Translating 'Les Philosophes': A Collaborative Challenge

Translation May 06, 2021

by Felicity Gush and Rosie Rigby

We embarked on the project to translate Palissot’s Les Philosophes as a class in our second year at Oxford. Many of us were in the process of working on our 17th- and 18th-century French period papers for finals guided by Jess. Theatre in a variety of forms made up a large part of our studies for this paper. We not only read the texts, but also learnt about the theatres themselves as social, physical and political spaces. This context and understanding of the period helped to inform our decisions and thinking around how best to translate Palissot’s play.

After having read the play ourselves in French, we sat down in a translation class in Jess’ office in Catz and looked over an existing English translation of the text by Frank J. Morlock. This was a springboard for us; it allowed us to discuss what we’d do differently, what we liked and disliked about its style, word choice or sense of the meaning and ultimately what a good translation looks like in our eyes. The key goals we took out of this were to capture the sense of the French, capture the period and use as idiomatic English as possible. Obviously this project was different to our experience of translation thus far, as we were translating as a group, rather than as individuals. For every other task at university we are encouraged to develop our own, unique writing style, however this project was not about us as individuals, but as a team. It was important for us to make sure that the reader could not identify where one translator started and another stopped, and so we worked hard together in order to create a style in which we could all feel comfortable writing, and which reflected the collaborative nature of the project.

Early on in the process, we realised that to ensure a smooth reading experience, we would have to ensure the style and approach was consistent across the whole piece. An example of this would be our decision to treat certain key terms, such as philosophe, in the same way throughout. As philosophecarries with it a certain weight that philosopher does not in the English, we decided to leave the term untranslated for the majority of the play.

Typical of a play of its time, Les Philosophesis written in the alexandrine form. This 12 syllable form does not exist in the English language, and so we chose something that was equally classic: iambic pentameter. It quickly became clear that when translating we could either have rhythm or we could have rhyme, but it would be very difficult to ensure we had both. This choice, although integral to maintaining a sense of authenticity, posed a real challenge to idiomatic translation.

There were also further details to consider, such as what might be necessarily untranslatable. There are frequent uses of cultural references that are deeply rooted in the philosophesociety of the late 17th century. Many of the scenes, specifically Act 2:3, rely heavily on references to works and authors as Cydalise, Valère and Théophraste attempt to prove their wits. We discussed whether or not to translate these titles into English or leave them in French, concluding to leave them; whilst leaving them in the French might hinder the reader’s understanding, it certainly helped maintain the air of intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake. Take for example, in Act 2 scene 3, the reference to Diderot’s,Le Fils naturel. Translated into English, this title has the same rhythm and number of syllables, but loses some of its aloofness and almost unapproachable nature. Keeping the French titles makes them contrast the rest of the text, and holds the English speaking reader at a distance from the characters who think their intellect makes them superior.

We translated the very first scene together in class, throwing ideas around and bouncing off each other. Working on an online document meant that we could all edit in real time, leave notes and comments and build up the translation collaboratively. From then on, we translated scenes and sections individually adding them to the online document and coming together fortnightly to discuss our progress, the potential stumbling blocks and how to overcome them. Every session we worked in pairs with different people on our versions and edited the translations, cutting out the forced rhymes or misunderstandings and putting our brains together for the right word, idiom or sense.

Avoiding anachronisms was a challenge; when translating, we decided early on that it was important to ensure the text was clearly from the 18th century, because the play embodied the cultural and intellectual issues of its time. However, we also wanted to make sure that the text was approachable to a modern day audience. This was where translating as a group really became an asset: we could bring our suggestions to the group and workshop them, to make sure that they did not sound too antiquated, or have an air of forced theatrics. Being able to work as a team like this was a privilege, and was definitely an approach to work that is rarely experienced at Oxford. It was great to understand the different ways to tackle a translation and to see how our collaborative, real-time editing process ultimately produced a more successful final product than if we had each worked alone. This project taught us so many skills about how to shape a project effectively as a team, how to communicate and criticise sensitively and constructively and even gave us a taste of remote working as we worked on the drafts on our year abroad dotted across the world! These skills have all proved invaluable, some in more unexpected ways than others. The pivot to open book translation exams for our finals meant we could draw on our experience of this different style of translation more readily and, as we entered the newly-remote working world, we’ve found ourselves more at ease and confident to tackle collaborative projects.

We must end on a huge thank you to Jess, not only for giving us the opportunity to take part in this project, but also for her enthusiasm and expertise and the enormous amount of time she invested in the project and in us.

'The Philosophes' by Charles Palissot is an open access title available to read and download for free here.

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