Jonathan Swift and His Infidel Translator Desfontaines

Some Basic Considerations on the Paris Translation of Gulliver’s Travels

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

13 Pages


Table of Contents


II. Swift‟s Gulliver‟s Travels and Desfontaines‟s „belle infidèle‟


IV.List of Works Cited

I. Introduction

The reception process of a literary work - especially a very popular one - can be seen as a scientific subject absolutely worth focusing on in an academic course. This paper tries to contribute to the analysis of Jonathan Swift‟s reception on the continental book market by concentrating on the relation between a widespread French translation of Gulliver‟s Travels and the original English work. In this context, one has to be aware of the fact that there are two translations of Swift‟s work in 18th century France, an anonymous one published at The Hague in January 1727 and a more widespread version (with a record of 180 editions in the 1920s) translated by Desfontaines in April 1727. This paper concentrates on the Desfontaines‟s version of Gulliver‟s Travels, not only because of its higher popularity in general, but also due to its character as a “belle infidèle”1. On the one hand, it will be the author‟s aim to give some general information on the Abbé‟s version. In this context, not only literature on the topic, but also the correspondence between Swift and his infidel translator are relevant aspects. On the other hand, the comparative analysis of a few passages concerning child-raising shall concretely exemplify Desfontaines‟s intentions.

II. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Desfontaines’s ‘belle infidèle’

In order to understand Desfontaines‟s translation of Gulliver‟s Travels adequately, some background knowledge on its author is indispensable. Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines (1685-1745), a member of the Company of Jesus from 1700-1715, starts his career as famous translator and polemicist with the translation of the Psalms (1717). Only a few years later, the former Jesuit acts as the editor of the „Journal des Savants‟2 (1724 1727), which can be regarded as the oldest literary journal published in Europe. Besides his position as editor of this widely known journal, it may be his polemical dynamic way of writing that lastly makes Desfontaines popular and known with a distinguished European readership. Since the Abbé is said to have never set foot on British soil, his opinion about Britain is influenced by the 18th century French society.3 These circumstances also establish Desfontaines‟s attitudes as a typical French enlightenment thinker owing his “endeavour to open to foreign literatures while clinging to the values and ideological tenets of the preceding neoclassical age, with its strong belief in universal reason and sway”4. According to these facts, the Abbé‟s questionable way of translating the English original may become understandable: Rather than focusing on reliability, Desfontaines tries to match the „bon goût français‟, which - so his reproach - he cannot find in the original work5.

Considering the fact that Gulliver‟s Travels has been first published on October 28, 1726, it is worth mentioning that both French editions are quickly available on the French book market.6 One major reason for this can be seen in the high general interest of the 18th century French society in the Dean and his works. Goulding puts it in the following way: “Il est certain pourtant qu‟a cette époque la renommée de Swift dans le public français n‟est pas trop insignificante.”7 Keeping in mind Swift‟s continuing public popularity8, which also ensures him allusions in Desfontaines‟s Journal des Savants, it is even more noteworthy to observe the Abbé, totally infatuated to provide his readers with a version that matches the French bon goût, totally modifying (!) the original work of the praiseworthy Irish author in such a way that bewilders todays critics.

Secondary literature on the topic is of a relatively unanimous opinion concerning Desfontaines‟s version of Gulliver‟s Travels: Starting with the already stated description as a „belle infidèle‟, the Abbé‟s translation is extensively maligned in the scientific discourse: Graeber describes Desfontaines‟s text as popular and widely read mutilation9 of the English original, Real notes that it is “far from sight”10, Boucé reproaches Desfontaines for his “shoddy but elegantly written version”11, later on he accuses the Abbé of having deliberately slaughtered the text and considers that if “there is a Dantesque Purgatory for shoddy translators, Desfontaines might be given a chance to atone for his sins and repent of them there until the Dean shrives him, if ever”12.

Since “prefaces provide the attentive “common reader,” […] with an access to the translational field, whereby the translator lets the reader peep into the secrets of his art, his final formulation of choices”13, this part of a literary work gives us important information about the translator‟s way of reflecting on the original literary piece he translates as well as on his personal intentions and his self-image. In the „Preface Du Traducteur‟, Desfontaines informs the audience about his personal attitude towards the English original: “Mais j‟avoué que les trente premieres pages ne me firent aucun plaisir.”14 In the following passage, the translator gives a detailed description of the elements he dislikes: “L‟arrivée de Gulliver dans l‟ Empire de Lilliput, la description de ce païs & de ses habitants […] tout cela me parut affés froid & d‟un merite mediocre, & me fit craindre que tout l‟ ouvrage ne fût du meme goût”15. Thus, Desfontaines explicitly maligns essential elements of the original work and contrasts it with the good taste of the French readers. Here, we can not observe him in the role of a neutral descriptor, but rather in the position of a judge16, who - as a minister of the one and only existing good taste - strongly criticizes the original version, which he characterizes as an unreasonable work for his audience.

In the next passage however, Desfontaines describes a positive turn in the original manuscript which in its later course more and more meets his expectations. Here, it is interesting to learn more about those personal expectations, which - after all - work as manifestations of what is always referred to as bon goût: “J‟ y trouvai des choses amusantes & judicieuses, une fiction foûtenuё, de fines ironies, des allegories plaisantes, une Morale sensée & libre”17. Even if it is not astounding as a fact itself, in this context it is noteworthy to observe the translator as a member of a strictly shaped class with a fixed and narrow grid of criteria that differentiate between what is worth reading and what is not. Lastly, Desfontaines - and here we must draw a significant difference to other translators of that period - actively (!) lashes away at what he considers feeble or shoddy passages, tiresome details, and less than ingenious fictions, which he decided to suppress. Desfontaines‟s brazen self-esteem is such that he, as translator, sees himself capable of correcting and amending the original.18

The following lines intend to show that this „brazen self-esteem‟ not only brings the translator into trouble, as he has problems to justify himself in correspondence with Swift, but also as it evokes the Dean‟s anger.


1 Paul-Gabriel Boucé, Gulliver‟s Frenchified Travels to Blefuscu: The First Two Translations (München: Wilhelm Fink, 2003) 379.

2 Originally: Journal des sçavans

3 Cf. Boucé, 380.

4 Boucé, 380.

5 “J‟ai trouvé dans L‟Ouvrage de M. Swift des endroits foibles […] auroient révolté le bon goût qui régne en France, m‟auroient moi-même couvert de confusion…” Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines, Voyages de Gulliver (Paris: ruё S. Jacques, 1727) 10f.

6 In this context, Boucé remarks that the anonymous translation is not only praiseworthy due to its higher reliability, but also (!) because of its quicker appearance on the market. cf. Boucé, 379.

7 Sybil Goulding, Swift en France (Paris: Édouard Champion, 1994) 54.

8 „le nom de Swift ne disparaît pas de l‟esprit du public“ Goulding, 55.

9 „Von der Kritik als Verstümmelung des englischen Werkes getadelt, erfreute sie sich dennoch eines Leseerfolges, der sie zu einer der auflagenstärksten Übersetzungen des 18. Jahrhunderts werden ließ“ Wilhelm Graeber, Englische Literatur des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts in französischer Übersetzung und deutscher Weiterübersetzung. Eine kommentierte Bibliographie (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1988) 125.

10 Hermann-Josef Real, The reception of Jonathan Swift in Europe (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005) 42.

11 Boucé, 379.

12 Boucé, 386.

13 Boucé, 381.

14 Desfontaines, 8.

15 Desfontaines, 8f.

16 This becomes totally obvious in the choice of Desfontaines highly subjective, emotional way of writing, e.g. “affés froid”, “craindre” cf. Desfontaines, 9.

17 Desfontaines, 9.

18 Boucé, 381.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Jonathan Swift and His Infidel Translator Desfontaines
Some Basic Considerations on the Paris Translation of Gulliver’s Travels
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
Jonathan Swift and the Continental Book Market
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ISBN (Book)
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Reception, Book Reception, Jonathan Swift, Desfontaines, Book Market, Reception Process, Translation, Unfaithful Translation, Infidel Translation, Translation Process, Gulliver' Travels
Quote paper
B.A. Mark Valentin (Author), 2011, Jonathan Swift and His Infidel Translator Desfontaines , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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