7.1 About the moral of translations

Thursday, 6. August 2009


Before Diderot wrote his “Indiscreet Jewels” he tried to make a living in translation from English into French. The first effort was “A Greek History”, then a medical manual (with the help of others) and next he translated a philosophical treaty by Lord Shaftesbury entitled “An Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit”. Besides the fact that this inquiry influenced his thoughts about morality immensely, it is interesting to notice what Diderot meant by making a proper translation.


For instance, in his inquiry Shaftesbury raises the question whether virtue can exist independent from religion. His reasoning is as follows: suppose we meet a religious man, then we automatically assume this man must have high moral standards. But in case of the other way round, when we meet a man with a decent moral stance, we will ask ourselves if this man is religious as well. So, when ‘virtue’, or ‘honesty’ is an independent quality, can this quality be influenced by religion?  And, Shaftesbury went on to say, to what extent is it necessary that a religious man has to be virtuous? Or, is this assumption correct: to state that an atheist never can be virtuous or honest?

Up to this point Diderot’s translation corresponds perfectly with Shaftesbury’s text. But then Diderot interrupts with an observation of his own: 

“Sometimes I wonder why all these writings, meant to provide men infinite happiness by informing them about supernatural truths, don’t produce that many fruits as one should expect.” On his own authority Diderot continues he’d like to single out two issues, that of the evil of the reader and the incompetence of the writer. And he expatiates on biased writers and fair readers: sometimes it’s better to keep silent instead of reacting in anger. Only those who have a superior mind should be allowed to defend religion. Those with less talents have to restrict themselves with saying a prayer.

After this intermezzo Diderot returns to the original text. The final translation is a mixture of Shaftesbury’s inquiry, larded with  Diderot’s enthusiastic approvals and objections.


What do you think, is such a way of translating a crime towards the original author, or does it help to circulate ideas worth a discussion…

2 Responses to “7.1 About the moral of translations”

  1. Stan Wright Says:

    In my view its down to how the book is presented that is key. If the translation is portrayed as a verbatim translation then it should be just that with no interjection by the translator, but their best ability with a certain amount of license to make things readable to the audience.

    If as is in this case, the translator wishes to interject his own thoughts on the matter, then again I don’t see a problem with this so long as the additional material it identified as such and not attributed to the original author. To add ones own comments and thoughts without reference I believe to be unacceptable and very misleading to the reader.


  2. Cora Says:

    I fully agree with you, Stan.
    However, times were different then…
    The concept of copyright originates with the Statute of Anne (1710) in Britain. It was created with the intention that authors might have some control over the printing of their work and to receive some financial recompensation. The Staute was also meant to give the authors rights for a fixed period (of fourteen years) after which the copyright expired.
    But it’s only after the French Revolution that copyright gradually transformed into the legal concept as we know it now.

    So Diderot didn’t misbehave himself in those days…

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