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Travel Narratives in Translation, 1750-1830

Nationalism, Ideology, Gender


Edited by Alison Martin & Susan Pickford


Routledge Research in Travel Writing

London: Routledge, 2012

Hardcover. ix+232 p. ISBN 978-0415539944. £80.00


Reviewed by Jan Borm

Université de Versailles—Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines


The collective volume Travel Narratives in Translation, 1750-1830 is a very timely contribution to a major area of interest in travel writing studies but too often neglected, Michal Cronin’s pioneering work notwithstanding, Alison E. Martin and Susan Pickford, both well-known specialists of the field, have put to together a very carefully edited collection of texts that are well informed most of the time, preceded by an excellent introduction that addresses some of the principal issues at stake. The texts focus principally on the notions of nationalism, ideology and gender during a period held by the editors a little too rashly perhaps to be the golden age of the travel narrative. No doubt, this time-span covers some of the most famous explorers such as Cook, Bougainville and La Pérouse, but other periods, at least as far as British travel writing is concerned, have been considered in similar terms, notably the modernist period (see Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British literary Traveling between the Wars, New York, OUP, 1980).

Be that as it may, the introduction serves the editors’ purpose to encourage scholars not to consider travel and translation purely in metaphorical terms, but to bear in mind the centrality of language in travel underlined previously by Michael Cronin, an idea that modern ethnography has been aware of and putting into practice for the past one hundred years. Nonetheless, the editors observe, little attention has been paid to non-fictional travel accounts in translation. Regarding texts of the period under consideration, such a focus seems essential though, given the habit of translating loosely, or “domesticating” texts in translation to adapt them to the taste of the day in a given national context, at least as far as the first half of the period under consideration is concerned. However, though Romantic views of translation may have contributed significantly to the emerging of a new poetics insisting on the importance of literalness or fidelity, habits of the belle infidèle tradition, i.e. a “strong domestication approach” [10], decidedly died hard in the first half of the nineteenth century. Reception studies of travel texts therefore need to take into account the translations of texts available, as the source text and its translations can vary considerably. Changes may include the editing out of whole passages or even chapters and additional remarks or comments by the translator / editor not necessarily indicated as such. Vladimir Kapor’s fine essay on Johann Reinhold Forster translating Bougainville offers an interesting case study in this respect. Kapor argues quite convincingly that the well-known German traveller who had accompanied Cook on his second voyage with his son Georg, attempted to prove in his English translation the superiority of British navigators to their French counterparts [97].

This is where the question of identity comes into play, one of the volume’s central foci. It is to be remembered, as the editors point out in their introduction, that travel writing was one of the most widely read genres of the period, travel texts reflecting explicitly or implicitly national identity, individuality and character [9]. Translations then play a “pivotal role” in this context as far as the construction of national identities is concerned. We know of course about the very complex (re-)writing history of Cook’s journals. It is less well known, however, that Cook continued to be read in French well into the 20th century in a translation of Hawkesworth’s first official account which actually drew on several journals authored by different hands. Still, to affirm, as Clorinda Donato does in her essay on Marc-Antoine Eidous, that “translators like Eidous were at the heart of the success of the European Enlightenment” seems a little excessive in the way of a conclusion, though Jeff Morrison convincingly affirms that it is simply not plausible to continue studying texts in “narrow, linear, national terms” [51]. Thirdly, the volume purports to draw attention to the importance of women as travellers and translators of travel. While women travellers have received increasing attention in recent years, women translators of travel are only rarely focused on despite their important output.(1)

The essays are then arranged according to three types of travel accounts: European, extra-European and women in translation. The first part contains a remarkable contribution by Anthony Ozturk on the translating of Helvetica. Ozturk argues that Switzerland has been to British travellers mostly a space of sublimation towards Alpine transcendence [56], their search for linguistic equivalence entailing invariably conceptual ambivalence, potentially enhanced by translation. Among Ozturk’s examples, Louis-François Ramond de Carbonnières’s French translation of William Coxe’s Sketches of the Natural, Civil and Political History of Swisseerland (sic; 1779) is a striking demonstration of how prominent a place a translator may choose for himself, what with de Carbonnières adding some 200 pages to the source text in order to comment on Mr Coxe “travelling as an Englishman” [“ ‘M. Coxe a voyage en Anglois’ ”, 63]. For anyone interested in travel writing about Switzerland, this highly informative contribution contains many useful references and footnotes. Such rewriting or commenting is also the subject of Immaculada Tamarit Vallés’s essay on Alexandre de Laborde’s Spanish tour (first ed. 1806; a second, shorter version was published in 1808). The Spanish translation of the second edition, published in 1816, also contains a number of “rewritten” or “adapted” passages, in particular those “that describe a hard or painful reality are often glossed over or are even replaced by a lighter or more neutral text” [83], with a paragraph on the benefits left behind by the Moors being cut out [84] as the expulsion of the latter from Spain would have been considered a Christian victory by the targeted Spanish audience.

The volume’s second part focuses on extra-European travel, opening with Vladimir Kapor’s piece on Johann Reinhold Forster’s translation of Bougainville mentioned above. If French was the principal lingua franca of the Enlightenment, it may come as a surprise that Bougainville’s text was translated into English. Kapor argues quite convincingly that the “ideological inappropriateness” (from a British point of view) of Bougainville’s voyage was probably the main reason for translating this work that fascinated 18th-century readers, possibly due to its descriptions of the “enthusiastic” welcome the French sailors received upon arrival on the island of Tahiti that Bougainville called the “new Cythera” in his account (in allusion to Watteau’s painting “Pélerinage à l’île de Cythère” in the Louvre). Be that as it may, Forster’s enterprise was collective, what with himself editing more or less the translation prepared by his (English) friends, Forster seemingly keen to “belittle the originality and accuracy of Bougainville” [98] according to Kapor. British and French navigators had of course been in fierce competition since the Renaissance and official expeditions continued to be an issue of national prestige (and strategic advantage) during the age of reason, as Forster’s comments on the Frenchman’s list or circumnavigators also goes to show. Bougainville’s text thus serves as a pretext for “ideological reprogramming” Kapor concludes [105].

It makes obvious sense to let this chapter be followed by Carl Niekerk’s essay on Forster’s son Georg and his famous account of Cook’s second voyage in their original English and later German version. These texts raise the problem of “auto-translation”, a tricky subject well-known to English scholars in the context of other bilingual authors such as Samuel Beckett. Unfortunately, this important issue is not sufficiently looked at against the theoretical background, nor is the figure of the interpreter, though such subjects have been addressed at length in the context of ethnography and colonial studies (see for instance Amadou Hampate Bâ’s two-volume autobiography on his role as an interpreter in the French colonial service). Comparisons between the English and German version remain brief, nor are variants analysed at any particular length. Given the seminal role of the German text in establishing Georg Forster’s reputation as one of the foremost German writers of his day and also the tremendous recent interest in his writing, the English and German texts would not only have merited closer attention as major works, but such parallel readings would have no doubt provided a clearer view of the relation between the source text and its German “translation” or counterpart.

The question of adapting material is also discussed in Chen Tzoref-Ashkenazi’s chapter on an internationally less well known figure, the German travel writer and translator Friedrich Ludwig Langstedt (1750-1804), whose texts move from “representing the experience of the German traveller to adaptations of the descriptions of British travellers and colonial officials” [134], the focus shifting thereby to the role of “borrowings” in 18th-century texts, a still relatively frequent phenomenon in travel texts of the Enlightenment.

The third part, “Women in translation”, opens with Rachele Raus’s very informative piece on one of the classics of 18th-century British travel writing, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters about her travels in the Ottoman Empire (1763) and several French translations thereof. Voltaire and Grimm appear to have been rather critical of the first French translation, published in 1763. A second translation appeared in 1805. A number of Montagu’s views were assumed to be unacceptable by a French audience and therefore censored, such as her scathing remarks, for instance, about the condition of women in France and the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly, the freedom enjoyed by Turkish women does not seem to have been to the taste of the male part of the French readership since Turkish women were held to be not free on the authority of Montesquieu. The essay’s tables allowing for comparison between different translations are particularly helpful in this context and so is the analysis of different strategies to adapt the source text to the French taste of the day.

Another great classic of British travel writing, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) and its Portuguese translation (1806) are analysed in the penultimate chapter. Maria de Deus Duarte has also chosen to focus on how the translator “honed the text to meet what he considered the demands of his target audience, while not wishing to smother the voice of his author completely” [184], a dilemma that could more generally be termed the “predicament of translation”, at least as far as the period under consideration here is concerned. In this particular case, the translator preferred to omit a number of paragraphs in Portuguese that seemed socially too sensitive [187], finally choosing fourteen passages for his abridged version, while trying to uphold his aim “to provide information that could help educate young female readers” [193].

The volume ends with Susan Pickford’s remarkable analysis of two English translations of François Pouqueville’s Voyage en More, à Constantinople et en Albanie (1805), rendering this third part the most solid of the whole. Susan Pickford addresses the very interesting question of determining “the extent to which a translator’s agency is dependent on their gender” [197] and the degree of “translatorial agency” [211) in a given translation. We are eminently moving on new ground here, Pickford’s piece inviting similar re-readings of travel writing in translation and setting standards as to the contextualisation of such works.

Travel Narratives in Translation is therefore a most welcome and major contribution to the study of (Enlightenment) travel writing, focusing on a key period in the poetics of translation that witnessed a shift in balance from “free-style” adaptations of the belle infidèle vein to the ideal of literalness. The volume raises such important issues as the relation between travel accounts and their translations in view of the reception of the source text, the role of the traveller-translator and the problem of translatorial agency, including gendered agency. The authors make anyone interested in travel writing eminently aware of the need to study travel narratives in translation in order to receive a more complex and representative view of their function as vehicles of cultural mediation—and that is quite an achievement in academic terms.

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(1) On women as translators during the Enlightenment, see the collective volume edited by Hilary Brown & Brunhilde Wehinger, Übersetzungskultur im 18. Jahrhundert . Hannover: Wehrhahn, 2008.


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