Dr. Brecht de Groote showed how the figure of the translator can serve to reflect critically on two central characteristics of Romanticism, in particular late Romanticism: the importance of diverse forms of transfer and transmission, and the tension between aesthetic aspirations and the realities of commercial publication. He began by outlining two conflicting understandings of Romanticism: as determined by socio-political and economic structures, or, in the words of Joep Leerssen, as ‘generated by the cultural communication and dissemination of ideas’. Reception studies have analysed various Romantic-era practices and figurations of reading and writing in order to elucidate how people understood contemporary participation in aesthetic and socio-economic processes, but de Groote suggested that a specific subset, namely figurations of translation, deserves to be examined in more detail.
As his talk demonstrated, the apparently incommensurable perspectives on Romanticism are usefully combined through a focus on the translator, who, while performing acts of transmission between languages and cultures, can also be understood to be a mediator between aesthetic pursuits and economic realities. De Groote pointed out that translations accounted for as much as a third of the printed output at the time, especially in periodicals, and that some of the most important texts of Romanticism imagined all forms of mediation, including the act of writing itself, as aspiring to the mode of translation. A wide-ranging exploration of figurations of the translator and instances of actual translations supported his main arguments.
The first example was Les Paradis artificiels, Charles Baudelaire’s 1860 translation of Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821/1822) and Suspiria de Profundis (1845). Replete with interventions (such as annotations and parentheses), which include observations on translation and on the English author’s self-figuration, the work is an explicitly self-conscious translation. De Groote highlighted the translator’s parenthetical comment on De Quincey’s famous passage about the ‘Dark Interpreter’ in Suspiria de Profundis. Baudelaire here introduced the figure of the ‘revenant’ (a French word that designates both a man returning and a spirit), which was to reappear throughout the rest of the talk as an image of the interpreter.
After looking at a passage from Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) and Coleridge’s description of Luther being visited by the devil when straining to render the Bible into German (The Friend, 1809), de Groote focused on late-Romantic translators. In Sartor Resartus (1833-34/1836), Carlyle, who translated a number of German Romantic texts, considered the practice of translation by means of a fictional translator whose efforts at mediation are undercut by self-reflexive moments and caveats. Returning to the ‘Dark Interpreter’, de Groote however argued that De Quincey surpassed Carlyle with regard to figuration, for this figure illustrates the translator’s key characteristic of compulsive duplicity in complex ways.
The talk closed with a fascinating example of an actual performance of translation. In 1825, Thomas De Quincey rendered into English a German pseudotranslation by Willibald Alexis, the title of which translates as Walladmor: Freely Translated from the English of Walter Scott. Both Alexis and De Quincey examined the duplicity of Romantic translators in their prefaces, and they inserted elaborate images of the interpreter into the narratives. Yet de Groote’s focus lay on the contemporary reviewers’ accusations that both authors published for commercial reasons rather than in pursuit of higher aesthetic aims. Indeed, Alexis and De Quincey presented their roles as mechanical and described themselves as subject to the pace of the press. However, de Groote revealed that their accounts differed substantially from their actual circumstances. Therefore he argued that they purposefully misrepresented their position in order to underline the tension between the Romantic ideal of aesthetic aspirations and the late-Romantic reality of commercial publication at a time when critics typically associated translation with the latter. Acknowledging a materialist moment while reclaiming some space for Romantic counter-performances of spontaneity, De Quincey and Alexis achieved a balance between aesthetics and economics in their images of the translator, according to de Groote.
Dr Brecht de Groote recently completed his PhD at the University of Leuven, Belgium. His postdoctoral research takes its cue from de Quincey’s considerable but oft-neglected output of essays on political economy.
Report by Dr. Stephanie Dumke, postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for the History for the Book, University of Edinburgh.