The pre-history of this blog

In my last post I mentioned that some of the ideas at the origin of this blog have been 'bugging' me for quite a while.

I have decided to go 'back to the roots' for just this one post because I think it makes some of my ideas and questions a little clearer.

During the final year of my undergraduate degree in Modern History and Modern Languages (French) in 2004/2005 I chose a Modern Languages Special Subject entitled "Advanced French Translation: theory and practice" taught by Toby Garfitt & Marianne Aussenaire.

During a series of seminar sessions we worked through Jeremy Munday's Introducing Translation Studies, looked into poertry translation and subtitling and developed ideas for the portfolios we were to submit  at the end of the following term. This portfolio had to contain three distinct pieces of work and I chose to submit one actual translation, a commentary on a translation and a theoretical essay.

I chose to translate Jacques Tardi's C'était la guerre des tranchées (Paris, Casterman 1993), going as far as scanning all the pages and inserting my translation into the speech bubbles. I have just noticed that Fantagraphics have announced a translation for April 2010 so I will be very curious to see how it compares to my work from 2005.

My commentary looked at two cases of retranslation into English: E.M. Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (translated in 1929 and 1994) and Henri Barbusse's Le Feu (translated in 1917  and 2003 ) with the aim of tracking changing attitudes  towards te First World War. I lacked serious methods to analyse re-translations but I did manage to find some interesting indicators in the case of Barbusse.  The first translation was much closer to the British tradition of more or less heroic poetry, normalising Barbusse's crude language and giving the finished translation distinctly Victorian overtones. The 2003 translation is a lot closer to the originalyl shocking choices made by the author and displays and adherence to a trend towards exploring everyday life in the trenches.

I think there is great potential for historians in looking at re-translation, but for the time being I have not encountered much in the way of a methodological framework for this kind of analysis. I will come back to re-translation in a specific post, but please do leave comments with any interesting references you may have come across.

My theoretical essay was also closely linked to the preoccupations of this blog: I wrote about the translation of historical writing and historiography. I started out with a quotation from the introduction to the 1709 Universal Library of Historians, a series of volumes destined to introduce foreign historical writing first to a French public through initial translation and then to the English readership when Lewis Ellis du Pin produced an English version:

By this means the Reader will, in this work, learn as well the History of the World as that of its Authors. […]  This method of learning History will be so much the more useful and certain, by how much the more the Reader goes to the Spring-Head and sees the different manners after which the same Events are related by different Authors.

I then worked through a series of texts from translation theory that categorise text types and genres, attempting each time to see in which category historical writing would fall (J.S.Sager's 'non-literary' texts;  Mary Snell-Hornby's 'General' and 'Special' language translation; Jean Delisle's 'textes pragmatiques'; Verena Jung's 'academic writing') and what that meant. There is a lot of scope for improvement in this part of the essay as the vast literature on the writing of history that has been produced by historians did not really come into play. Very briefly, I raised several other questions: academic historians translating other historians, academics self-translating and the very large question of the compatibility of source and target cultures.

In retrospect I find it quite amusing that I managed to present what is clearly a (First World War) historian's portfolio for a paper which counted on the language & literature side of my degree - thankfully the examiners were very generous with such an atypical submission and I am delighted to be able to take up all these questions again in this blog with the benefit of several years of reading and thinking that have passed since.

Getting started

When I submitted my project for this blog to the editorial board of hypothèses for approval, the idea of giving some kind of shape to my thoughts and musings on history, translation and the links between the two had been on my mind for a while. The kind of questions I want to pursue are not directly part of my PhD work, not finalised enough for  publication on their own, yet too pressing for me to be left aside completely and forgotten.

Hence this blog where I aim to post about once a week, in various modes and formats – and where I shall be especially attentive to the comments which I hope will be crucial in making these ideas move on from their current rough state.

So what exactly do I want to write about? R.J.W. Evans sums up many of my interrogations in a remarkable lecture:

My own candidate as "big idea", the symbiotic relation of History and Language, meshes in with each of [these grand themes]: language as the means of communication between historian and audience; language as the authenticator of valid conceptions of the past; language as the key to a genuinely international view of our discipline. Of course, language is a constraint upon the historian [...]; but it is also a vital and still unexploited field of study. By the same token, the historical record, though requiring most careful interpretation, offers much more scope to linguists than they have often been aware of. Never before, I fancy, have so many on either side of the notional divide between the language of history and the history of language - recto and verso of the same page, to adapt Saussure's celebrated metaphor for the interrelation between signifier and signified - been moved to establish real common ground.'[i]

In the coming weeks I intend to plot out blogs on the following big sub questions, before going further into each of them:

  • Historians writing about language, languages, and/or translation. They are few and far between, but the rare examples are well worth investigating.
  • Texts from Translation Studies that touch upon, refer to or connect with history. While Anthony Pym criticises that “[m]ost of what are commonly accepted as texts on the history of translation in fact belong to either archeology or criticism rather, and not strictly to historiography”[ii], there are a certain number of approaches worth investigating.
  • Translation of historical writing. I have some personal experience in the field and read translations from time to time. Methods for this kind of analysis are not really established, but definitely high up on my agenda
  • Translation as a source for historians – especially retranslation of texts and their integration into historical work.

I'm greatly looking forward to any and all comments!


[i] R.J.W. Evans, The Language of History and the History of Language. An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 11 May 1998 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 34

[ii] Anthony Pym, “Shortcomings in the Historiography of Translation,” Babel 38, no. 4 (1992): p.3