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A ‘Taste’ of Voltaire

Monday, 27 April, 2020

Roseanne Silverwood has just received an MA in Translation (French and Spanish) from the University of Bristol (with distinction). Her dissertation project was to translate Voltaire’s article Goût from Questions sur l’Encyclopédie into English. She studied Modern Languages as an undergraduate at St Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford.

To say I was daunted is probably an understatement. Who was I to translate a previously untranslated text of Voltaire’s from French to English? Voltaire, the highly esteemed eighteenth-century French writer who still tops bestseller charts in France today. However, for some reason this translation project piqued my attention and I knew, despite the hard work that it would entail, that I did not want to turn down the opportunity to be part of something that had the potential to be bigger than just my own academic studies.

Questions sur l'Encyclopédie

From ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ (1771), vol.6.

I first spoke to Adrienne Mason, the intermediary between the Voltaire Foundation and myself, in late 2018 to find out more about how the collaboration between the University of Bristol and the Voltaire Foundation would work. However, it was early 2019 before I really embarked upon the project of translating Voltaire’s article Goût from Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, which formed the basis of my Master’s dissertation. After two years of studying for my MA Translation (part-time) as a distance learner at the University of Bristol, whilst working full-time in a completely different industry, I knew that taking on the translation of Goût (p.280-98) was going to be an enormous challenge, not just because I would be continuing to work full-time during the week, but also because I was planning a wedding at the same time!

What surprised me the most was how accessible Voltaire’s writing was to me as a modern-day reader, especially given that I am not a native French speaker. As part of the commission I was also tasked with translating the scholarly peritext (i.e. the footnotes to the article Goût in Volume 42A of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire), and I have to admit that I enjoyed translating Voltaire’s own writing much more than the critical annotations that accompanied his article. I expect this is because Voltaire’s writing was more free-flowing and abstract, whereas the academic peritext was factual and punctuated with constant references and quotations from other authors, which presented many challenges in translation.

I spent much of my spare time in spring and summer that year locked away in my study working through all twenty pages of the commission. If I could at least do a first draft of one page whenever I had a spare day at the weekend, I had a chance of getting my dissertation project completed by the September deadline. I was impressed that, equipped with my student library privileges, there were so many resources that I could access online, even more, I think, than when I was completing my undergraduate degree between 2007 and 2011.

Questions sur l’Encyclopédie

Title page of ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ (1771), vol.6.

One of the hardest aspects of this translation was where Voltaire, or the author of the peritextual material, quoted from different authors in languages other than English. In these cases, I had to first search for an existing translation of the quotation, and only if this did not exist could I translate the fragment myself. Therefore, I found myself trawling through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts online for this purpose, and was truly amazed at what was available at the click of a button. As I write this blog post, most of the world is under some form of lockdown due to Covid-19, and this certainly brings to the forefront the importance of initiatives such as the Voltaire Lab – where my translation can now be consulted – a ‘virtual space for cutting-edge research and experimentation on Voltaire’, so that scholarship can still flourish in the modern day despite the challenges that could be posed by distance learning, or even global pandemics.

For me personally, I have always loved studying languages and hope to make a career as a translator one day, so during this project it was interesting to consider translation as a profession, and in particular how it can be perceived as an undervalued discipline. This, in turn, can mean that academic texts in other languages, such as the critical annotations to Voltaire’s article, or even the essay Goût itself if considered as a social science text, are often overlooked because they are not originally written in the academic lingua franca, English. Furthermore, if a spotlight can reveal the important role that translations can play in advancing scholarship about a writer such as Voltaire, perhaps the discipline of translation as a whole could be elevated to greater heights. After all, as I well know, it is an academically demanding and time-consuming process.

Fortunately, I managed to complete my dissertation project by the deadline so that I could go and celebrate my own hen party guilt-free the following weekend. I got married a month later, and once the excitement of the wedding had subsided I was delighted to get the fantastic news that my dissertation had received a mark of 82%, which tipped me over into a distinction for my Master’s grade overall. I cannot thank my supervisor, Clare Siviter, Adrienne Mason and the Voltaire Foundation enough for the opportunity to participate in such a pioneering research project that highlights the importance of digitisation in academia and the fruits that can be borne by collaboration between different universities.

– Roseanne Silverwood

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