I’m slowly making my way through Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited by Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally, and I’m now on Ronald LeBlanc’s “A la recherche du genre perdu: Fielding, Gogol, and Bakhtin’s Genre Memory.” One of LeBlanc’s points is that the undoubted influence of Fielding on Gogol was mediated by translations, and he has some eye-opening things to say about the translations that would have been available to Gogol (and the other Russian writers of his day, none of whom read English easily, if at all):
…Gogol, like other readers in early nineteenth-century Russia, was likely to have been acquainted not with Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749), but rather with counterfeit versions: La Place’s Histoire de Tom Jones, ou L’Enfant trouvé (1750), or even Kharlamov’s Povest’ o Tomase Ionese, ili Naidenyshe (1770).
I use the word “counterfeit” to characterize La Place’s translation because even a cursory textual analysis reveals that the French version of Tom Jones (and Kharlamov’s later Russian version, patterned with scrupulous fidelity on that French translation)48 inflicts serious damage — both stylistically and thematically — upon Fielding’s original text. Although the extreme distortions that were authorized by the liberal translation theory regnant in eighteenth-century France have been examined elsewhere, we should recall briefly the extreme liberties that were regularly committed during this period. These liberties were largely authorized by the neoclassicist theory of bienséance, an aesthetic notion that allowed translations into French to become, in essence, adaptations, as its governing principle was to preserve the proprieties of artistic decorum. In order to spare highly civilized French readers the need to expose themselves to the literary “barbarism” perpetrated by “vulgar” novels imported from Spain and England, translators in eighteenth-century France felt justified in adapting foreign works to suit the sophisticated tastes and refined sensibilities of their native reading audience. … The process of modifying Spanish and English works in order to have them please Gallic literary palates generally entailed two main operations: first, a foreshortening of the work, by eliminating unnecessary digressions, lengthy descriptions, or moral commentaries; and, second, its refinement, by expurgating vulgar imagery, unsavory details, or inelegant language. The eighteenth-century practice of bienséance resulted in bowdlerized French editions of such seminal works of modern European literature as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Fielding’s Tom Jones, foreign novels that were considered too virile and too primitive to be read in France in their original form.
That footnote 48 is quite striking in its own right:
48. As an example of just how scrupulously faithful Kharlamov is to La Place’s French translation of Fielding’s novel, consider how at one point in his own Russian translation he includes the following: “The English author of this story provides a great and very lengthy description of the beauty of the person, morals and traits of our Heroine; but, in order to spare our French readers [sic]—who are less patient than our neighbors—the boredom that is always connected with length, I will say quite simply that Sophia was beautiful and worthy of love.”
And I agree with LeBlanc’s opening adverb in the following remark: “Astonishingly, Desfontaine’s 1743 translation of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews continues to be published in France even today.”