in the relation between translations and politics since the eighteenth century. His most recent book is Cosmopolitanism, dissent and translation. Translating radicals in eighteenth-century France and Britain (Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2020)
NV: Tell us a bit about the origins of this work: How did you come interested in the subject? What were the main obstacles in the research of the various translations and networks of these “in-between” figures?
JPL: I became interested in this topic while exploring the circulation of ideas in the Enlightenment period. The work of Fania Oz-Salzberger indicated clearly the importance of translation and its relative neglect in this regard. It was also clear to me from reading Jonathan Israel that the ‘radical Enlightenment’ was, like much of the mainstream Enlightenment, a highly international affair. I then thought it might be interesting and worthwhile to attempt to chart translation amongst radicals in a longer diachronic framework, keeping in mind the evidently cosmopolitan orientations of many of these translators. The difficulties involved, I think, lay in the paucity of previous work in this area. Although there is a large literature on the circulation of ideas (from Ann Goldgar on the ‘Republic of Letters’ to the extensive work on Enlightenment authors), relatively little has been done to acknowledge that these exchanges often involved a continuous and assiduous work of translation. This led me to try to provide a sort of mapping of at least some of this activity.
NV: Why do you think it is relevant to rediscover the role of radical translators for our time?
JPL: Rediscovering radical translators in the eighteenth century underlines the extent to which there are undercurrents of cosmopolitanism and dialogue amongst different cultures in periods preceding the consolidation of nation states. It also highlights the extent to which radical ideas and movements were not always concerned with consolidating their positions solely within a national framework. In this sense, focusing on the cosmopolitanism of eighteenth-century radicalism illustrates how later cosmopolitan radical movements were not operating in a historical vacuum. It is a project also, of course, oriented to relativizing the current turn towards populism and the reinforcement of national identities which is occurring in opposition to the contrary pulls of globalisation. And given that these cosmopolitan movements work in a multilingual context, careful attention to issues of translation is required.
NV: How do you use the term ‘radical’ in relation to translation and cultural network? Do you consider the term as a label or something flexible and ever-changing following the different political contexts?
JPL: The work of Jonathan Israel has been useful for me here. He puts forward forcefully the notion that there was a ‘radical’ enlightenment fundamentally different from the prevailing ‘moderate’ one, tracing this radical version back to Spinoza and forward to the Girondist revolutionaries (not, significantly, Robespierre and the Jacobins) using a criterion of republicanism in politics and materialism in philosophy. Although this categorisation may be overdrawn at times and operates a strong dichotomy which may be difficult to maintain in a close analysis of individual thinkers, it is useful in distinguishing a certain fundamental opposition to the prevailing structures of monarchism and religion which dominated much of the eighteenth century.
Given that this radicalism was clearly a transnational phenomenon, there seems to be a close link to translation. It is important, however, to recognize that there are considerable differences between commentators and translators who may be considered radical in terms of their specific context but share little with others operating in different contexts. Pierre Coste, for example, was radical in that he provided access amongst Francophone readers to the innovative ideas of John Locke, but this radicalism is of course very different from how we look at, say, the Girondin François Lanthenas and his translation of the Rights of Man of Thomas Paine.
On a different level, I think that the search for political and philosophical models and experiences outside of the immediately proximate cultural framework, and the translation of work representative of these experiences, can be seen as an indication of a certain radicalism. What motivated Baron d’Holbach to translate English deists and materialists? Why did Mirabeau translate Aedanus Burke’s criticism of the principle of aristocracy as it appeared in the Cincinnati Society? Why did English radicals translate material relating to the French Revolution for English newspapers and reviews? There are several possible answers, I think. On the one hand, it may have been more prudent to attribute radical ideas to foreigners, particularly in regimes characterised by censorship. But importing material from other cultures may also function to communicate a sense that these ideas have a universal or at least shared validity. Finally, we may also more generally say that by looking outside their own immediate cultural frameworks, writers and thinkers position themselves in a dissonant relation to these frameworks. In this sense, perhaps, translation is an inherently radical act.
NV: Can the marginality of translators (like in the case of the Huguenot translators who mediated between English and French cultures) turn them in political activists with their own agenda?
JPL: Translators are inevitably figures positioned between different cultures, although I would prefer to see them, as Anthony Pym does, as inhabitants of intermediate ‘frontier’ areas rather than as marginal. Their in-between position can, I think, turn them into figures who naturally maintain a critical distance from the established norms and solidities of the cultures they mediate between (although this formulation tends to imagine cultures as discrete, autonomous and identifiable entities, while instead I believe it is important to consider them as constantly shifting and evolving).
This critical distance can constitute a sort of independence which may in turn be constitutive of a certain political activism, although I don’t see this as being automatic. The case of the Huguenots is in any case perhaps a little different. Given the discrimination they suffered and finally their expulsion from France in 1685, they were certainly marginal figures, many of whom were radical in their opposition to Catholic religious and political orthodoxy and this led them almost naturally to use translation as a political act. In other words, it was their political and cultural marginality which led them to turn to translation and not vice versa. Their intermediate and bilingual status, moreover, led them to turn to translation as a natural way of developing their talents in the societies to which they migrated.
NV: In your work you pinpointed the importance of reviews and newspapers in promoting the circulation of extracts of translation. What are today the other media which facilitate the multifarious circulation of translations?
JPL: I do think that work on translation has tended to focus on identifiable products, ‘translations’, often in book form. I think it is important instead to recognize that the activity of translation is in fact much more ubiquitous and can be traced in products such as news articles and reviews which summarize or ‘extract’ from original material in other languages and thus constitute de facto translations, although they may not appear as such. If this is true in the period I cover, it is also evident today: all sorts of news products, for example, are in fact the result of extensive translation work which, however, remains largely invisible, carried out ‘back-office’. In this sense, we should begin to recognize the ubiquity of translation activity in a globalised world. The fact that we can identify the same sort of activity also in the eighteenth century merely indicates the extent to which transnational, cross-cultural frameworks have always been present. There has been a general reluctance to recognize this, however, because of an overriding ‘methodological nationalism’ that still pervades many disciplines and many ways of thinking.
NV: Translations and reform seem to go hand-in-hand during the period you studied. Do you think is it still the case?
JPL: I would not want to link translation and reform too closely. However, in the sense that we can understand reform as the promotion of change with regard to an existing given state, it necessarily contemplates other imagined states. These imagined states can be different diachronically, as in the case of utopias set in the future or the nostalgia for a lost past, or synchronically, as in the contemplation of other coexistent cultural or political forms. In the latter case, it may be necessary to carry out an act of cultural or linguistic translation. So perhaps there is a link!