Ken Larson - Papers on Shakespeare Reception


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Discussion of Byron R. Wells: "Toil and Trouble: Shakespeare's Theatre in 18th-Century France

Delivered at the 1988 Convention of the Midwest MLA

Note that a revised version of Wells' paper is included in: The Reception of Shakespeare in Eighteenth-Century France and Germany, co-edited by Kenneth E. Larson and Hansjoerg R. Schelle, published as a special issue of Michigan Germanic Studies [15.2 (1989)].


Lessing called his reviews of books that had been unjustly ignored or condemned "Rettungen" ("rescues"), and that is what Professor Wells is doing here with Pierre Le Tourneur's 1776-83 translation of Shakespeare, the first true translation of Shakespeare into French. After setting the stage of Shakespeare reception in France in the first three quarters of the 18th century, he focuses on reevaluating Le Tourneur as an innovator, both as critic and translator.

I am indebted to this paper for motivating me to spend some time in the Rare Book Room at Cornell reading around in Le Tourneur's Shakespeare. I was surprised and delighted with what I found. It is indeed a remarkable achievement, which has certainly not received its critical due. Professor Wells is absolutely right, I think, to go beyond the very circumscribed praise Le Tourneur has received from the few critics who have devoted any attention to him at all. It is clearly time for a reappraisal.

Professor Wells' paper avoids one of the pitfalls that ordinarily beset translation criticism. It has always seemed odd to me that critics should analyze a translation only to find it characteristic of its age. This is what even the best recent study of Le Tourneur (André Genuist's 1971 monograph) does to a large extent. That model of literary study looks at a translation from the Enlightenment and finds Enlightenment traits; at a translation from Romanticism and finds Romantic qualities. In German translation studies, Wieland's Shakespeare has been analyzed almost exclusively as representative of his period. There may be some utility in this kind of thing--perhaps in providing stylistic examples of a period. But in general this method of criticism seems to me to be the literary equivalent of the journalistic image "Dog Bites Man": where is the news value here? What do we really learn? Of course a translation will to some degree reflect the values of its age. How could it not? But what does this teach us?

The real issue, it seems to me, is rather what is new and unexpected. That is what Professor Wells is getting at here: given the neoclassical environment he describes at the beginning, it is in fact quite amazing that Le Tourneur was able to see and recreate so much. Nearly every critic of Le Tourneur since the 19th century has described the way he tones down Shakespeare's exuberant language and simplifies his variety of diction and styles. Of course he does. But the surprising thing is actually how much of Shakespeare in fact does come through. Le Tourneur goes far beyond what anyone could reasonably expect of him in attempting to recreate Shakespeare's language faithfully, in all its variety and richness. For many of us raised in the English or German tradition it may seem self-evident that Le Tourneur's prose must necessarily falsify Shakespeare utterly, but it is worth exploring, as I have tried with Wieland's German Shakespeare, how much of Shakespeare's style and even his rhythms can nevertheless be recreated in prose. [If anyone is interested, I've copied out some passages we could look at.]

Professor Wells' paper raises a host of interesting questions: for example, to what extent was there really a widespread debate in France in the 1770s about the possibility of "making the reader come to the work," as the Germans would later describe it, and as Le Tourneur to a considerable degree actually does, rather than "bringing the work to the reader." At least from the German perspective, the French were almost monolithically in favor of adapting foreign texts to fit native tastes. Goethe calls this "die französische Sinnesart."

What seems to me that by far the most interesting question the paper raises is that of reception: why was it that it would take so long before Le Tourneur's Shakespeare would find a significant "echo"? Why was it that it took some 50 years for Hugo and the romantics to take up where Le Tourneur had left off? And as a secondary point, why was it that even then, Le Tourneur's own reception was so dismal?

At first it might seem to be comparing apples and oranges to compare developments concerning Shakespeare in France with those in Germany. We are all aware of how central Shakespeare was to Germany in the late 18th century, whereas in France his reception is usually summed up in his amusing "quarrel" with Voltaire. But we might ponder the remarkable coincidence that in the period 1775-1783 France and Germany came for a brief moment to be in an almost uncannily parallel situation. In those remarkable eight years J. J. Eschenburg gave Germany its first complete translation of Shakespeare (1775-77; 1782), and--nearly simultaneously, Le Tourneur did the same for France (1776-83). The two translations have much in common. Both were monumental undertakings, "prodigious efforts" (there have been only a handful of complete translations by one person; in Germany, of some 34 major translations, only three). They were both extraordinary achievements in terms of capturing much of Shakespeare that was quite foreign to their own cultures. Both were also remarkable scholarly achievements, with notes and apparatus that gave Germany and France something close to what was available to contemporary English readers. Admittedly Eschenburg was building on Wieland's translation of 22 plays from a decade earlier, a real literary and linguistic achievement, whereas Le Tourneur had only La Place's very scanty adaptations of ten plays from 1745-46--which one might say makes his work all the more remarkable. Surprisingly, by 1783, Le Tourneur had managed to give France something close to parity with the Germans.

But what a different fate the two translations and the two Shakespeare receptions experienced! In one sense, one might say Le Tourneur was more successful. He was still being published in Guizot's and Michel's revisions throughout the 19th century and under his own name as late as 1899, whereas Eschenburg had disappeared for good in the early 19th century. But Eschenburg was displaced because he was a part of a lively and fast-moving literary development, whereas Le Tourneur long remained without successors. Shakespeare in France, with the exception of the theatre adaptations Professor Wells mentions, became a kind of "Sleeping Beauty," and went into a sleep of close to 40 years. Eschenburg contributed (without wanting to) to a Sturm und Drang that overtook him from the "left" before he had even finished his translation and that considered him, in Herder's term, an "Arch-Philistine," even while it eagerly made use of his Shakespeare. Le Tourneur, by contrast, who with his translations of Ossian and Young as well as of Shakespeare was a kind of one-man Sturm und Drang, seems to have fallen victim at first to forces of conservatism; the issues he raised had to be resurrected some 50 or more years later by the French romantics. I hope we can discuss why.

One last question: to what extent is Le Tourneur's lack of just recognition due to the fact that literary historiography has no place for people who don't help it tell its stories in neat, coherent ways, or the stories it wants to tell. In France, the 18th century is the siècle des lumières; Shakespeare "makes sense" in the story "Voltaire et Shakespeare." The Sturm und Drang Shakespeare is part of the story of the 19th century as it is ordinarily told, and in telling that story of Hugo, Stendhal, and the romantics, Le Tourneur's achievement in the previous century has had no place.


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