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Candide, or Optimism, Dude: The Challenges of Translating Voltaire's Candide

In 2002, I revised Henry Morley's translation of Candide. What, you might ask, does it mean to revise a translation? Does one go back to the original French, or do you work solely from the translation? What, in fact, gets revised? As the editor of Barnes and Noble's Candide explained when he approached me, this would be a project of tightening up some of the translation work itself and updating the language that Morley had chosen for his nineteenth-century translation. And this is pretty much exactly what the project entailed.

Yet whereas I'd thought it'd be a simple job—tweaking a few spots—I realized, once in the midst of it, that even revising a text entails a tremendous amount of work. Essentially I went line by line, word by word, and though I was working with a translation, I still, simultaneously, needed to do all the work of a translator. In fact, I had the task of "translating" the translator for a new audience. Over a period of weeks, I immersed myself in Voltaire's garden; I covered my desk in paperwork—Morley's translation and Voltaire's original in French—and began my task.

* * *

"You see, dude, how fleeting the riches of this world are; there is nothing solid but virtue."

Imagine this line from the mouth of Candide. It feels almost correct, and, to be sure, it is different from the Barnes and Noble edition by just one word. And yet how easy it is to guess which word! And how vastly does that one word change our appreciation of this line!

What I found most interesting with this revision project were not the big theoretical issues of translation, which I'll address briefly later on, but rather temporally local issues. That is, Professor Morley's translation reflected his place and time; it offered Candide to British English readers of the nineteenth century. Morley died in 1894 and during his life he was a friend of the Gaskell as well as the Dickens families—and his translation sounds quite a bit like it dates from this time. (Morley's translation, it should be noted, was first published in 1922.) Thus in revising Morley's work, I set about, paradoxically, to update his nineteenth-century translation in order to best capture Voltaire's eighteenth-century masterpiece for us twenty-first-century readers.

As but a small example, I recall changing Morley's usage of "good fellow" or "chap" as forms of address. It's funny to our ears to hear Candide addressing, say, Martin as "chap," but stepping back from the seeming silliness of it, we have a fascinating issue in translation studies. How does one weed out the phrases or terms that are so ingrained in our colloquial speech that we cannot even recognize them as marked by time or place? We can see now, of course, that "chap" is marked; it does stand out. But was Morley aware of this? And further, does my own revision of his translation introduce new terms that will date this 2003 edition of Candide in ways that may ring silly to future ears? Moreover, should one attempt to weed out those terms? Or is the task of the translator to use language that renders her translation most accessible to contemporary readers, if that language reflects similar colloquial (and marked by place and time) terminology in the original? Would it have been perfectly appropriate, for instance, for me to use "dude" in place of Morley's "chap"? I did not do this, and my example, of course, is a bit extreme (and again, silly!), but it illustrates the question I'm pondering. How often do translators imbue their work with temporal signifiers, those that don't stand out so readily as "dude"?

From such questions we can see that the work of revision and translation follows no standardized rules—and this is a good thing that allows multiple editions and multifaceted approaches to the translation of any work of literature. Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost time—a title formerly translated as The Remembrance of Things Past—comes to mind. Not only has this immense text of modernist profundity been translated (into English by, among others, C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, as well as Stephen Hudson and later Andreas Mayor for the final volume of the novel) and revised (by D.J. Enright), but most recently, Viking Press has published a new translation where each volume of the novel has a different translator, presumably because no one translation can ever fully capture and re-render, from one language to another, any work of literature. Thus the multi-translator schema expands the breadth of approaches, drawing upon the varied subtle and poetic literary readings and perspectives that these translators bring to the text. At the same time, it also means a lack of continuity for Proust's longest work.

In the case of Candide, wit and dark humor are particularly important yet sometimes subtle (though sometimes also not!) literary attributes that, I feel, the translator must critically endeavor to convey.  And yet how to do so? Translating a piece of literature from one language to another presents, as we can see already, numerous challenges, including but not limited to, capturing the author's sense and style, securing the tone, remaining faithful to syntax, and preserving idioms and specific word choices. It is impossible to do all of these things. Syntax, for instance, is sometimes reworked in favor of content; as a translator, I think of that conundrum as: meticulous semantic exactitude versus authorial intent and literary essence.

Dr. Pangloss Surveys the World (from the 1922 Henry Morley translation)Dr. Pangloss Surveys the World (from the 1922 Henry Morley translation)I encountered the above-mentioned issues of translation, issues that Morley and I—as is likely the case between any two translators—differed on in practice. (I can't say if we would have differed in theory, though my guess is that even two translators who hold the same goals when translating a work, will nevertheless arrive at two unique translations.) To that end, I wound up revising long passages here and there, as well changing isolated sentences and words on any given page, to achieve, to my mind, the best balance between those simultaneously conflicting goals that constitute the very core of translation work.

Voltaire and his titular character caution against Pangloss' Leibnizian philosophy and instead give us that wonderful image of the garden. Borrowing that and "translating" its application, one could say that I have here cultivated a re-rendering of Voltaire, sewing together various seeds of translation theory and practice, in endeavor to give full bloom to this renowned work of literature.

Cultivate Voltaire's garden anew in Candide 2.0


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Translating Candide

Very interesting!

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