A French Lazarillo: Translation and Popular Literature in Nineteenth-Century France

Article excerpt

Honore de Balzac's La Vieille fille has long held a place of honor at the frontlines of the "invasion de la democratie litteraire" which resulted, in spite of Sainte-Beuve's loud objections, in the triumph of the roman-feuilleton (188). The first installment of Balzac's novel appeared in the pages of Emile de Girardin's La Presse on October 23, 1836, now widely accepted as the date of birth of a new genre that eventually dominated the literary marketplace and made Alexandre Dumas, Eugene Sue, and Frederic Soulie household names. If Girardin is still credited with the invention of the genre, it was perhaps his rival Armand Dutacq who better understood the social function and cultural potential of the feuilleton when he agreed to publish a substantial part of Louis Viardot's translation of Lazarillo de Tormes in four installments which appeared just a few weeks prior to Balzac's novel. (1)While it remains true that La Vieille fille was the first novel to be published in full as a feuilleton, the four chapters of the sixteenth-century Spanish novel which ran in Le Siecle between August 5 and November 4, 1836 are an important, if under-explored, precursor to Balzac's lucky coup. In his accompanying gloss to each chapter, Viardot presented readers with a new take on the founding novel of the picaresque genre. Lazarillo had influenced a whole legacy of French writers from Sorel and Lesage to Diderot and Beaumarchais, but Viardot was interested in reintroducing the novel to his contemporaries as an explicitly popular text. This publication carries significance beyond the history of Lazarillo's reception in modern Europe. As a cultural event, it reveals a number of the social and literary tensions that shaped the emergence of modern popular forms.

In recent decades, a number of critics have assessed the impact of the roman-feuilleton on cultural production in the nineteenth-century. (2) What follows is not an attempt to redefine this well-established literary history through the recovery of a mythical lost origin. Nor is it a detailed critique of Viardot's rendering of sixteenth-century Spanish into nineteenth-century French. Rather, while taking into account some of the technical aspects of Viardot's text, I will focus here on this particular translation's relationship to the dominant ideologies that gave shape to and were communicated by the popular press.

It would be a truism to add that no translation is ever innocent. As Lawrence Venuti reminds us, the initial selection of a translatable text is already itself heavy with cultural meaning (468-69). Material, social, as well as cultural dynamics motivate this choice, influencing the process of translation and its reception by a community of readers. Beyond simply transferring meaning between languages, every translation inscribes the original text into a new set of cultural codes where it is "made to bear domestic meanings and to serve other domestic interests" (Venuti 468). In other words, any published translation both draws from, and bears on, a larger economy of literary and social exchanges. As such, an examination of the discourses and practices into which Viardot inscribed his Lazarillo provides a measure of this translation's cultural valence at that moment in French history. It also sheds light on how the early roman-feuilleton actively sought to mediate and translate between traditional and modern notions of popular literature.

That the feuilleton was central to Girardin's vision is evident from the very first issue of La Presse, in which Frederic Soulie proclaimed: "Gloire au feuilleton! Le feuilleton est une puissance!" (1). Soulie describes a new literature based on the power of observation, pointedly open to both private and public life, higher and lower classes. The feuilleton appears then as a kind of textual flaneur indiscriminately casting its gaze on the crowds around him, or better yet, as the artist Balzac fancied himself to be: "le peintre . …


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