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.”


  1. This was less than a century before Victor Hugo?!

  2. rootlesscosmo says

    The refinement element reminds me of (what little I know of) the elaborate circumlocutions of préciosité, but someone else (Marie-Lucie?) will have to supply the details and references.

  3. Yes, I expect marie-lucie will have some enlightening comments.

  4. John Emerson says

    Lin Shu, who translated 170 works of Western literature into Chinese, did not know any Western language and did everything with the help of intermediaries. He often improved his odels, mostly by abridgement. As I said recently, authors like Dickens and Fielding who write by the word benefit from abridgement. Arthur Waley and the Chinese writer Qian Zhongshu both admired Lin Shu’s translations or adaptations.
    I never finished Tom Jones because of the longwindedness and deliberate pace. That doesn’t always stop me, but it did with Fielding. I’ve read the first half of Don Quixote, on of my favorite books, only in abridged editions.
    I am pretty much in a favor of a less fussy attitude toward translation. Some authors deserve a reverential treatment of every word, but I doubt that Dickens is one of them. At the extremes, you have a new version in a different language.
    Urquhart’s Rabelais is described as being that — not really accurate, but appropriate to the spirit of Rabelais in which the fussier translations are not. (Obviously, with Rabelais you want more than one translation plus at least one critical edition).
    Nerval’s French translation of Faust was not quite accurate (it was done when he was about 20) but Goethe praised it highly, even saying that it helped him understand his own book better.
    Recently I’ve been looking at a translation of Barbara Dawson Smith’s soft porn bodice-ripper “Stolen Heart”. The translation is abridged but there’s also new characterization introduced. My initial suspicion (consistent with things I noticed in Taiwan) is that very few Chinese women fantasize about brutes the way some American women do.

  5. marie-lucie says

    You guys are putting me on the spot. When I studied English literature I read the English works referred to, in English, even if I did not understand everything at the time. One of my professors collected 18th century French translations of such English novels, but she never commented on the merits of those translations. I knew that translators at that time took liberties with the texts in order to render them in idiomatic French, but I did not realize the extent of those liberties as described in the quotation above. Sorry if I can’t be more specific!

  6. 18th century attitudes to translation are thought-provoking. In this modern age we tend to believe that our modern practices are more correct or scientific, but people close to our time had totally different ideas that can be entirely justified in within their own rationale.
    I certainly don’t believe that modern translators are necessarily superior either stylistically or technically to earlier translators. For instance, Seidensticker is generally acclaimed as a great translator of Lady Murasaki, Kawabata, etc., but his prose is leaden and monotonous and completely fails to do justice to the originals. I would rather read Waley any day.
    Incidentally, did passages like “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… I will say quite simply that Sophia was beautiful and worthy of love” have a direct influence on Gogol and his ilk? To my untutored imagination, it almost reads like the whimsical sort of thing that you might find in a Gogol novel.

  7. Mark Etherton says

    This is reminiscent of Crébillon fils’ preface to L’Ecumoire, which he says was written in Chinese, by a certain Kiloho-éé, on the basis of a Japanese translation of a Chéchianien original, and then translated from Chinese into Dutch (very imperfectly, as the translator admitted), then into Latin, and from Latin into Venetian, by a translator who, again, understood Latin very imperfectly; Crebillon then translated this version into French, noting that:
    “On ne se flatte pas d’avoir bien réussi à cette derniere traduction. La Vénitien est un Jargon difficile à entendre, et le Traducteur François avoue que dans le Toscan même il ya bien des termes qui l’arrêtent.
    Ce qui ne paroîtra extraordinaire, quand on sçaura qu’il na étudié l’Italien que deux mois, sous un François de ses amis, qui n’avoit été à Rome que six semaines.”
    But Crébillon argues that this does not matter, since the original was full of nonsense and absurd fables:
    “Je l’ai embelli, en quantité d’endroits, de réflexions également neuves, et judicieuses. Il est écrit avec un soin, une netteté, et une précision merveilleuse, et je suis persuade que Kiloho-éé est infiniment inferieur a cette traduction, quoique faite d’après une langue que je n’entends presque pas.
    Pour le fond, il peut être extravagant ; mais c’est vraisemblablement la faute de l’original. On auroit tort d’exiger de l’imagination d’un Chinois, la régularité et le gout qui brillent dans nos Auteurs François, qui toujours compassés, sont presque toujours fort raisonnables, et froids encore plus souvent.”

  8. You guys are putting me on the spot.
    Sorry, m-l! A moment’s thought would have brought the realization that this is not your area of expertise. But that’s the price you pay for being so dependable an explicator.
    To my untutored imagination, it almost reads like the whimsical sort of thing that you might find in a Gogol novel.
    That’s a very astute observation, and I’m sure he enjoyed, and he may very possibly have been influenced by, that sort of absurdity.
    On auroit tort d’exiger de l’imagination d’un Chinois, la régularité et le gout qui brillent dans nos Auteurs François, qui toujours compassés, sont presque toujours fort raisonnables, et froids encore plus souvent.
    Yeah, that pretty much sums up the classic French attitude. Good quote! But one wonders whether there actually was such a chain of translations, or whether Crébillon was amusing himself and his reader in the same way Cervantes was with his pretended original.

  9. Of course, I suppose I could find out easily by googling, but it’s too early in the morning for that sort of initiative.

  10. Crébillon was pulling your leg.

  11. marie-lucie says

    I only knew the name of Crébillon fils, nothing about his (or his father’s) work, but he sounds like he was a fun guy to have around.

  12. John Emerson says

    I could have believed three languages, but not if Chechen was one of them.

  13. There was a lot of to and fro between the French and English novel in the 18th century (and beyond). Fielding was influenced by Marivaux’s novel Le Paysan parvenu. Smollett was influenced by (and translated) Le Sage’s Gil Blas. On the other side of the Channel, Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste riffs on themes from Tristram Shandy and Les Liaisons dangereuses is indebted to Richardson’s Clarissa. Stendhal was a big fan of Fielding and must have read him in the original since what he liked was Fielding’s lack of prissiness.

  14. John Emerson says

    Tristram Shandy was also popular around 1830, for example with Nerval. It was only about then that Shakespeare, who violated the classical unities and other rules, became accepted in France. Hugo’s plays followed the Shakespearean model and were controversial for that reason, along with others.
    There was incredible interest in drama and opera during this period. It’s amazing how little of the French drama of this time has survived. A lot of the authors in other genres made their living reviewing operas and plays (and writing travel books). Romantic fantasies about actresses and singers played a major role in the lives of these men.

  15. Crébillon fils was a libertin writer of the early 18th century. I’ve read one or two of his books, including Le Sopha, which is about a man who is magically transformed into a sofa and the adventures which happen on him (sic). In Vanity Fair, he’s one of the favourite authors of Becky Sharp. It’s one of the tell-tale early signs Thackeray gives us as to Becky’s character along with her throwing Johnson’s dictionary out of the coach window. No good can possibly come of a heroine with a passion for Crébillon…

  16. komfo,amonan says

    Do we know that Chéchianien refers to Chechen? Could it, rather, refer to the language of Zhejiang?

  17. John Emerson says

    That seems possible to me, more plausible than Chechen anyway, though going from one Chinese language to another via Japanese seems strange too. But then, plausibility doesn’t seem to have been a desideratium here.

  18. Cherie Woodworth says

    One thing that has puzzled me is the phenomenon (apparently) of early 19th c. Russian prosodists like Pushkin and (and even more so) Gogol when they begin to write narrative works in Russian. Up to that point, I have been told, they had read narrative fiction only in French (or other languages). And it does NOT seem obvious to me, at all, that if one’s “literate” language is French while one’s vulgar language is Russian (or even Ukrainian) that one would be able to simply “translate” what is essentially a highly artificial human enterprise (written narrative fiction) into another language, culture, and mindset.
    I know this phenomenon has been commented on for decades, but it strikes me as newly astonishing given our evolving understanding of oral culture and how the brain processes language (that is, the artificiality of the novelistic form is increasingly apparent to me).
    The transition now, however, has now been repeated in many parts of the world, as artificial, culturally-dependent verbal forms are translated into very different languages and cultures (like “rapping” in Chinese, for example, or singing the “Happy Birthday” jingle in Japanese).

  19. Could it, rather, refer to the language of Zhejiang?
    That’s more likely. Crébillon was part of the vogue for pseudo-oriental tales inspired by the immense popularity of the Arabian Nights, translated into French by Galland in the first decade of the 18th century. The most famous examples of the genre are Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes and Voltaire’s Zadig. Of course, the country these authors are really concerned with is France. The exotic setting is a chance to get in some satirical criticism of French society while evading the censor.

  20. marie-lucie says

    plausibility doesn’t seem to have been a desideratium here.
    Indeed, Crébillon seems to be going out of his way to indicate that what he has written is a spoof. He probably had some other authors in mind, now forgotten but known to his public.

  21. mark Etherton says

    I have to say i’m rather surprised at anyone taking Crébillon remotely seriously. His views of contemporary French literature are clear; indeed at the end of his preface he says our authors should sin more against the rules: “Leurs Ouvrages en seroient moins décents, mais plus agréables, et mieux lus”. “Moins décent, mais plus agréable” could be his motto.

  22. marie-lucie says

    According to, Crébillon père wrote somber tragedies, and thought his son was the worst of his many works. It looks like Crébillon fils must have been doing his best to be the opposite of his father.

  23. Yes, Crébillon père wrote French Classical tragedy. Of course, by the time he came on the scene, the classics of the genre had already been written by Corneille and Racine. Crébillon tried to outdo them by making his works exceptionally bloodthirsty. Le Sage satirises him in Gil Blas where there’s a playwright who has a tantrum because he’s accidentally let one of his characters survive the massacre at the end of the play.

  24. Actually, I misremembered slightly. Here’s the playwright from Gil Blas talking about his tragedy, The Amusements of Muley Bugentuf, King of Morocco. I’ll give Le Sage’s French (from 1715) first then Smollett’s English version (from 1749) as an interesting example of 18th-century translation in action.
    “J’ai fait élever un théâtre, sur lequel, Dieu aidant, je ferai représenter par mes disciples une pièce que j’ai composée. Elle a pour titre : Les Amusements de Muley Bugentuf, roi de Maroc. […] À l’égard de la pièce, je ne t’en parlerai point. Je veux te laisser le plaisir de la surprise. Je dirai simplement qu’elle doit enlever tous les spectateurs. C’est un de ces sujets tragiques qui remuent l’âme par les images de mort qu’ils offrent à l’esprit. Je suis du sentiment d’Aristote : il faut exciter la terreur. Ah ! si je m’étais attaché au théâtre, je n’aurais jamais mis sur la scène que des princes sanguinaires, que des héros assassins. Je me serais baigné dans le sang. On aurait toujours vu périr dans mes tragédies non seulement les principaux personnages, mais les gardes mêmes. J’aurais égorgé jusques au souffleur. Enfin, je n’aime que l’effroyable. C’est mon goût. Aussi ces sortes de poèmes entraînent la multitude, entretiennent le luxe des comédiens, et font rouler tout doucement les auteurs.”
    “I have got a stage erected, on which, God willing, shall be represented by my scholars a piece of my own composing, entitled and called — The Amusements of Muley Bugentuf, King of Morocco. […] With respect to the piece I shall not say a word about it, you shall be taken by surprise. I shall simply state that it must produce a deep impression on the audience. It is one of those tragic subjects which harrow up the soul, by images of death presented to the senses in all their fearful forms. I am of Aristotle’s mind, terror is a principal engine. Oh! if I had written for the stage, I would have introduced none but bloody tyrants, and death-dispensing heroes. Not all the perfumes of Arabia should have sweetened this blood-polluted hand, I would have been up to my elbows in gore. There would have been tragedy with a vengeance; principal characters! ay, guards and attendants, should all have been sprawling together. I would have butchered every man of them, and the prompter into the bargain. In a word, I refine upon Aristotle, and border on the horrible, that is my taste. These plays to tear a cat in, are the only things for popularity; the actors live merrily on their own dying speeches, and the authors roll in luxury on the devastation of mankind.”

  25. I looked in vain for “Not all the perfumes of Arabia should have sweetened this blood-polluted hand”, “There would have been tragedy with a vengeance”, “I refine upon Aristotle”, “to tear a cat in”, and “on the devastation of mankind”. Altogether more colourful than the original. In modern terms a no-no, but one must admire Smollett for his bravery in enhancing the original. The effect is not unpleasing. Indeed, the French original almost seems abstract and insipid 🙂

  26. marie-lucie says

    18th century French taste does tend to be more abstract, or rather, to leave more to the imagination. Smollett lays it on thick. It is like watercolour compared to oil paint.

  27. marie-lucie says

    to leave more to the imagination
    Which is probably why the French translator of Fielding mentioned above did not see fit to translate the lengthy and painstaking description of the heroine’s features and qualities, but to leave it to the reader to imagine her.

  28. One thing that has puzzled me is the phenomenon (apparently) of early 19th c. Russian prosodists like Pushkin and (and even more so) Gogol when they begin to write narrative works in Russian. Up to that point, I have been told, they had read narrative fiction only in French (or other languages).

    Not having responded to this in 2010, I will do so now: that is not the case. There was plenty of narrative fiction in Russian before Pushkin began writing — mostly bad (but very popular) adventure novels, but there was already excellent prose by Karamzin and others.

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    What I remember was that French was a language with various registers possible in serious writing, some of which were close to educated speech. In Russian the “serious” writing was artificial and removed from Pushkin’s (or even Karamzin’s) spoken Russian. So Pushkin and later Gogol sort of gave later writers more scope by using polished colloquial Russian. But maybe I am misremembering what I read.

  30. No, that’s basically correct. But it’s not true that there was no narrative fiction in Russian before them.

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