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Radical Translations

How do you study translations and translators in the ever-changing Age of Revolutions? Can digital tools help researchers understand the complex evolution of eighteenth-century translations? What are the elements that make a translation radical? The following invited speakers provided much food for thought as we construct our database and develop our key concepts

Translations in revolutionary times can take tortuous or straightforward paths. Dr Rachel Rogers spoke about the fascinating translation - made under considerable time-pressure - of a detailed account of the revolutionary journée of 10 August that marked the definite fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution. Made by Robert Merry, possibly in collaboration with Nicholas Madgett, this English translation was originally published in the radical newspaper Les Révolutions de Paris. Rogers showed how the translator adapted the original text for an English public: direct attacks against the monarchs were purged without diluting the support for the radical turn that the revolution had taken in Paris.

Dr Paolo Conte discussed Cesare Paribelli's translation of La servitude volontaire by La Boëtie, made when he was imprisoned by the Neapolitan authorities for his involvement in radical plots to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy. This translation called upon the Italian people to break the shackles of a centuries-long servitude to royal families and create a just republic. Under the Napoleonic Empire the defrocked priest Alberto Bottura published an Italian translation of the Art poétique by Boileau. The season for openly radical translation was over by now. But Bottura used his translation of this literary monument of French literature to promote Italian as a literary language for a future unified nation.

Professor Catriona Seth's fascinating account of the numerous translations of Thomas Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard underscored the complex work needed to identify which, if any, of the translations could be considered radical. Published in 1751 this source text had nothing overtly radical about it, yet a French translation appeared in 1805 by the former Jacobin Marie-Joseph Chénier. In his preface to this translation, Chénier claimed that the universal value of literary geniuses must be respected beyond national enmities. Seth noted that the translation was in all likelihood composed much earlier, at the height of the Terror and war against Britain, perhaps to express his own regret at the imprisonment and death of his brother, the poet André Chénier.

If translations are hard to identify, so too is the work of translation. Professor Michael Schreiber presented the group with a rich typology of translators working officially on behalf of the French government, both in the Paris Bureau des traductions and in the newly formed Italian sister republics. What stood out was the difficulty of separating the work of translation from that of revision, especially when it came to official decrees published on behalf of the French government which had to be double-checked for accuracy. The identities of these translators are not always easy to uncover. In the Italian case, the translators were usually native speakers of the target language who had a French university degree. Translations of French laws were even made into Arabic and Swedish.

The history of translation is a growing field. Professor John Patrick Leech's recently published book was the subject of his talk. Cosmopolitanism, dissent and translation: Translating radicals in eighteenth-century Britain and France (2020) recovers the networks and activities of a number of these activist translators, who often crossed borders. He drew attention to the richness of the French-Irish axis. French and Irish radicals forged personal and ideological ties that often proved more lasting than the Franco-British connections. Leech also had a number of interesting observations about the value of translation studies for the recovery and understanding of revolutionary 'borderlands' - which were not always on borders but could be found in cosmopolitan cities.

The geography of cosmopolitanism was also the subject of Professor Janet Polasky's talk which drew attention to the issue of scale, important also when dealing with translations. Instead of focusing on a simple transnational perspective, she argued for the importance of smaller places, like Hamburg and Altona, as hospitable and dynamic hubs for travellers and exiles in the revolutionary period. She ended with the interesting suggestion that travellers rather than founding fathers were vital sources of a universal cosmopolitanism that broadened the scope of what could be considered 'political' in this period.

Digital tools have greatly enhanced the research possibilities in the field of translations. Professor Rachel Hammersley recalled how no longer than fifteen years ago she had to commute to the British Library or visit the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris to do her research on printed sources. Today, the development of digital resources has made these travels less frequent, making it possible to investigate eighteenth-century printed texts from home. But using only the digitalized versions of old texts risks obscuring important material aspects not only of how texts travelled but also how they were read. Paratextual features are rarely captured by library catalogues. Format is another important yet overlooked marker in how texts were received as they moved in different contexts. For example, French translations of classical English republican texts were often smaller and cheaper, destined for a wider public. Hammersley concluded with some fascinating remarks about how sometimes only a famous title or parts of the title would migrate into a new context, raising interesting questions also about the relation of genre to form.

Professor David Armando and Dr Ryan Heuser both discussed their experience of working with digital tools on the eighteenth-century world. Professor Armando presented Harmonia universalis, a database he constructed with Bruno Belhoste on the diffusion of Mesmerism in the 1780s. Starting from a list of members of the Parisian society the database now covers more than 6000 prosopographical entries showing the wide reach of an apparently limited and somewhat obscure philosophical and medical society. The talk ended with some intriguing remarks about the difficulty of translating ineffable words and doctrines as well as the problems of capturing a movement that was marginal yet mainstream. Dr Heuser showed us what computational analysis can bring to the study of semantic fields. His account of how abstract concepts evolved over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is also pertinent to the development of revolutionary slogans. Big databases such as ECCO (Eighteenth-century Collections online) have opened new research horizons unthinkable few years ago.