restricted access The Spread of Novels: Translation and Prose Fiction in the Eighteenth Century (review)
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Reviewed by
Mary Helen McMurran. The Spread of Novels: Translation and Prose Fiction in the Eighteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton, 2009. Pp. x + 252. $65; $27.95 (paper).

This provocative and original study challenges the insular thinking among critics in the wake of Ian Watt who identify the rise of the novel with England in the eighteenth century. The continual interchange between authors, translators, and critics on both sides of the Channel appropriately complicates the emergence of the novel as genre. Ms. McMurran’s argument goes farther, however: she claims that a shift between premodern notions of translation as seamless back-and-forth transfer to a modern sense of translation as “literary exchange between nations” is responsible for the “consolidation of fictions into the form we refer to as the novel.” More specifically, she maintains that while earlier fiction had regularly been translated from English to French and vice versa, around the middle of the century, novels began to be perceived both as representative of their nations and as transnational and universal.

The thesis is daring, but problematic. First, Ms. McMurran never specifically defines “the novel,” a multivalent and contested term in the eighteenth century and beyond. More important, the relatively limited number of texts that she considers does not provide sufficient evidence to support broad claims about transnational exchange as the catalyst for the constitution of a new genre. At one point, she casts her discussion of the European reception of translations of Richardson’s novels as standing in “for a longer, incremental, and uneven history of the advent of prose fiction’s complex transnationalism.” Such a confined focus, even on a figure as significant as Richardson, cannot bear that evidentiary burden. Ultimately, Ms. McMurran seems to be replicating the limited perspective with which she properly faults Watt. Just as his approach ignores transmission and identifies the novel as “both unique to the English and an abstraction linked to modernity,” hers fails to acknowledge other factors beside transmission—including those identified by Watt and other Anglocentric critics—that accounted for the popular success and critical elevation of the novel.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, individual chapters offer significant and overdue insight into the nature of translation and its implications for the development and reception of the novel. Chapter Two offers a detailed and informative discussion of the “business” of translation, emphasizing the degree to which “premodern attitudes about translating” [End Page 58] and translators’ independence and assumption of financial risk—they wrote at leisure and contracted with booksellers, contrary to their frequent caricature as Grub Street hacks— led to a flourishing cross-Channel book trade. Novels, which were often published and translated anonymously and thus “did not bear the stamp of the author or nation,” circulated freely and easily for much of the century, so much so that original novels were identified as translations and vice versa. Increasing competition among translators, however, led to greater power for booksellers and to an implicit hierarchy that elevated originals, and even though rulings on copyright acknowledged the independent status of translations, in practice translators sold their rights or were reluctant to press their claims lest they be regarded as inferior writers for hire.

The next chapter focuses on translators’ deviations from source texts, which for prose fiction commonly involved “amplification and omission,” both aimed at making texts more vivid. By midcentury, Ms. McMurran contends, these practices merged with “the sentimental codes of prose fiction,” which involved the transmission of feeling. Drawing on A. O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, she stresses the shift from the former to the latter, in which interest is focused less on the self than on others and “allied to the public virtue of sympathy.” Haywood’s translations of French fiction in the 1720s appeal to the passions by intensifying characters’ emotional states, but restrict feeling to “socially and personally destructive forms which belonged to a literary aesthetic of the previous century.”

By contrast, Pierre Antoine de La Place’s 1745 translation of Behn’s Oroonoko, which substitutes a happy ending for the tragic one of the original, adds a “Histoire d’Imoinda” that emphasizes feeling, and represents “sympathetic correspondences between the African and Carib characters...