Translating French History, 1500-1850

Translating the French Revolution (DePaul University)

The translation of selected French Revolution pamphlets from the Newberry collection was undertaken in an advanced French translation course taught at DePaul University in Fall 2017. The eighteen undergraduates and the one graduate student in that class were paired with a partner and each team was assigned one pamphlet (or two short ones) to translate. The work on the pamphlets lasted the eleven weeks of the quarter. In addition to more traditional translation activities, students had to complete the following tasks: give presentations on the key moments of the French Revolution so as to contextualize the texts to be translated; individually complete a first draft of the translation before beginning to work with their partner; prepare a common first draft; meet with the professor to review her suggestions and corrections; discuss and integrate suggestions as needed (both outside of class and during class workshops); write an introduction and notes; revise their work based on a second level of review provided by the professor; present to the class areas of their work deemed to be problematic and evaluate suggestions made by their peers (during a 40 minute presentation).  The professor and her research assistant, Pedro Antonino, went through a third and fourth review of all the translations before uploading them to the Newberry website.
As one of the most-renown historians of the French Revolution, François Furet, once wrote:  “The Ancien Regime had been in the hands of the king; the Revolution was the people’s achievement. France had been a kingdom of subjects; it was now a nation of citizens. The old society had been based on privilege; the Revolution established equality. Thus was created the ideology of a radical break with the past, a tremendous cultural drive for equality.”

Our selection of pamphlets provided insights into these turbulent years of the French Revolution from as many perspectives as possible. What was most exciting for us, I think, is that they voice the concerns of an entire nation trying to rethink itself during and in the wake of the Revolution.

The pamphlets represent opinions of factions that both opposed and defended the monarchy. They range from letters to the general assembly, to verdicts from the court, to pleas in favor of establishing the French language as a unifying force for the nation. One of our documents came from a prisoner pleading that he did not receive a fair trial. Another suggests how ending slavery in the Caribbean territory of Martinique would stimulate the economy.

Most interesting, perhaps, are works could be described as some of the first “feminist manifestos.” These include a Declaration of the Rights of Women that seeks to match the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, a letter asking for equal education for boys and girls and… equal punishment for husbands and wives who commit adultery.

From the spinsters who suggest making unmarried men pay a tax since they do not contribute children—and therefore, soldiers--to the Nation’s army, to washer women who complain about unscrupulous merchants adding washing soda, and thus weight, to soap (what a clever way of increasing the cost!),  to women from the nobility suggesting that they are ready to pay a tax for wearing jewelry so as to help fix the debts of the nation, to a request not to force young ladies to wear corsets, the propositions are astonishingly modern and inventive.
This project offered a complicated set of challenges when it came to deciphering language from 18th-century France.

For one thing, terminology has evolved in meaning over time. Students have had to use dictionaries of the time-period and look at the history of certain terms. They have also had to read documents in English from the same time-period in order to provide historically accurate translations. While some documents use very technical legal terminology, others were written by people with little formal education so that the original sometimes includes mistakes and defective syntax. Students thus had to navigate very different registers.

A specific challenge were the letters from the alphabet. In 18th-century France, the letter F was used the same way our S is today. However, the letter F could also just mean F, so students had to determine if the letter should be an F or an S. For example, “je prévois que l’autorité du roi, comme le premier légiflateur de la loi, le forceroit d’interpofer fa puiffance fupérieure” in 1789 would read in contemporary French “je prévois que l’autorité du roi, comme le premier législateur de la loi, le forcerait d’interposer sa puissance supérieure”. In English, that sentence means “I foresee that the authority of the King, as the first legislator of the law, might have to use his superior powers to intervene.”

Translating these 1789 pamphlets has been a great way to learn more about the French Revolution, a fascinating period in French history. These texts also provide some context for France’s first attempt to create a new type of society, one that would embody democratic ideals. They also cause us to rethink, in the end, the current state of democracy in the world.
Our students have learned through this project the simple but never so simple lesson that a translation is never just a text; it has a context and that context can be a platform for the study of the language, history and values of a culture as well as their political and intellectual legacy.

I want to thank all my students here, including two alumni who joined the team, for being willing to engage in this tremendously challenging task. They have been great troopers who have survived the Revolution—and the Terror—and lived to tell—and translate—the tale!

Professor Pascale-Anne Brault
DePaul University

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This page references:

  1. The Declaration of the Rights of Women
  2. Verdict Pronounced by the Revolutionary Court
  3. J'attends la tete de l'assassin