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  • The Spread of Novels: Translations and Prose Fiction in the Eighteenth Century
  • Teresa Barnard (bio)
The Spread of Novels: Translations and Prose Fiction in the Eighteenth Century. By Mary Helen McMurran. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. 252 pp. Cloth $65.00 cloth, paper $27.95.

The publishing history of translations and its relation to the emergence of novels is fraught with complexities. In terms of definition, it is not easy to verify that something designated a translation is strictly a translation. In the early seventeenth century, writers translating the ancient languages of the classics would meticulously emulate their sources, but by midcentury the new “libertine” translators had become more creative, now seeing themselves as both author and as the transmitter of the essence of the original. With the emergence of the novel form in the eighteenth century, translating became a cross-channel business that was complicated by confused origins, such as anonymous publications and Grub Street deceptions. Mary Helen McMurran’s astute study fills a considerable gap in research on translation and its wide-reaching effects on the inception of the novel. With meticulous attention to detail, her study is presented with comprehensive notes and an excellent bibliography. She traces the history of the significant shifts and changes of English and French literary translation during the eighteenth century in order to historicize “fiction’s extranationality as key to the emergence of the novel” (3).

McMurran starts with an overview of the concept of translation and its relevance to contemporary debate about cultural processes, noting its importance to colonial studies and the debates surrounding globalization and transnationalism. Looking back to the eighteenth century, she discovers that it is impossible to identify accurate renderings of prose fiction, given that, for example, a novel might be translated from a French or English source, only to then be accidentally translated back to its original language. With each translation, an author might make changes to the text, even adding original work to it, ultimately producing a translated novel that was more of an adaptation than a reproduction. In moving beyond the precepts of previous studies that have considered how texts are translated and to what effect, McMurran opens up a more complex strategy that helps clarify the history of cross-cultural translated literature.

The book’s early history of translation is particularly illuminating on the subject of the lives and work of Grub Street translators, who were designated [End Page 306] by a contemporary bookseller as “the saddest pack of rogues in the world” (55). The image of the bookseller and his translators is a pejorative blend of an unscrupulous businessman reliant on the dubious integrity of overworked, dishonest translators. McMurran finds that fiction translation was not necessarily just industrialized piecework produced by hacks but also a venture that attracted competent writers who used their leisure time to produce works of quality. Here, her focus extends to female writers. She introduces the gifted but now sadly neglected novelist, playwright, and journal editor Frances Brooke, who voluntarily translated several French novels, initially at her own expense, to great commercial success. Following her translation of Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni’s Letters of Juliette Catesby (1760), which ran to several editions, Brooke made the mistake of applying directly to Riccoboni to propose herself as the French author’s sole translator. Notwithstanding her growing reputation, she remained unknown to Riccoboni’s English literary coterie, which included David Garrick and David Hume, and her attempt was rebuffed. McMurran proposes that cases such as Brooke’s indicate the extent to which translations were undertaken by leisured writers as opposed to commercially driven hacks. She also points out the problematic relationship between writers and their booksellers. The idea of translation as a leisured, independent activity was ultimately challenged, as booksellers were constantly being driven by consumer demands for timely publications. According to McMurran, these market demands destroyed the distinctions between task-oriented work and timed labor, giving the bookseller control over a process that centered on the cultural capital of the original author.

McMurran approaches the complexities and implications of copyright law via one of the fascinating case histories that she provides within each chapter. Following the 1710 Copyright Act...


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pp. 306-309
Launched on MUSE
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